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An expose on the history and controversy surrounding commercial herring management in Southeast Alaskan fisheries (excluding Sitka Sound)

A Public Point of View
By Andy Rauwolf
Ketchikan Area Herring Action Group


January 17, 2006

Herring have been considered by scientists as the "backbone of the ocean vertebrae food chain," and the "ice cream of the ocean". These rich, oily fish provide essential nutrition to virtually every predator fish, as well as marine mammals, from seals and stellar sea lions, to humpback, mink, and blue whales, along with a host of sea birds. What would happen if we lost this resource? Although there is no conclusive "scientific" link, 20 years after the herring stocks collapsed on the Grand Banks, the Cod fishery ended, putting 30,000 fishermen out of work. Although this question is hypothetical, in light of events currently happening up and down the Pacific Coast, it must now be asked.

Last year, herring gillnetters in San Francisco Bay were unable to catch herring because they were so small that they slipped through the nets. This season, under pressure from the commercial fishermen, management reduced the mesh size of the nets. In Puget Sound, the large herring have disappeared and the stocks are now at record low levels of abundance, in danger of collapse. Stocks along the British Columbia coast are showing similar signs of stress. Here in Alaska, most areas have been severely depleted. Reports up and down the coast suggest that the herring are smaller than usual, with this seasons' winter bait fishery near Craig, Alaska thus far unable to catch herring because they are also too small.

Is this just a fluke of nature, or are there significant genetic changes taking place in the stocks? When we asked ADF&G's local commercial fisheries biologist if he thought there was a problem, his answer was "We don't know!" The reason they don't know is that while a lot of the department's time and money have been spent on stock assessments and dive surveys to determine commercial harvest quotas, very little (if any) scientific research has been done here in Alaska in regard to this crucial resource.

This does not mean that research is not out there that could be helpful when used as management tools.

In 1983, Gary Kingston did a masters thesis at the University of Victoria, Victoria, B.C. titled: "Egg size variation in Pacific Herring and its effects on larvae growth and survival." The study concluded that larger herring produce more and larger eggs; larger eggs have a much greater survivability rate, and produce larger herring.

In 1997, thesis prepared by Hans Hoie, Department of Fisheries, University of Bergen, Norway titled: "Maternal, paternal, and temperature effects on otolith size of young herring", produced the same results but also noted that water temperature changes can also impact egg survival.

A study done in 2004 by Stephen Palumbi, Stanford University, on Rockfish titled: "Why mothers matter", arrived at exactly the same conclusions with rockfish.

The following are some scientific questions that need to be addressed. We can not responsibly continue to manage herring on a status quo basis until this takes place.

1. Has almost 30 years of size specific targeting of large female herring in the gillnet fishery genetically altered the stocks, selectively removing these herring from the gene pool?
2. Can smaller females that produce fewer and smaller eggs with lower levels of survivability be capable of sustaining the species?
3. What effect has the Marine Mammal Protection Act had on herring with more whales than ever observed feeding on the stocks?
4. Why do many migrating whales appear to be starving, as reported in a recent CNN documentary?
5. What is the cumulative effect of releasing millions of hatchery salmon into the ocean each year to compete with wild salmon stocks for food?
6. Can we afford to wait several more years to get funding approved for scientific research?
7. Based on a steadily declining market demand for herring roe, and last years record low price paid to the fishermen, are herring now worth more if we leave them in the ocean?

What you can do to help: On Sunday, January 22, the Alaska Board of Fish begins meetings at the Ted Ferry Civic Center in Ketchikan. Among proposals that will be taken up are several related to local herring conservation issues (proposal numbers 89, 90, 94, 95, 96,& 97). This Board will determine the course of the fishery for the next three years. Please sign up Sunday to give your supporting testimony on Monday or Tuesday. Without public testimony, the Board cannot make informed decisions regarding this vital resource.

