Herring roe is a traditional food for many Alaska Natives, and every year it’s collected from hemlock branches submerged throughout Sitka Sound.
As the commercial herring fishery has grown, the Sitka Tribe has expressed concern about the amount of herring eggs available for harvest.
In an attempt to counter that concern, the Southeast Herring Conservation Alliance started a program where commercial vessels would bring in herring roe on hemlock branches and distribute it for free at harbors.
Last year, the fishing vessel Julia Kae harvested 65,000 pounds of roe-on-hemlock, with about half of that distributed for free in Sitka. The rest was split among Hoonah, Angoon, Kake, Wrangell and Ketchikan. That’s according to the Julia Kae’s captain, Steve Demmert.
Demmert didn’t want to speak on tape. He says he has Alaska residents on board while he harvests the roe.
But he is not an Alaska resident – he lives near Seattle – and that has raised concern at the Sitka Tribe.
Neither Tribe staff nor members of the Tribal Council named Demmert or the Julia Kae during the council’s public meeting on October 27th. But Tribe resource protection director Jeff Feldpausch says a Seattle residency was noticed as the Tribe was reviewing surveys turned in by harvesters this year.
And so, at its October 27th meeting, the Tribal Council asked its staff to write a letter asking the Alaska Department of Fish & Game to enforce the ban on out-of-state residents harvesting subsistence roe.
“If you open the resources up to outside interests – people who aren’t living here – it doesn’t quite for me satisfy a person’s opportunity to go out and harvest,” said Tom Gamble, a member of the Tribal Council.
Gamble emphasized that the council’s recommendation isn’t about any individual captain or vessel. But he said if nonresidents are harvesting, it limits the opportunities of residents.
“I’m not an expert by any means on the regulations, but the opportunity to harvest is as important as anything, as actually harvesting,” he said. “It’s a big part of tribal life, and living in the rural community, it’s not just a native preference for subsistence, it’s a bigger issue for the whole community to weigh in on.”
Council member George Paul disagrees.
“If our ultimate goal is to provide the herring eggs for our people, accomplishing the task is what we should be doing,” he said.
Paul was the only member of the council to vote against writing the letter to Fish & Game. He says he’s concerned that asking for tougher enforcement could harm other communities and create bad feelings toward the Tribe.
“If the intent of the action tonight is to say that that boat will not provide that service,” he said, “that next year there will be no boat that is going to go to those villages to distribute herring eggs from Sitka Sound, then those people that benefitted from it this last year will probably be upset.”
Demmert, who captains the Julia Kae, says Fish & Game is aware of his activity, and they know he has residents on board to perform the harvest.
He says if Fish & Game enforces the rule, he’ll “probably be out of the picture,” and that he’s disappointed the Tribe is planning to ask for tougher enforcement.
Feldpausch, at the Tribe, says the letter to Fish & Game is in the process of being drafted.
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