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Business/Economy

Is having a special week in Seattle enough to make Alaska herring cool again?

Last week in Seattle, one kind of Alaska fish was served in dozens of restaurants around the city. It was in everything from pâté to tacos and piled high on open-faced sandwiches. One chef even used a pickled piece as a cocktail garnish. 

But it wasn't Alaska's famous wild sockeye salmon or Pacific halibut. It was Alaska herring — a small, oily fish — and it was all part of the third annual Alaska Herring Week in Seattle.

It's part of an effort by a group of fishermen and the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute to try and revitalize a small Western Alaska fishery, which has been declining over the last decade.

Alaska Herring Week event coordinator Zachary Lyons said 54 restaurants and four grocery stores in the Seattle area participated in Herring Week this year. It started in 2015 with just eight restaurants, and 33 participated in 2016. This year's event included The Whale and the Carpenter and Bar Melusine, restaurants both associated with Renee Erickson, winner of the 2016 James Beard Best Chef Northwest Award.

Lyons, who spent last week eating herring at up to five restaurants a day, said some consider the fish old-fashioned, destined to be canned or pickled on a shelf at the grocery store. But there are other culinary uses for the fish. Herring flesh cooks into a rich brown color and has a light fish flavor, similar to trout. No two herring dishes he ate during the week were alike, Lyons said.

"It's really versatile," he said. "It's amazing to see what people are doing with it."

For decades, the focus of the herring fishery was on selling the roe to Japan. However, changing tastes lowered demand for roe, and with it the overall price of herring. In the 1980s, Togiak herring was worth up to $950 a ton. This year the price for a ton was only $100.

Bruce Schactler is a herring fisherman based in Kodiak and program director for the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute's global food aid program. He assists with the Alaska herring development project, and said processors and fishermen have been trying to figure out new ways to work with the fish. Those efforts include experimenting with canning to a few Western Alaska fish processors who fillet the herring, which average about 1 pound in size.

Herring from the Togiak fishery are small, but still more than double the average size of herring caught in other parts of the state. From its peak in 1996 to 2015, the Togiak fishery average value was $3.87 million. This year fishermen made a total of $1.74 million, with 34 vessels fishing outside Togiak, a community of about 900 located 67 miles west of Dillingham.

"It's virtually a hobby more than anything else," Schactler said of the fishermen who still fish for herring.

While most of Togiak's herring shifted to roe exports to Japan, herring in general is eaten all over the world. It's particularly popular in Nordic countries, where the fish is pickled, fermented, smoked and canned into "kippered snacks" found in most grocery stores.

Herring are bony fish, which can be unappealing to American tastes, according to Warner Lew, fleet manager for Icicle Seafoods in Dillingham and owner of Deckhand's Daughter, a canned smoked herring business. Canning is ideal, he said, since it renders the bones soft enough to eat.

Lew's canned herring has gained acclaim recently, winning a Symphony of Seafood award in 2016 and a profile in The Washington Post

Lew, who in his day job manages a fleet of boats fishing for sockeye salmon, has a particular love for the unwanted fish. The herring harvest is bountiful, he said, despite the small number of fishermen. He just thinks people need to know about it.

"Sockeye sells itself," Lew said. "Herring needs help." 

Maybe if there's more interest, it could go beyond just a hobby. Lyons said there are hopes for a 2018 Alaska Herring Week, with possible expansions to other West Coast cities.

Kristine Leander, executive director of the Swedish Club, said 200 people showed up over the course of several days to try the herring, which they prepared both on open-faced sandwiches, fried and as part of a summer "smorgasbord." She said many of those attendees were of Nordic heritage, and herring is a staple in that region.

Leander said the fish was different from Atlantic herring served in Nordic countries but still "exceptionally delicious." She hopes to be able to serve the herring as a regular menu item.

"It's not going to take the place of salmon," she said. "It's going to be a little specialized."

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