Herring Spawn On Kelp

Last September, Slow Food Canada launched its fourth Ark product, wild herring spawn on kelp, onto the International Ark of Taste. The inaugural launch and taste workshop was held amid First Nations carvings and artwork in the Potlatch Room at Sooke Harbour House on Saturday September 18.

Cecil Hill, President of the Spawn on Kelp Operators Association (SOKOA), Native fisherman and spawn on kelp harvester himself, knew the product by one of its coastal First Nations‚ names, Œgios, as a child.

The event, which included a taste workshop of herring spawn on kelp dishes prepared by Sooke Harbour House chef Edward Tuson, was attended by Slow Food members from across the producing region and by national and international journalists, and was officially opened by a welcome greeting to the area by Joe Planes from the Coast Salish Nation’s Sooke Band.

The latest Canadian Ark product is a broad leaf sea kelp covered with naturally spawned herring eggs. A traditional, coastal B.C. First Nations food, it is harvested on kelp, eel grass, or tree branches that have been placed in the water for this purpose. The modern-day commercial harvest is carried out by catching herring in a seine net and gently towing them to a pond where they are released to lay their eggs on seaweed. Once the spawn has set, the kelp is harvested from the pond and the live herring are released into the wild in good condition.

This more ecologically sound harvest is enabling herring stocks to recover and coincides with the retiring of gill net and herring roe licenses which allowed a substantial kill off of live herring. As a result, the growth of the herring spawn on kelp industry reduces pressure on herring stocks and other wild species within our regional food chain.

This approach to sustainable fisheries‚ management has also bolstered the economic development of the Haida, Tsimpsian, Nuxalk, Kwakiutl, Nuuchaltnuth, Oweekeno Nations and the Heiltsuk Band, who hold the majority of the licenses. As a result of consistently high standards over the years, the herring spawn on kelp fishery has been deemed the most just, ethical and sustainable fishery in Canada.

As is the case with many seafoods, herring spawn on kelp is probably best fresh out of the water. Traditionally steamed with a dab of oolican (candle fish) oil, it is often blanched, poached, or fried today. Generally, it is best served simply and with very little cooking, since overcooking causes it to become quite bitter.

Spawn on kelp is an ideally suited eco-gastonomic choice for the International Ark of Taste, amongst the ranks of the Canadian Cow (vache canadienne), Montreal Melon, and Red Fife Wheat. The management of this fishery is a good example of how working towards Wise Use Conservation can help redress environmental damage to a specific species, as well as to our entire marine ecology, through the careful promotion of a sustainable product with real economic viability and commercial potential.

Public, governmental representatives, and First Nations work together to ensure that wild foods are used where advisable, understood, and carefully protected for the future, in accordance with the environmental wisdom of past generations of First Nations‚ elders.

Herring spawn on kelp, which signified the beginning of spring to coastal First Nations people, is a welcome addition to the Canadian Ark and provides another building block for the creation of an authentic Canadian regional cuisine,” “During our 25 year relationship at Sooke Harbour House with the wild, foraged foods of British Columbia, the First Nations people here have shared and taught us so much about their, and increasingly, our culinary heritage”, he continues. “Herring spawn on kelp is a product we are proud to savour and support!”

Sinclair Philip, owner of Sooke Harbour House, is the SF Vancouver Island Convivium leader and a Slow Food Canadian Councilor.

Mara Jernigan is a chef, farmer and active member of the Slow Food Vancouver Island Convivium.

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