Herring: A glimmering phantom surfacing

Photo: Henry Zbyszynski
Photo: Henry Zbyszynski
Photo: Henry Zbyszynski

Gaaw Xaad Kil: ‘iinang
Hlgaagilda Xaayda Kil: iinang
Alaska Xaadas Kil: íinaang
English: Pacific herring
Latin: Clupea pallasii

Glimmering phantoms rise, boiling the surface of the turbid sea. The iinang herring are scrambling toward the light in order to evade a family of sḵul Harbour porpoise, which herd them; the porpoises are looking to snatch up the oily fish. As thousands of fish rush to elude these deft opponents, they tumble back over one another like a silver waterfall and yet not one collides with another.

To perform this acrobatic feat iinang depend on a set of keen senses. They use a group of nerves called the lateral line to sense slight changes in water pressure. This ‘sixth sense’ detects even tiny variations in the direction of neighbouring fish, accounting for iinang’s dexterity. Sharp sight may also help the fish space themselves within a school. Exceptionally sensitive eyes, supported by an unusual retinal design, allow iinang to see both one another and their miniscule prey in even the worst sea conditions.

Iinang feed primarily on plankton, which they capture by filtering seawater with their gill-rakers and snapping them up in their mouths. But, when there are high concentrations of copepods, another plankton-like animal, iinang catch this skittish quarry with relentless efficiency by ‘ram feeding’. The fish form into ranks, spaced roughly to match how far a copepod can jump. This way, when a copepod jumps to escape from one iinang, it will land directly in front of the jaws of another.

These concentrated balls of shimmering fish represent only a tiny fraction of the iinang that survive, although herring have a very high mortality rate. As an ocean staple that feeds many larger species, it is estimated that only one in 10,000 iinang survives to juvenile age. For this reason a single female, maturing at three years of age, may lay 20,000 eggs each time she spawns and an entire swirling school can lay up to 6 million eggs per square metre. They leave behind what in Xaayda is known as k’aaw – thick mats of rich, cream-coloured eggs that attach to anything, including kelp.

K’aaw accounts for a large, important portion of the Haida diet and is collected and preserved in a variety of ways. When iinang were more abundant the fish, themselves, could be caught using k’iiga, which are light, oval-shaped cedar rakes. Fishers would row from school to school, as explained by the late Iljuuwass Reynold Russ and recorded in the 2011 Haida Marine Traditional Knowledge report:

“The person with the rake would be on the bow,” Iljuuwass said, “and they’d be dipping the rake, and the rake would fill right up with linang and they’d just dump it on the stern. That’s the way they got the linang. And it used to be lots of fun. I used to row and grandfather would rake in the linang. And he’d do that every night or right after, if the tide was right and the linang come up.”

Iinang lay their eggs near the shoreline; these eggs also often settle on Yaahl sk’iiwee or X̱uuya sk’yuugaa Raven’s moustache, a variety of brown algae known in English as Witch’s hair and in Latin as Desmarestia aculeate. The name refers to a time when the herring-people laid their eggs on Raven’s moustache. When he threw the moustache away it continued to grow in the sea and the ilinang have been laying their eggs on it ever since.


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