As Sitkans wait for roe, news of sickness from herring eggs in Canada

Zoe Trafton piles her plate with herring eggs at Sitka Tribe of Alaska’s annual potluck, celebrating the cultural and ecological importance of the forage fish. (Photo by Emily Kwong/KCAW)

Typically, cholera is associated with tropical destinations. But recently, the bacteria that can cause the disease was found in subsistence herring eggs in British Columbia, and the Canadian Department of Fisheries issued an emergency closure.

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There are no easy answers about what caused the outbreak. But as Southeast Alaska tribes get ready to gather herring eggs, it’s left some people wondering about the future.

Jeff Feldpausch thinks it’s only a matter of days until the herring will spawn in the bay. He’s taken measures to make sure the Sitka Tribe of Alaska, where he works, doesn’t miss out.

A few hemlock branches are already in the water, ready for the herring to deposit their eggs.

Feldpausch thinks it’s a food best eaten fresh, and he’s not the only one.

“I have to remind my staff, as we’re pulling the branches out of the water, that they need to leave some, because they’re sitting there eating them,” Feldpausch said with a chuckle. “They need to leave some for distributions.”

The Sitka Tribe gives out the distributions to elders and the community through its traditional food program.

Spring is an important time for First Nations people in Canada, too. Herring eggs are a beloved subsistence food. But as of March 23, there were at least three confirmed cases of people feeling ill after eating them near Vancouver Island.

The lab results that came back were unusual. Disease-causing Vibrio cholera doesn’t typically originate in developed countries, like Canada.

Feldpausch says the news about the herring eggs came as a surprise.

“It’s something I haven’t heard of before,” Feldpausch said. “It initially got me thinking, ‘is this something we’re going to see region wide?’”

According to the First Nations Health Authority, the bacteria was “likely limited to the area.” Still, seeing the words “cholera” and “herring eggs” together is pretty alarming.

Kate Helfrich — with the Alaska Department of Epidemiology — says in this case, there’s still a lot we don’t know.

“If you google search ‘definition of cholera,’ what you’re going to come up with is ‘it’s a gastrointestinal illness that creates crazy epidemics.’” Helfrich said. “But really, we don’t know yet if we’re talking about cholera.”

So, to backup a little, Vibrio is basically this big category of bacteria. It’s naturally occurring in the waters of Alaska and Canada. But some species of Vibrio can cause human infections, and warmer water temperatures can cause it cause it grow.

In Alaska, people have gotten sick from consuming it in uncooked shellfish, like oysters.

What was discovered in the herring eggs in British Columbia was Vibrio cholera, a sub category, which can seem scary.

“But within that species of Vibrio cholerae, there are more that 200 sero groups.” Helfrich said.

Helfrich says only two of those groups are commonly associated with what you might think of when you think of cholera. So far, health agencies in Canada haven’t been able to pin that down.

It’s usually linked to fecal matter contaminating the water.

“We don’t know yet if it’s the cholera scourge illness that we think of in epidemic settings,” Helfrich said.

Helfrich says it’s impossible to speculate what conditions caused this rare type of bacteria to pop up. Warmer ocean temperatures can play a role.

Whether that was a factor with the herring eggs in Canada, she says it’s “tough to say.”

“I know when I think of climate change, researchers predict climate change is going to cause a variety of changes in our ecosystem,” Helfrich said. “And increasing temperatures can affect the incidents and it can impact the spread.”

In Sitka, Jeff Feldpausch says he feels safe harvesting herring eggs this year.

“I don’t see any reason we shouldn’t be unless the results come out in Canada that it’s something a little farther reaching other just a localized incident,” Feldpausch said.

In an emailed statement, Vancouver Island Health Authority said an investigation was underway.

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