Pacific herring (Clupea pallasi) is a cultural keystone species for many Alaska Natives, and is a critical resource in the marine food web for much of coastal Alaska. The appearance of herring in the spring signals the start of the seasonal round after a long winter. Herring is a key dietary resource during this time, but to some, herring is an economic mainstay throughout the year. Alaska Natives, as well as a range of North Pacific species, depend on abundant and geographically widespread populations of herring. In 1989, the Exxon Valdez oil spill devastated Prince William Sound herring populations in the northern Gulf of Alaska (Thorne and Thomas2008). The southern Gulf of Alaska has been impacted by commercial fishing, habitat degradation, and environmental changes over the past century. Bering Sea communities also depend on herring; in the words of Nelson Islander Louise Kanrilak, ?herring are very important to us. When we are out of herring, we are out of food? (Barker 1993:73). The scientific debate over the status of herring has been complicated by the lucrative commercial sac roe fishery that supplies herring eggs for Asian markets. Local and Traditional Knowledge bearers have witnessed the decline of herring (Thornton et al. 2010a) and many argue that herring are being managed in a depleted state. Alaska Native subsistence fishers and egg-collectors are sounding the alarm, while biologists debate whether herring populations are ?endangered,? ?threatened? or ?struggling? (Carls et al. 2009). Herring have already abandoned some spawning locations (ADFG 2011), and several First Nations in British Columbia have been forced to stop harvesting herring and spawn altogether (Speller et al. 2010).

This project aims to demonstrate how zooarchaeological and paleo-genetic research can be used to understand the dynamics of ancient fishing and fisheries and produce new knowledge that can advance resource conservation today. It will support the development and refinement of new methods of recovering and studying ancient DNA, and will greatly expand knowledge of the long-term history of Alaska Native use of herring. By encompassing the entire range of Pacific herring across Alaska, it will complement current efforts in British Columbia and integrate the knowledge of social scientists, biologists, and Local and Traditional Knowledge bearers. The health of herring is essential to the entire North Pacific marine ecosystem. Archaeological assemblages from across coastal Alaska constitute an unmatched archive of environmental data. This project aims to develop a more complete understanding of the ancient Alaska Native use of herring to better assess the historical abundance, biogeography, and genetic diversity of herring in the past. This effort aims to improve herring fisheries management to benefit a wide range of stakeholders in the Arctic, subarctic, and beyond. The project will gather samples of herring bones from archaeological sites across coastal Alaska for ancient DNA analysis. Preliminary work has shown that ancient mitochondrial DNA can be extracted from herring bones and is well-preserved. Yang and colleagues are working to extract nuclear DNA, which will facilitate comparisons to genetic results emerging from the study of the DNA of extant herring. In this project, ancient DNA from 150 herring bone samples will be studied to establish phylogenetic and geographic relationships. The age of many of these samples is established, but radiocarbon dates will be obtained for those samples lacking dates.

Understanding the temporal context will allow the researchers to identify changes over time. Collaborations between archaeologists, Native communities, biologists, and managers working in BritishColumbia and Washington State will permit region-wide understanding of the ancient use of herring across the North Pacific. The results of the genetic study will be disseminated to six communities in coastal Alaska through a traveling workshop which will leave behind resource materials that can be exhibited and will stimulate further study and engagement in management.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Office of Polar Programs (OPP)
Application #
Program Officer
Erica Hill
Project Start
Project End
Budget Start
Budget End
Support Year
Fiscal Year
Total Cost
Indirect Cost
University of Oregon Eugene
United States
Zip Code