Herring Time at John Brown's Beach
The commercial herring fishery occurred while I was on my trip this year, so I missed seeing it, but I have not missed the herring season. Last night we had an activity at the Coast Guard gazebo and along the shore there I saw more seals and sealions than I had ever seen before in one place. The water was the pale green that indicated the herring were spawning. I did not have my camera at the time, but I decided to go back this morning to see if the marine mammals were still hanging about.
When I first arrived, I could only see a few seals and it did not appear that any spawning was occurring. I walked out along the shore to John Brown's beach and saw many more seals and the sealions rafted up a bit further off shore than they had been the night before. Occasionally I could hear the bellow of the sealions over the sound of the surf. Before too long I also noticed a couple of whales not too far distant that looked like they had been in Whiting Cove. I was able to get a couple of pictures of them. It appeared that it was a large whale and a much smaller one, perhaps a mother and year old calf.
Later in the afternoon I returned with Connor and Randy and Ashlyn Nutting. Randy wanted to do some jigging for herring and was hoping that they might be spawning close to shore when the tide was out. Where the water had been dark earlier in the day, it was now a pale green. I guess it makes sense for the herring to spawn at low tide. If they spawned when the tide was high, perhaps too many eggs would end up high in the intertidal zone where they would be far less likely to survive. Randy managed to catch three fish before running into trouble.
There were thousands of gulls in sight from where we were and hundreds of them were just down the shore from us. Periodically one would manage to catch a herring and then it was a mad dash to get the fish eaten before being overtaken by other gulls giving chase. At first the birds avoided us, but as they got used to our presence and got excited chasing after herring, they crowded closer to where we were. There was still some distance between us and the majority of the gulls, but somehow a juvenile gull got caught on Randy's line and he had to haul it to shore. We're not sure whether it was hooked or not, but by the time Randy got the bird to shore, it was pretty tangled in the line. I managed to get it unwrapped and it got out of my hands as quickly as it could. After it flew off, we noticed that Randy had lost all but one of his hooks (herring jigs consist of a string of a few small hooks with a weight at the end). As it had taken off I did not notice any line and hooks trailing from it, so it's possible that the bird had just been tangled in the line and part of it broke off without actually hooking the bird. There was no more fishing after that, but we did walk out to John Brown's beach. The sealions had moved further off shore than they had been earlier in the day, but there seemed to be even more seals near the point than before. I would guess there was between 30 and 50 in a relatively small area. I counted 20+ at one time in a very confined area right off the point.
Randy was not the only person going after herring while we were out there. We saw a number of boats putting out herring branches (or small trees in some cases). This is a traditional method of collecting eggs. The branches are placed where herring are spawning, attached to an anchor and buoy, left to soak for a day or two and then picked up full of herring eggs. I have heard that in the past, thousands of people would come to Sitka Sound for the herring eggs. They were very valuable in trade. Even today, herring eggs are shipped large distances as gifts and trade. We also saw a couple of boats making use of small cast nets to catch herring. The most interesting person however was a woman who had set a buoy with kelp on it. She showed up with a wetsuit and snorkled out to retrieve it. What made it particularly interesting is that between the shore and her buoy was 10-15 seals and not too far from her buoy the sealions were patrolling back and forth. She decided to venture in anyway with the idea that as soon as anything looked interested in her, she would head back. As we were leaving, it appeared that she was heading back into shore. I'm not sure if she had successfully gathered eggs or not.