All signs point to a robust forecast for the Sitka Sound herring sac roe fishery in 2020, with a guideline harvest level of 25,824 tons, more than double the GHL of a year ago, when the fishery was closed due to lack of commercial markets.
Size matters for the commercial market. Buyers in Japan want herring of a certain size, 5-year-olds and larger, said Harvey Kitka, a retired commercial fisherman from Sitka who chairs the Sitka Tribe of Alaska’s herring committee.
Beyond the commercial market there is demand from Alaska Native subsistence harvesters, for whom the Sitka Sound sac roe herring fishery has great historic and cultural significance, and hungry wildlife ranging from humpback whales, sea lions and seals to salmon and halibut.
“Everything eats the eggs,” said Eric Coonradt, a biologist with ADF&G in Sitka. “It’s a feeding frenzy on herring eggs.”
In fact, there is increased predation from these sea mammals, and when the herring hatch out, they tend to be floating on the surface of the water and can’t really swim, attracting gulls and ducks even as eggs, Kitka said.
Kitka is less concerned about the commercial market, which will be decided by the percentage of the potential harvest falling in the desirable size range, and more concerned about the future of the overall fishery and subsistence harvest.
“The stock they are fishing on is basically ocean stock,” he said. “They (the commercial fleet) has fished out our local stocks. They haven’t learned anything, and they keep taking more.”
In a couple of weeks, an Alaska Superior Court judge is Sitka is scheduled to arguments from the Sitka Tribe on increased conservation of the fishery.
“All of our communities in Southeast Alaska used to have their own herring stocks,” Kitka said. “They didn’t have to travel to get herring eggs.”
Commercial harvesters fished out all the herring in the Juneau area, and bait fisheries around Hoonah, Tenakee and Angoon, which had their own herring spawn, he said.
“The regulations say subsistence comes first, but in reality, it comes last,” Kitka said. “The tribe started complaining about the herring fishery back in 1985. As concern among subsistence fish harvesters grew, the Sitka Tribe received signatures from about 180 communities up and down the coast of Alaska, all the way up to Nome, urging more conservation.”
At present Kitka said he feels there is a fair chance of getting some resolution through the court system, because in Sitka, for the first time, they (the court) will get to hear what local people have to say.
In its Sitka Sound herring fishery announcement Dec. 23, ADF&G biologists said the forecast indicates the mature population by numbers of herring in 2020 will consist of 2 percent age-three, 83 percent age-four, 7 percent age-five, 4 percent age-six, 1 percent age-seven and 4 percent age-eight.
That’s twice as many age-four herring as a year ago.
Buyers last year were looking for herring weighing in at 120 grams on average and up to 12 percent mature roe, Coonradt said.
“The largest herring we tested last year were 110 grams and barely making it to 11 percent roe, so both of those standards weren’t being met,” he said.
This year the bulk of the herring may again be under the market standard, but depending on competition from other herring fisheries, including some in Canada, there may be a market for smaller roe herring in Sitka this year, he said. Processor buyers would include Sitka Sound Seafoods, Silver Bay Seafoods, Icicle Seafoods (Petersburg Fisheries Inc.), Trident Seafoods, Alaska General Seafoods and Icy Strait Seafoods.
“My plan is to get the information out to the processors. We are going to gear up for a fishery and if the industry decides they don’t want to or if they do want to, that will steer us in the direction we will go,” he said. “At this point the market is questionable. Fish and Game is all about opportunities and if a portion of the biomass can be harvested and sold, we will offer the opportunity.”
Kitka meanwhile said he is remaining optimistic of getting some resolution from the court. In addition to his efforts through the tribe’s herring committee, he is part of a collaborative group of tribal leaders, ecologists, biologists, anthropologists, fishery managers and commercial harvesters working with the Ocean Modeling Forum on how to save Pacific herring. The group, led by the University of Washington, has produced scientific papers released this past winter to help guide the recovery and management of herring in the future.
Traditional knowledge contributing to these papers included information about how younger herring follow the older, more experienced herring back to specific beaches to spawn.
“It appears none of the fish are aware of this learning process;” wrote Michelle Ma, in a University of Washington News report on the collaborative studies. “Rather, the memory of where to go is imprinted unconsciously into their brains.”
“Herring migration isn’t random, and this could also explain why herring have been missing for years from some beaches,” Ma said. “If older fish that spawned at a specific beach are wiped out, there are no fish to lead the next generation to use that particular site.”
The “go with the older fish” interpretation of herring biology is very important, Kitka said. He hopes fishery managers will heed this information and at least give it a try.