SitNews - Stories in the News - Ketchikan, Alaska


Why Now, And Why Only Lynn Canal?

By Andy Rauwolf, John Harrington, Snapper Carson


October 01, 2007
Monday PM

We find it quite interesting that the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) has recently considered listing the Lynn Canal herring stocks as either threatened or endangered. NMFS has maintained a laboratory in Juneau for about 3/4 of a century and has conducted extensive research on the once huge Lynn Canal herring stock as well as many other herring populations throughout S.E. Alaska. In 1982, after 5 years of intense herring sac roe fishing, then Governor Sheffield was persuaded to override an order by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADF&G) for an emergency closure of the Lynn Canal herring fishery and open the fishery. This last thrust depleted the herring stocks to a level which could no longer sustain the population of whales, sea lions, and salmon that had thrived on it, causing its collapse.

Why, after twenty-five years, is NMFS just now considering this listing? Is it really for the sake of the herring, depleted long ago and never able to recover, or is it to appease the Sierra Club who after all these years, having shown no previous interest in the welfare of our herring stocks, now wish to use them as a tool in their quest to halt development of a mine in this area.

Lynn Canal, near Juneau, is not an isolated case of depleting these rich and oily fish that are so essential to several species of salmon and bottom fish as well as most marine birds and mammals. It was once one of seven major herring spawns along with dozens of smaller spawning populations that painted the waters of Southeast Alaska white each spring, keeping salmon and other predators fat and healthy. Of the thousands of square miles of waters in southeast, only Sitka Sound remains as a major herring spawning area. All other areas now host much smaller, severely depleted, or nonexistent populations. Herring were once so abundant that from 1900 to 1960, over 60 herring reduction plants operated year-round throughout Southeast Alaska employing over 2000 people. The bays were so full of herring that bait herring were seined in the boat harbors and in front of the cold storage docks. ADF&G didn't feel a need to regulate the bait fishery until the early 1970s when populations they were quantifying near Ketchikan crashed under their watch, never to recover.

In 1976, the sac roe fishery began in earnest, with Japanese buyers paying over $2000.00 per ton just to get the eggs. In a few short years (6 years in the case of Lynn Canal), local residents began seeing a significant decline in herring populations throughout Southeast Alaska. As local pilots, sport and commercial fisherman, and other residents watched the herring biomass wither, ADF&G biologists with bachelors' degrees denied there was anything wrong with the way they managed the fishery. Instead they claimed that in each case the herring "must have moved". What biologists failed to factor into their equations was the steady increase in the whale population following the implementation of the National Marine Mammal Protection Act in 1972. The significantly larger humpback whale population, which prefer to feed on herring and can consume as much as three tons per day per whale, is now putting enormous pressure on what remains of the dwindling herring stocks in Southeast Alaska, making it impossible for depleted stocks to rebuild to any extent or for any length of time. Such was the case in West Behm Canal near Ketchikan which took twenty-five years to recover after its crash from over-fishing in 1979. Humpback whales moved in, and in less than three years depleted the herring to a point that ADF&G was unable to execute a planned sac roe fishery in 2004.

The cause of the herring decline in Southeast Alaska has never been, nor I doubt will ever be due to any form of resource development. The depletion of herring stocks can be attributed to at least two factors. One is the result of a broken system of management. ADF&G can make recommendations to the Board of Fish, but all final decisions on fisheries are directed by the Board and carried out by the Department. After a period of lobbying, each member of the Board is appointed by the Governor. The majority of the seven -member Board is made up of persons involved in the fishing industry. Every proposal submitted to the Board by the public relating to herring conservation at every meeting since 1993 has been rejected. At times, of the seven board members, as many as four have been herring permit holders. The "fox has been guarding the hen house" for far too long.

Secondly, federal biologists lacked adequate long range planning while drafting the National Marine Mammal Protection Act. They did not factor in the huge impact on available food resources from the population explosion of several species of marine mammals which has led us to this current sad state in Alaska's waters.

Sitka Sound, itself under intense pressure from humpback whales and a state managed sac roe fishery, is the last hope for a large herring stock in Southeast Alaska. Unfortunately, as things now stand, the cycle will probably have to run its course, culminating in the starvation of large numbers of herring predators, including humpback whales. In the meantime, be prepared to continue to see smaller runs of smaller fish as hatcheries continue to release millions of salmon fry into waters that once teemed with herring but are now "plowed fields".

In closing, with the popularity for herring roe in Japan dwindling more with each passing year, and the prices paid to fishermen only a fraction of what was once a very lucrative market, aren't herring really worth more to all of us if left in the water?

Andy Rauwolf, John Harrington, Snapper Carson
Co-chairs: Ketchikan Herring Action Group
Ketchikan, AK

Received September 30, 2007 - Published October 01, 2007


Recommended Reading:

A biography of Alaska's herring: A little fish of huge importance By June Allen - In general, not many people are interested in herring. It's not exactly a glamour fish. You won't see a snapshot of a grinning fishermen posing for the camera while holding up a trophy eight-inch goggle-eyed herring by the tail. And when was the last time you had baked, fried, roasted, grilled or pickled herring? The only time most people come in contact with herring is when they skewer a chunk of it onto a hook for bait when salmon fishing. - More...

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 - 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. - More...

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