By Andy Rauwolf, Snapper Carson & Mike Fleenor
January 31, 2011
There are no biologists in ADF&G old enough to remember, but prior to 1976 huge masses of herring were abundant throughout the entire region. One could easily jig up a bucket of bait off any of the docks or from a skiff in a matter of minutes.
In 1976, ADF&G conducted the first (and only) sac roe fishery in West Behm Canal. For the next three years, unregulated bait fisheries were allowed, and nets were strung across Clover Pass, Knudson Cove, and elsewhere. In 1980, the area was closed to commercial herring fishing due to an alarmingly depleted resource. Between 1980 and 1998, amid a huge amount of public controversy, the sac roe fishery was instrumental in depleting numerous other spawning areas throughout Southeast Alaska to levels that they have been unable to recover from. In 2000, the Board of Fish denied a proposal to re-open West Behm to sac roe fishing due to local opposition. It was noted at that time that the body weight of halibut had dropped by 50% compared to 20 years previous for any given age, and that the king salmon were getting progressively smaller as well. (Research suggests that 53% of the diet of halibut and 62% of the diet of king salmon is herring). In 2003, ADF&G forecasted a spawning biomass of 9,366 tons of herring in West Behm Canal for the 2004 season. Under intense commercial pressure, the board voted to open the area to sac roe fishing in 2004 in spite of a request by ADF&G for more time to study the fishery. In 2003, a small pod of humpback whales, part of a population beginning to explode under federal protection, along with dozens of sea lions began feeding earnestly on the herring biomass, and the activity continued throughout the fall and winter. Hundreds of letters from concerned local citizens landed on the governor’s desk, and following a last minute meeting with the governor with locals, the fishery failed to open. The fleet and processors had been kept on standby for three weeks at an expense of tens of thousands of dollars. Although ADF&G had reported 10 miles of spawn, a dive survey concluded that only 400 tons had spawned as opposed to a forecasted 9,366 tons.
Instead of acknowledging that the marine mammals had depleted this resource, ADF&G claimed that the spawn on Annette Island, a long way from West Behm, had grown to a record 45 miles in length, implying that the herring had moved. This was later contradicted by the Annette Island dive survey which mapped 21 miles of spawn, about what they were expecting.
Today it has been 35 years since a sac roe fishery has been conducted in West Behm, and the depleted herring population is struggling just to keep up with the natural predation. The problem is, the predators are increasing faster than the herring can multiply. Prior to the Marine Mammal Protection Act, fewer than 200 humpback whales existed in Southeast Alaska. Today there are approximately 6,000, with an annual population increase estimated at 7%. Each adult whale consumes about 2,500 lbs. of small fish daily, mostly herring. This calculates out to 7,500 tons daily. Is it any wonder that depleted herring populations have been unable to recover? There is no method known to effectively enhance populations of herring, and ADF&G has no recovery program. Once they are depleted below a “break out” level, they can’t recover due to predation as has been documented in Prince William Sound and now West Behm Canal. The depleted state of herring are now causing whales to prey on juvenile salmon coming out of the rivers and being released from at least one hatchery to date. The whales have been feeding all winter, but they aren’t the only problem in West Behm. There have been close to 100 sea lions gorging on herring there as well.
If this irresponsible activity continues on the part of commercial fisheries biologists, the board of fish, the National Marine Fisheries Service, and vote seeking politicians, we will continue to lose our way of life, and what was once the greatest salmon destination in the world will be nothing but a memory. If biologists were in complete charge of our fisheries without all the political meddling, there would be no herring sac roe fisheries.
Call your senator and call your representatives. Tell them to permanently close West Behm Canal to herring fishing. They did it years ago in Wrangell Narrows, they can do it here as well.
Combined local residency : 198 years
About: Andy Rauwolf has been researching herring in Southeast Alaska since 1990. Rauwolf writes, "Everything in this letter is factual and is well documented. I believe we are facing a crisis in our fisheries similar to what is taking place in Washington, Oregon, and California. Public awareness is essential."
Received January 31, 2011 - Published January 31, 2011
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