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Viewpoints: Letters / Opinions

Sitka’s Herring Population is Stronger than Ever

by Jake Ingman


April 22, 2013
Monday PM

Last week, Andy Rauwolf sent a letter to Sitnews full of panic and misinformation.  The first of many things that need to be corrected is his assumption that the closure of the herring fishery was because of a lack of herring in the area.  That is false; we didn’t catch our quota because of our responsible and sensible approach to this fishery, but first, let’s talk about herring spawn.  58 nm of spawn has been recorded for 2013.  Compare that to the first recorded year, 1964 and 19 nm, then ten years later, 1974 and 10 nm, and 1984 had 65 nm, and then 1994 and 58.1 nm of spawn.  The amount of spawn in the area is much stronger than 40 years ago when the sac roe fishery started.  All the locals who think that the herring run was so much stronger in their childhood because of what they remember seeing from their house window; the data proves that notion wrong.  It is stronger now, but the amount of sea traffic in Sitka is a factor, the population growth, sewage, and pollution has made other shorelines more attractive to the herring than the Sitka beaches.  Herring don’t spawn on the same spot, they aren’t like salmon returning to the same stream.  Mr. Rauwolf goes on to claim that the state management has failed to maintain the population since the sac roe fishery began in 1976.  Let’s check actual facts and numbers, instead of baseless fear tactics and see what the truth is…. 

In 1976 the herring biomass was 7,300 tons and the harvest was 795 tons.  In 1977, the biomass was 5,650 and no herring were harvested.  In 1978 4,500 was the biomass and 238 tons were harvested.  Then came 1978, 20,300 was the biomass and 2559 was the harvest.  The biomass stays above 20,000 from then until now with the exception of 1995 where it dipped down to 19,700.  The biomass goes up to 58,900 in 1989, going up and down and our quota numbers go up and down accordingly, and now the biomass has stayed above 50,000 since 2004.  Alaska Department of Fish and Game has managed the herring population to record numbers.  It seems Mr. Rauwolf looks only at numbers from the 1940s to make his case, but the reality proves this fishery is not being over fished.

So why didn’t we catch our full quota this year?  The Department had been unable to "identify an area with sufficient good quality roe herring to prosecute a competitive fishery" not because of a shortage of herring.  We target a certain moment in the maturity of the eggs for the market.  When the first biomass moved in for a fishery, the majority stayed in waters unavailable to commercial fishing because of our respect for the native people’s rights.  A small area was opened, a small amount was caught.  Too many fish in an area is another reason ADF&G would hold off on opening, because we want to deliver good product and the processors can only handle so much, so again Mr. Rauwolf shows his ignorance.  The next opening, the herring were few and spread out, but we were able to catch a little bit more.  When it opened again, there were too many non-targeted herring, the spawn outs and immatures, mixed in with the good quality roe herring, so instead of killing a bunch we couldn’t sell to get to the few we could, we closed the opening.  The co-operative fishery seemed to have potential, but this was only given one day, only a few hundred tons harvested.  Had we waited a week, another large biomass moved in, and we likely would’ve caught our full quota. 

Fishermen make their living from the ocean, we respect it, we understand the cycle of life, and we do care deeply about escapement and spawn numbers.  To accuse the fisherman of being greedy and not capable of thinking about the future is asinine.  Mr. Rauwolf also accuses ADF&G of allowing “genocide” but again, let’s look at the numbers.  For 2008 the biomass was 87,715.  2009 it was 72,521.  2010 was 91,467, and the last official data is from 2011 when the biomass was a record 97,449 tons.  What was it 30 years before?  In 1981 the biomass was 27,000.  How about the early 1990s, when Mr. Rauwolf became a “herring advocate?”  From 1992 to 1997 the biomass was 23,450, 48,500, 28,450, 19,700, 42,265, 54,500, pretty decent numbers, but not as strong as today.  There is no genocide, the stocks are incredibly healthy, and our quota numbers are always reasonable.  We should all be thanking ADF&G for this incredible management.  The fishermen are not to blame for this (imaginary) decline.  We didn’t catch our quota this year because we are overly cautious of this fishery, not because of a lack of herring.   I asked ADF&G what the impact of our catch was this year in relation to miles of spawn, they answered, “the most recent ten year average suggests 1,400 tons of mature herring spawn per mile, so using that figure, an additional 3.6 nm would have been observed this year. Our current cumulative spawn mileage for 2013 is about 58 miles.”  Is our harvest of 3.6 nm worth of potential spawn “genocide” when 58 miles of spawn has been recorded this year?  Or does Mr. Rauwolf owe the fishing community and the conservation society an apology for misinformation and false claims? 

There are things ADF&G can’t control, other reasons that factor into a decline of a species, other threats.  Mr. Rauwolf does have a point about “Total Ecosystem Management” to help maintain sustainability.  Alaska fishermen aren’t over fishing, but other marine mammals have no restrictions.  I’ve fished out of Ketchikan for twenty five years and I’ve seen the enormous growth in humpback whale population.  This growth has had an incredible negative impact on the pink salmon population in SE Alaska, as the humpbacks feed on the salmon fry.  Sitka residents know that the whales devour massive amounts of herring.  An adult whale eats about 2,000 pounds of food a day, consuming “20 million pounds of forage daily,” in Southeast according to Mr. Rauwolf.  Is it time to issue a few permits to harvest some whales, as part of the total ecosystem management?  Sea lions and sea otters are other animals that can overfish a species, and in the interest of sustainability, shouldn’t we track their impact and harvest them accordingly?  If there is a threat to sustainability, it isn’t from well regulated commercial fishermen, it’s from invasive species like the sea otter, and as Mr. Rauwolf warns us, it’s the over abundant unregulated marine mammals that pose the threat. 

The herring stocks are stronger than ever.  When the sac roe fishery started, the biomass went from under 10,000 tons the first few years to over 50,000 tons every year in the last decade, to over 90,000 in 2010 and 2011.  The last two years, the herring have come late and they haven’t separated into easy to target groups like they typically do, so our ability to catch the full quota doesn’t reflect the health of the species.  It just shows how incredibly responsible and respectful fishermen are being, how intelligent the fishery is being managed by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and I look forward to many years of fishing for this product that is so important to our friends in Japan. 

Jake Ingman
Sitka, Alaska

About: "3rd generation Southeast Alaska commercial fisherman"

Received April 19, 2013 - Published April 22, 2013

Related Viewpoints:

letter Herring Fisheries By Andy Rauwolf

letter The Truth About the Herring By Terri Wenger Anderson

letter State of Alaska Denies Herring Forage Fish Status By Michael Baines



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