The following is a brief chronology of the herring fishery in Southeast Alaska, with the exception of Sitka Sound:

1900-1960 During its hay day, approximately 56 reduction plants in S.E. Alaska processed a yearly average of 50,000 tons of herring.
1960 Last herring reduction plant shuts down due to market conditions and depleted herring stocks.
1967-1972 Unregulated bait fisheries deplete stocks in George Inlet (9000 tons) and Carrol Inlet (12000 tons) while being surveyed by ADF&G's biologists aboard the vessel Sundance.
1968 ADF&G opens the spawn on kelp fishery.
1972-1975 ADF&G conducts stock surveys on spawning grounds in preparation for the sac roe fisheries. The results of these surveys on diminished stocks are called the "pristine biomass" by ADF&G biologists, and are the low levels of abundance that they have attempted, but failed to maintain ever since. During this same period, area residents and the troll fleet had already noticed huge declines in the herring stocks.
1976 ADF&G opened commercial sac roe fisheries in Southeast Alaska (gillnet and seine).
1980 West Behm Canal closed to commercial herring fishing after only one year of sac roe and three years of bait fishing.
1980 Auke Bay/ Lynn Canal fishery collapsed (third largest biomass in Southeast Alaska).
1980-1988 Many small spawning areas depleted by gillnet and seine fisheries.
1990 Kah Shakes gillnet sac roe fishery, second largest biomass in Southeast Alaska, closed.
1991 ADF&G moved the Kah Shakes gillnet fishery outside the legal boundary, 12 miles west to Cat Island, adjacent to the Annette Island Reserves herring fishery on Crab Bay flats.
1993 Board of Fish tosses out proposals from local concerned citizens, and does not allow testimony on these proposals. At the same time the BOF expands the legal boundary of Kah Shakes to include Cat and Mary Island, and classifies all area stocks as one stock (Revilla Channel Stock). There is no scientific evidence to support this action, and the consequence of this action has been devastating.
1994 Local citizens file lawsuit in an attempt to protect the remaining herring populations at Kah Shakes and Cat Island.
1995 People begin to notice a reduced size in herring in the channel. Spawning biomass at Kah Shakes has shrunk to 143 tons from a high of over 20,000 tons at the onset of the fishery.
1996 ADF&G combines Kah Shakes and Cat Island biomass in order to meet the 6,000 ton minimum threshold and justify a fishery. The harvest at Kah Shakes totals 257 tons, 180% of the previous year's total biomass. This was the last fishery ever conducted at Kah Shakes. Since that date, no herring have spawned at this historic site.
1996 The combined spawning biomass of herring at Kah Shakes and Cat Island totalled 4338 tons, l662 tons below the required 6,000 ton biomass threshold set by ADF&G before they are supposed to allow a commercial harvest for the coming season, and yet ADF&G set a harvest quota for 1997 at 912 tons when their should have been no fishery.
1997 Gillnetters exceed the 912 ton quota at Cat Island by 43%, taking 1137 tons (theoretically, there should not have been a fishery).
1998 Gillnetters exceed the quota at Cat Island by 11%. No fishery has been conducted at Cat Island since.
2000 BOF denies proposals to open West Behm Canal to sac roe fishing due to local opposition.
2003 BOF opens West Behm Canal to commercial herring harvests in spite of intense local opposition and ADF&G briefing documents requesting more time to study the fishery.
2003 Fishery fails to open after fleet and processors are kept on standby for three weeks. Dive surveys later indicate that less than 500 tons of herring spawned in West Behm Canal.
2004 No fishery due to low returns.
2005 No fishery due to low returns.
2006 BOF meets in Ketchikan. Will consider proposals to make West Behm Canal and The Cat Island area herring sanctuaries pending approval by the legislature.

Andy Rauwolf
Ketchikan Area Herring Action Group
Ketchikan, AK - USA


About: Andy Rauwolf is a longtime resident of Ketchikan and a member of the Ketchikan Area Herring Action Group.



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