Aerial view of the Starrigavan boat launch, looking south. (ADF&G photo)

Aerial view of the Starrigavan boat launch, looking south. (ADF&G photo)

Before statehood and the advent of scientific management, Southeast Alaska’s herring populations were harvested — and depleted — without much thought for the future. Herring reduction plants were numerous in the region in the early twentieth century, but the industry was short-lived. Many believe the herring population in Sitka Sound now is a fraction of what it was in those days, and wonder if herring stocks — like salmon — can be restored. A recent grant intends to launch that effort.

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Just look at Raven Radio’s Facebook page. Photos of active herring spawn in Sitka Sound and hemlock branches coated with eggs are the kind of posts that go viral. It’s clear that many more than the 9,000 people that live in Sitka are herring obsessed.

“Culturally it’s important obviously as a major subsistence resource in the Sitka area but also very important in trade,” says Chuck Smythe, the Director of the history and culture department at Sealaska Heritage Institute.

Smythe says there are places that used to attract herring that don’t anymore. “Some of the oral history suggests that herring just sort of stopped coming and moved to another area.”

He is working with the Sitka Tribe to figure out why they stopped coming, and how the population might be restored throughout Southeast. The Alaska Native Fund granted SHI $15,000 to develop a herring restoration plan in the Sitka vicinity. They chose Sitka because it still attracts heaps of herring. Jeff Feldpausch, STA’s Resource Protection Director, agrees. “Right now Sitka has one of the larger herring stocks in Southeast.” Close to 80,000 tons of herring.

“So, if you were looking at transferring eggs to other locations Sitka would probably have the biomass available,” says Feldpausch, “as far as herring eggs to be able to do that.”

Figuring out exactly how to transplant herring eggs is the tricky part.

“I’ve been told stories about how harvesters from other communities would come over to Sitka and pick up eggs for their community and on their way home they would place a few branches in the water in different locations,” says Feldpausch.

Anecdotes like this one will be heavily weighted in the brainstorming process. But, a recent study on Pacific herring will serve as the framework. Anthropologist Tom Thornton was the principal investigator of the Herring Synthesis Project. Smythe says it’s the most thorough attempt to date at demystifying the Pacific herring.

Forman: And so, why now?
Smythe: Well it was just realizing that this significant study had been completed. I came to the realization that it would be good to use this information and take it to the next step.

The Herring Synthesis Project combines archaeological, biological, and cultural data. It identifies things like how herring were distributed throughout Southeast, what factors could have changed spawning location, and where herring could thrive. And basically concludes that there are a lot less herring than there used to be.

Feldpausch says the goal is to return herring to historical levels, “before the late 1800s.” Back before commercial sac-roe fisheries, back before herring were mainly reduced to oil, and back before herring were simply fished for bait.

Smythe says he is in the midst of working his way through Thornton’s study. “And there’s just a lot we don’t know about herring.” Smythe says there are a number of factors that explain why herring left certain areas: pollution from logging and the pulp mill, other industrial activities that may have contaminated the water, or hatchery salmon released when the herring are most vulnerable – to name a few.

STA will host a panel discussion of experts in June. Thornton’s study will serve as the framework for the discussion. And Feldpausch says the project is a productive step. And hopes the end product will be implemented throughout Southeast.