Fish Board mostly leaves Sitka herring alone following truce between users

  • The fishing vessels Maylynn and Devotion work during the 2014 Sitka herring fishery. (James Poulson/Daily Sitka Sentinel)

After days of deliberation and a contentious set of proposals targeting the Southeast Alaska herring fisheries, the Alaska Board of Fisheries ultimately declined to make any major changes.

The Board of Fisheries met March 10-22 in Anchorage to deliberate proposals related to a large number of Southeast fisheries. The meeting was originally schedule for January, but due to a spike in COVID-19 cases in Ketchikan — where it was supposed to take place — around the original dates of the meeting, the board chose to postpone and move the meeting to Anchorage.

To make attending the multi-week meeting easier for stakeholders, the board split the proposals into topics scheduled in three sessions, with herring first. There were 14 proposals dealing with herring from a variety of stakeholders, but the most contentious was were from the Sitka Tribe of Alaska and the Southeast Herring Conservation Alliance. The tribe’s proposals asked for a variety of changes to Sitka Sound herring management. The tribe’s main focus was to try to preserve more of the herring stock for subsistence use, but the commercial stakeholders say it would have come at the cost of the industry.

The Sitka Tribe sued the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in 2018 alleging the state’s management of the herring sac roe fishery favored the commercial fleet’s harvest at the expense of traditional and subsistence uses and did not adequately protect herring stocks.

The tribe agreed to drop the suit last spring after a series of rulings in the case that in-part found the state could sufficiently not back up on how it would ensure there was “reasonable opportunity” for a subsistence herring harvest each year. The tribe dropped the suit after a separate Alaska Superior Court ruling concluded there is no constitutional requirement for state managers to use the best available information in their decision-making.

On the other side, the Southeast Herring Conservation Alliance — an industry group representing stakeholders in the commercial sac roe herring fishery — sought to change regulations related to subsistence management. One would have opened additional area for commercial harvest, while another would have required permits for subsistence fishing to harvest roe on branches in Sitka Sound.

However, on the morning when the board was supposed to begin deliberations on those proposals, a representative from the Southeast Herring Conservation Alliance told the board that they and the Sitka Tribe of Alaska had agreed to work together and withdraw the proposals. A handwritten note submitted to the board, signed by representatives from both groups, confirmed it.

“I would like to thank all the parties that worked so hard to come to an agreement on these proposals,” said Steve Reifenstuhl, who represented the SHCA. “I would like to thank the board members who were involved late last night. … It was a difficult task but we all worked diligently and we arrived at a consensus to withdraw (our proposals).”

The board did not deliberate the groups’ proposals, and the representatives did not offer any further information about what kind of agreement was reached. The Sitka Sound sac roe herring fishery has historically been a valuable one, though it has not been open since 2019. In 2018, the ex-vessel value was only worth about $1 million, according to Fish and Game, but that was down from a high in 2009 of about $12.7 million. For the sac roe fishery, the value is in the eggs, which are harvested and largely exported. Japan is the major market for herring roe. However, the value in the fishery depends heavily on the size of the herring — too big or too small, and the eggs won’t work for the processors for the product they’re looking for.

“In 2021, (the) average size was 110, 115 grams, average roe size is about 11 grams,” said John Woodruff of OBI Seafoods during public testimony on March 11. “That’s very marginal for this (Japanese) gift pack market. It doesn’t present well. This year, we expect to have 120-gram fish, 125-gram fish. It’s going to be good stuff.”

Jamie Ross, a fisherman from Homer, told the board that herring markets depend tightly on size, so Sitka fish are not easily substituted for another within the processing market.

“Sitka fish are the most valuable for their size, 120-130 (grams),” he said. “Kodiak fish occupy a bigger size range, and the Togiak fish, we really can’t sell them if they’re under 300 grams. They’re used in a completely different product form in Japan.”

The Sitka Sound herring fleet was on notice as of early March 22, with Fish and Game managers reporting no herring schools or spawn sighted. However, survey conditions were poor, with bad weather and air turbulence, according to an announcement issued Monday. A two-hour notice for fishing could be issued any time after Tuesday morning, according to Fish and Game.

The board did deliberate on the remaining proposals, approving only one in the end. The one successful proposal increases the possession limit for subsistence spawn-on-kelp harvest from 32 to 75 pounds for an individual, or from 158 pounds to 325 for a family. Board members said they saw increasing the harvest limit as reasonable it based on the current stock levels and to make the fishery more efficient, reducing the number of trips that subsistence harvesters have to make.

Board member John Jensen said he’d support it based on the herring numbers projected by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

“There’s a lot of herring coming in, and I don’t think it’s going to cause any serious problems — it’s just going to give people more opportunity,” he said.

None of the proposals seemed significantly controversial among the board members — all except one were unanimous. The only one that split the vote was a proposal that would have established a quota share system for the sac roe herring fishery, split up among all existing permit holders. The proposer said that the fishery is dangerous currently because of the rush to harvest during a short fishery, often lasting less than a week. A second proposal asked for a very similar measure for very similar reasons.

Board member Israel Payton said he didn’t think tying the quota to the permit fit with the intent of how the permits were designed.

“I’m very cautious on this one,” he said. “I understand the proposer’s reasonings and he had some great reasonings to do it, but I don’t think the board needs to step in as a government agency and regulate the competitive commerce that’s going on in this fishery.”

Jensen was the only member who voted in favor, citing conservation concerns about the fishery, as it could reduce the number of boats on the water, who would be able to focus on their fishing without having to be worried about the chaotic activity of boats around them. He also said he wasn’t as concerned about the complaints that this would put crew members out of jobs because fishermen in recent years have had trouble finding enough crew members to fish at all.

“Manning boats, nowadays, it was never like that when I fished back in the day. People were begging for these jobs, seine jobs,” he said. “Nowadays, if you want to be a seiner, you’d better have a big family so you have a crew.”

The proposal failed 5-1, with Jensen voting in favor.

Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected].

03/23/2022 - 10:38am