Herring seiners in Sitka launched a cooperative fishery on Wednesday in an attempt to salvage what remains of the 2013 sac roe season.
So far in three competitive openings, fisherman have landed just 5,600 tons of herring, leaving almost 6,000 tons still to go.
As in 2012, this year’s herring began spawning shortly after seining opened, dramatically reducing the numbers of unspawned females, whose egg skeins are the money-making product of the Sac Roe fishery.
On the flip side, a healthy spawn is critical to subsistence fishermen, who gather and distribute roe-on-hemlock branches across the region.
This year’s commercial sac roe herring fishery in Sitka opened on a Wednesday. On Thursday, there was another commercial opener, but there was spawning visible on two miles of shoreline. On Friday there were 11 miles of spawn. By, Saturday — when managers opened a third and final commercial opener — 18 miles of spawn. On Sunday, 28 miles.
“With a major spawning event like that, there aren’t that many opportunities to harvest pre-spawning herring,” said Bill Davidson is the Southeast regional management coordinator for commercial fisheries with the state.
Overall spawning miles eventually reached 42. As spawning began to taper, Davidson and other managers knew that the chances for completing this year’s commercial catch were becoming remote.
The sac roe fishery is not just about getting your net around fish.
“It’s not a question of how much herring can we harvest,” Davidson said. “It has to be how much high-quality roe can be harvested, and it’s all a matter of timing.”
This is the second year in a row that spawning has out-paced the commercial harvest. In 2012, fewer herring arrived than forecast — in part because of problems with the forecast model, and in part because of the vagaries of nature that every management biologist contends with.
“One of the aspects of fisheries management that I’ve observed across all species is that every year’s different,” he said. “It’s kind of a function of not only the biology, but the behavior, local conditions, the weather. So I don’t see any fundamental change in herring spawning behavior here.”
One major difference, however, is that in 2012 the Alaska Board of Fisheries reserved roughly ten square miles near the community of Sitka for the subsistence harvest of roe-on-hemlock. Davidson refers to the restricted area as a refuge, and the herring apparently got the memo.
“The first opening was immediately west of the boundary line for this area and we had identified a fairly substantial volume as a basis for the first opening,” he said. “And yet, it looks like a lot of the fish we had been fishing on did move into that zone.”
Davidson does not blame the new subsistence area for the failure of the commercial fishery — the department has always attempted to disperse effort — but he says it is certainly a part of the overall picture. Most of this year’s major spawn occurred in the area.
By agreement of the forty-eight permit holders, the fishery is now in a co-op, with about ten boats searching for unspawned herring on the grounds between 8 a.m. and 6 p.m. anywhere in the Sitka Sound regulatory area. Processors will sample herring in each set as they are caught, and report the results to Fish & Game.
In the past, co-ops have been used often to mop up the last 500 tons or so of quota. The chances of this co-op getting anywhere near the 6,000 tons needed to fill out this year’s harvest are remote — but it has been done. In the late 1980s, early spawning forced the entire fishery into a co-op, and seiners reached their target nonetheless. In 1996, in Bill Davidson’s first of nine years managing the fishery, a major spawn appeared to have ended the season early, until a secondary spawn occurred two weeks later. The price, Davidson recalls, opened at about $2,000 a ton, and the many seiners who waited it out, cashed in.
While he holds little hope for repeating those successes, as a scientist, he’s also reluctant to foreclose on Sitka Sound herring, after two troubled seasons.
“It’s something we have to not overreact to,” Davidson said. “We need to continue to monitor this population. By all measures it continues to be a healthy resource, and I think it will continue to be.”
That is certainly the hope of the Sitka Tribe of Alaska, and others who depend on herring not just for cash, but as a staple of the subsistence economy in the region.
On Sitka’s waterfront, just north of downtown, the boom of a white crane reaches out over the water. It pulls hemlock branches off the front deck of a boat below, 50 to 100 pounds at a time.
The branches are coated in yellow-white herring eggs. They look like they’ve been dipped in batter. Once the branches are clear of the dock railing, the crane’s arm swings toward the back of a pickup truck, where Jessica Gill is waiting to stack them up.
“They’re pretty heavy branches, yeah,” she says. “Probably the hardest work I’ve done all winter, that’s for sure.”
Gill is a fisheries biologist for the Sitka Tribe of Alaska. The eggs they’re gathering are a traditional food, and will be distributed to tribal citizens. In the skiff below is Jeff Feldpausch, Gill’s boss. His official title is resource protection director.
After the eggs are offloaded, and the crane is shut down, he climbs up the ladder from the boat and onto the shore. He says he worries that the fleet will fish on herring that have already spawned.
“It seems like if the thing is over, let’s call it over and not continue to beat a dead horse, so to speak,” Feldpausch said.
The Tribe has long had concerns about the size of the harvest. Last year, when Fish and Game announced a nearly 29,000 ton harvest level, the Tribe launched a publicity campaign calling the harvest “excessive.”
And even with this year’s lower harvest level — less than half last year’s limit — the Tribal government worries about overfishing. Much of that concern is based in traditional knowledge.
“If you talk to some of these elders who have been here — they were born back in the 30s — they talk about hundreds of miles of spawn throughout western Baranof, herring boiling on the water, as far as the eye can see,” Feldpausch said. “You don’t see that these days. It tells us these stocks are being managed under a shifted baseline. There’s less herring now than there was back in the 30s. I know there are a lot of people who say we’ve got record herring returns. Well, it’s only a record since ADF&G has been keeping track.”
The state sets the harvest limit for herring at 20 percent of the estimated total herring in Sitka Sound. This year, it’s 11,549. Feldpausch says the Tribal government would have liked to have seen this year’s harvest around 7,300 tons.
As of the deadline for this story, the fleet hadn’t caught yet that much. Whether they make it to 7,300 or up to the limit of 11,549 depends on unpredictable fish and a co-op fishery.