A modest quota of herring roe is allotted to non-commercial harvest in Togiak, Alaska each year. Thanks to a neighbor here in Chignik Lake, we got in on this celebrated Bristol Bay delicacy.
Each April, millions of gravid Pacific Herring gather in Bristol Bay’s coves in a spawning event that turns the water creamy white with milt. The individual eggs are initially sticky and adhere to kelp, other seaweed and even tree branches placed in the water by people eager to harvest this bounty. There are so many herring, their numbers aren’t counted. Instead, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game estimates their abundance in biomass measured in weight. This year that figure was put at a mind boggling 217,548 tons. With the population healthy, a modest percentage of the spawn was made available for subsistence harvest. Almost all of these eggs are distributed by Alaskans to fellow Alaskans.
If you are a connoisseur of sushi, you are no doubt familiar with kazunoko, firm, intact sacs of herring roe typically wrapped with a strip of nori (seaweed) and presented as nigiri-zushi. Served with a little soy sauce, the crunchy texture and clean, salty flavor are a delicacy that symbolizes family health and prosperity. The pop the tiny eggs make when bitten into is a traditional feature of New Year’s celebrations. (The eggs freeze well and can be preserved this way for months.)
When a friend and neighbor here at The Lake texted with a message to come on over and get some herring spawn, we didn’t waste a moment. The tiny, translucent, pale yellow eggs were firmly attached to strands of kelp. All they needed was a quick rinse in cold water and a light dip in our favorite soy sauce. Crunch, pop, umami yum! Sides of Silver Salmon sashimi and sweet Alaska deepwater shrimp along with bows of sushi rice made for a meal celebrating a great early morning hike out to Clarks River, our first of season sightings of Savanah Sparrows, and the arrival of the year’s first Tree Swallows and Violate-green Swallows.