Meet Warner Lew, Herring Evangelist
Editor's note: Warner Lew is pictured with a giant frozen Alaska king salmon head (not a herring!), which is about the size of one whole Togiak Herring, from nose to tail!
Herring may not be the most romantic species of fish you think of when “tinned fish” is mentioned. Warner Lew wants to change that. A friend of Wildfish Cannery, Warner has been evangelizing for only 40 or so years on behalf of underutilized Alaskan species—everything from sea cucumbers to geoduck to salmon roe—and it’s been the last 10 of those years that he has been singing the song of the Togiak Herring. We’d like to take a little time to share with you the story of Warner Lew and, by proxy, the story of the Togiak herring fishery and the exclusive source of all of the herring within our Smoked Herring.
Warner has been working Alaska’s Bering Sea fisheries in some form or another since 1976, from fisherman to fleet manager to fisheries biologist, all jobs that make him uniquely qualified to speak on the topic of the herring fishery out of Togiak, a tiny village on the north end of Bristol Bay. According to him, this is a fishery that used to be stupendously successful, sustainable, and profitable. However, the market overseas that demanded it has since almost entirely disappeared. This leaves the herring fishery in the rather unique position of being under-utilized. Warner noticed this and realized that he could play a role in helping to revitalize the fishery and, in turn, help support the fishermen.
Now, something that is important to understand is that in Alaska herring are prized largely for their roe, not necessarily for their meat—which is exactly what Warner wants to change. He was introduced to smoked herring when a tender skipper brought some by his office on a processing ship.
Initially he was a bit taken aback by what his coworker shared with him, but the more he ate the more he was able to overcome his internalized snobbery against herring. He thought if he could overcome that, surely others could too!
The Togiak herring were uniquely suited to smoking because of their rich oil content, transforming them into a punchy, umami monster when smoked. The Togiak herring are a larger breed of herring (10-12”) in part due to their rich Bering Sea diet, and the ones that are harvested are older, up to 15 years old! They are packed with Omega-3’s and Vitamin D and harvested sustainably. As people have become more interested in eating lower on the food chain—and eating things that are beyond the norm—he hopes that Togiak herring will catch peoples’ eyes.
It certainly caught the eye of Wildfish Cannery’s owner, Mathew, and once he and Warner connected it was easy to see that Wildfish could play an important role in amplifying the message that Warner was sharing. At Wildfish, it’s our responsibility to share the best Alaska has to offer, and we know that Togiak herring is the best. It is low on the food chain, harvested sustainably, and certainly a rarity.
So what are Warner’s tips for enjoying Wildfish Cannery Smoked Herring? He says one of his favorite ways is also the simplest: saltine cracker or Pilot Bread (pictured above), butter, and smoked herring on top.
He also recommends mixing it with cream cheese and spreading it on a bagel, or eating it in a sushi handroll with rice, avocado, and nori. He recommends some brown liquor to pair with it: some smokey, briney, Islay whisky, or some sweet Kentucky bourbon will do the trick! If you're looking for more inspiration, take at look at this curated collection featuring our favorite Smoked Herring recipes.
We love being able to share these underutilized species with you all, and love having folks like Warner on our side to help make it possible. And now that you know a little more, we hope you’ll join us in spreading Warner’s Gospel of the Herring.