By Andy Rauwolf
April 11, 2013
I would like to discuss this last item, namely our herring. This little fish is probably the most overlooked, and yet the most critical species in our marine environment. Its fatty oil content provides essential nutrition to every predator that forages on it, and some species depend heavily on it for their existence. The creator made herring with a special ability to proliferate into enormous abundances scientists call “biomasses.” Although some forage species have substantial amounts of oils, because of their reproductive ability only herring can fill the bays, inlets, and coastal waters with their shimmering masses, and generate a healthy, rich abundance for predator fish, sea birds, marine mammals, and many land mammals as well that Alaska has always been globally renowned for.
The key to the sustainability of our herring resources depends solely on their sheer masses. Dr. Evelyn Brown; PHD in marine biology who worked on the Prince William Sound Herring Recovery project for ADF&G has pointed out that herring have what she calls a “break out level”. Above this level of abundance herring can survive natural predation and continue to grow in mass, below that level they can never recover, unless predation is reduced. This is what happened in Prince William Sound after the oil spill. Herring recovery was not possible due to constant whale predation; the level was kept too low to break out.
The present state of West Coast herring stocks today are at historically dismal levels. In British Columbia, at the start of the reduction fisheries in 1900, the quota was 200,000 tons fished along the entire coastline of the province. Today, there is only one remaining area still open for commercial harvest along the Eastern side of Vancouver Island and the combined seine and gillnet quota is a mere 13,000 tons.
During the reduction fishery in Alaska, at one time there were over 60 plants rendering herring that employed over 2,000 people. The harvest averaged 50,000 tons for many years and up to 78,000 tons one year. In the 1940s the reduction fisheries closed for four years due to a lack of herring and they closed completely in the 60s. This was followed by several years of unregulated bait fisheries, and in 1976 the extremely lucrative sac roe fishery began. Immediately prior to this, ADF&G surveyed the herring and called the depleted stock the “pristine biomass.” “ A collective amnesia surrounds changes that happened more than a few decades ago, and the worst part of this effect is “shifting environmental baselines” when we come to accept the degraded condition of the sea as normal.(Roberts 2007 xiv-xv).”
The state has attempted but failed to maintain herring stocks at these low, near “break out” levels ever since the sac roe fishery began, with one stock crash followed by another as they are driven below levels of sustainability. The broken cog in the wheel is the increased levels of predation. Since the initiation of the Marine Mammal Protection Act, Humpback Whale, Sea Lion, and Sea Otter populations have exploded in S.E. Alaska, with the Humpbacks going from about 200 in 1974 to over 7,000 today, consuming over 20 million pounds of forage daily. Combine that with the hatcheries dumping tens of millions of “herring larvae eating” Chums, as well as Coho’s into an already over taxed system, and we have a huge problem on our hands.
At present we are managing selective species. Until we initiate “Total Ecosystem Management” there can be no sustainability of any species.
In spite of the dire results in the last great remaining herring biomass in Sitka, ADF&G harvest managers have no intention of stopping this genocide before it is too late. There is too much pressure applied by 48 seine permit holders each dreaming of that million dollar set, processors and fish buyers making huge profits, Japanese consumers, and politicians who for whatever reason look the other way. Couple that with state “harvest managers” who’s impossible task is to conduct a fishery every spring and attempt to maintain it at a sustainable level in spite of the odds, and a Board of Fish who just voted down their own proposal to classify herring as a “forage fish, and we have a serious problem that threatens our way of life and Alaska’s reputation. Given the mess the current state of our marine ecosystem is in it will take immediate radical changes, and several years to recover, but only if given a chance. Meantime, our ocean is dying a slow, incremental death that only those who don’t suffer from collective amnesia are aware of.
About: "Active herring advocate since 1993."
Received April 10, 2013 - Published April 11, 2013
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