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Viewpoints: Letters / Opinions

State of Alaska Denies Herring Forage Fish Status

By Michael Baines


April 13, 2013

Currently Pacific herring are acknowledged as a keystone forage fish species that is responsible for maintaining the health of the marine ecosystem in the waters of California, Oregon, Washington and British Columbia (BC). As you cross the maritime boundary between BC and Alaska herring lose their forage fish status and become just another commercially harvested finfish. At a recent Board of Fish meeting in Anchorage, the Board heard testimony from fishery managers, the herring industry and the public on a proposal that would have acknowledged herring as a forage fish by adding them to the State’s Forage Fish Management Plan (FFMP).

The FFMP became effective in 1999 and was intended to prevent the development of new fisheries on forage fish while allowing existing commercial forage fisheries to continue. The Plan states that forage fish perform a critical role in the marine ecosystem by transferring energy from primary (zooplankton) and secondary (phytoplankton) producers to upper trophic level shellfish, finfish, marine mammals and sea birds. The Plan also recognizes that, “abundant populations of forage fish are necessary to sustain healthy populations of commercially important species of salmon, groundfish, halibut, and shellfish.”

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game commented that adding herring the FFMP would not affect the way it currently manages herring fisheries in the State. When asked by the Board if herring met the definition and fulfilled the role of a forage fish as described in the Plan, the ADF&G Southeast Regional Commercial Fisheries Coordinator responded that he felt they did.

Supporters of the plan stressed that herring are an ecological keystone species that are recognized around the world as a forage fish. The Federal government holds herring to a higher standard that other forage fish by having no directed fisheries on herring in federal waters and by listing them as a prohibited species that is not allowed to be retained as by-catch.

Herring industry representatives testified that they felt herring stocks are healthy, well managed and did not need to be acknowledged as a forage fish. Concerns were also expressed that listing herring as a forage fish would lead to changes in the way herring are managed. This would have required the State to look at herring in a different light. It may have paved the way for more conservative forage fish friendly management plans to be brought forth through the Board of Fisheries process in the future.

Unfortunately for Alaskans, this proposal was voted down on a 4-3 vote. Three of the opposing Board members are commercial fishermen or have ties to the commercial fishing industry. These Board members reiterated comments made by the industry that herring stocks are healthy, well managed and did not need to be listed in the plan.

The arguments put forth by the industry representatives and members of the Board in opposition to the proposal were not germane to the issue of adding herring to the FFMP. The health of a population has nothing to do with its definition as a forage fish. If this were the case the Lynn Canal and Prince William Sound herring stocks would be considered forage fish while the apparently healthy Togiak stock would not have the same status. Likewise, if acknowledging herring as a forage fish by adding them to the FFMP eventually changes the way stocks are managed, it should tell us something about their current management.

The acknowledgement of herring as a forage fish would have allowed managers to look at herring in a different light and might have paved the way for more conservative forage fish friendly management plans to be brought forth through the Board of Fisheries process in the future. Refusal by the State of Alaska to acknowledge herring as a forage fish sends a message to the world about Alaska’s biased Board of Fish process and the State’s priorities when it comes to managing its marine resources. Alaska boasts having the best managed fisheries in the world, but that reputation is now tarnished. It’s a sad day for Alaskans when greed and political influence win out over the common good of all who live in this great State.

If you feel the Board of Fisheries erred in their decision to deny herring forage fish status, you are encouraged to contact Alaska Governor Sean Parnell and the Board of Fisheries and request that the State reconsider adding herring to the State’s FFMP. This is an Alaskan resource that needs to be managed for the benefit of all Alaskans.

Michael Baines
Sitka Tribe of Alaska Council Chairman
Sitka, AK


Governor Sean Parnell Alaska
1255 W. 8th Street
Phone (907) 465-3500 Juneau, AK 99811-5526

Department of Fish and Game
P.O. Box 110001 Board of Fisheries
Juneau, AK 99811-0001 P.O. Box 115526



Received April 11, 2013 - Published April 13, 2013





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