Seine boats fish for herring during a 2010 opening near the Gavanski islands. Under a proposal discussed Tuesday, this zone would be limited to subsistence. (KCAW file photo by Ed Ronco)

Two proposals to establish subsistence-only zones for herring in Sitka Sound failed to win recommendation from the Sitka Fish & Game Advisory Committee in a contentious meeting Tuesday night.

Subsistence harvesters say the commercial seine fishery is having a negative effect on their ability to gather herring eggs on hemlock branches, which is a traditional food for Southeast Natives.

Every three years, the state Board of Fish reviews how herring are managed. When the board meets in February, it will consider some proposals designed to address the conflict between subsistence users and seiners, and find some compromise.

But if testimony at Tuesday night’s meeting of the Sitka Fish and Game Advisory Committee is any indication, compromise will not be easy.

The proposals before the Board of Fish seek to establish subsistence-only zones for herring in Sitka Sound. The zones encompass an area along Sitka’s road system, from just south of O’Connell Bridge all the way up to the Gavanski islands.

The Sitka Sound sac roe herring fishery is one of the most competitive and expensive commercial fisheries in the state. About 50 seine boats fish it, and the average permit is worth more than half a million dollars. Openings are fast and furious, with boats scrambling to seine as many herring as possible in a short amount of time, and over a relatively small area.

Steve Reifenstuhl represents the Southeast Herring Conservation Alliance, which is made up mostly of commercial fishermen. He says the proposals to develop subsistence-only zones are not based on good science or math.

“So what this is really about is chipping away at the edges and it’s not necessary to do,” Reifenstuhl said. “The Department has demonstrated a good faith effort in prosecuting this fishery, and I think subsistence needs have been met and will be met.”

Subsistence harvesters, like Tom Gamble, disagree.

“You get your quota,” Gamble said. “But we’ve shown, again, on record that there were at least three times in our books in the last five to six years where we did not meet our needs.”

Subsistence harvesters fell short of a yearly number called the ANS, or Amount Necessary for Subsistence, in 2005, 2007 and 2008. The area that would be subsistence only under the proposal includes waters that have provided herring openings for the commercial fleet.

Fish & Game commercial fisheries biologist Dave Gordon says if the zones were in place, there could be some years where meeting the GHL, or guideline harvest level of herring, would be a challenge.

But Gamble, the subsistence harvester, says the zone is a small area compared to where the commercial fleet can find herring.

“We’re not asking for you guys to close down your entire fishery forever and ever,” Gamble said. “We’re not saying that the GHL has to be amended or that the process that you’re using to determine your GHL needs to be amended. We’re asking for a very small portion.”

Those weren’t the only issues during Tuesday night’s discussion. There were also disagreements over broader issues, like the intersection of traditional knowledge with government science. And there were calls for compromise.

One of those calls came from George Bennett. He stood up at the back of the room and said a lot of subsistence harvesters, like him, also have been commercial fishermen, and are not unsympathetic to the needs of the industry.

“We know when it was good, and it’s not that good now. And these guys have to fight for every place they need to make money and live,” Bennett said. “And we know that. But somewhere along the line there has to be a compromise.”

To do otherwise, Bennett said, will just mean angrier discussions in the future, and more disagreement. At one point, advisory committee member Jack Lorrigan asked point blank if there was room to budge.

“If I was to ask the industry right now, without the benefit of talking to all 52 seiners, is there an area in there that you’d be willing to talk about?” Lorrigan asked.

People in the audience looked at one another, not saying anything, until commercial fisherman Mitch Eide broke the silence.

“On my part, I’d have to say no, because I’m not convinced there’s any correlation between us being there and not being there,” Eide said. “It looked to me like there was one year where it could have been an effect, one where it definitely wasn’t, and then another year where it was kind of questionable. We didn’t catch a lot of fish there; it wasn’t a big subsistence year. I don’t see the evidence to justify closing that area to commercial fishing.”

The same question, later, was put to Harvey Kitka, chairman of the Sitka Tribe of Alaska’s Herring Committee. Is there room for compromise?

“Not a whole lot,” Kitka said. “I think there might be, but I really think we’ve compromised far beyond what we could have already.”

After the subsistence-only zones failed to win recommendation from the advisory committee, a motion was made to encourage both sides to continue working toward consensus.

The advisory committee’s recommendations are just that. The Board of Fish will consider them, but ultimately is free to do whatever it wants when it meets in February.