The seiner Infinite Grace pursing up during the third opening in the Sitka Sound sac roe herring fishery, on Wednesday, March 26, 2014 (KCAW photo/Rachel Waldholz)

The seiner Infinite Grace pursing up during the third opening in the Sitka Sound sac roe herring fishery, on Wednesday, March 26, 2014 (KCAW photo/Rachel Waldholz)

The Alaska Board of Fisheries began deliberations on Thursday (2-26-15), the fourth day of their meeting in Sitka.

But when it came to one of the most contentious issues, Sitka Sound herring, the Board voted down all proposals, leaving the status quo intact.

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The Board faced a series of dueling proposals, with subsistence users — including the Sitka Tribe of Alaska — on one side, and commercial herring seiners on the other.

One proposal from the Sitka Tribe would have cut the harvest level for the commercial fishery, while one from the Southeast Herring Conservation Alliance, an industry group, would have cut the amount necessary for subsistence users. The Sitka Tribe asked to expand the area closed to commercial fishing, while the seiners asked to do away with the closed waters altogether. And while the Tribe proposed banning any fishery until the minimum threshold had been met for five years in a row, the seiners proposed lowering that threshold.

In the end, the Board took a Goldilocks approach. Orville Huntington, of Huslia, spoke for many on the Board when he said he did not want to impose more mandates of any kind on the biologists managing the fishery.

“I’m really reluctant to take the best science we have out there right now and make it more rigid,” Huntington said. “Because what happens is when you restrict science, only bad things come of it.”

That was the theme of the afternoon: Board members repeatedly praised the Sitka Sound sac roe herring fishery as perhaps the best managed fishery in the state, and said they didn’t want to tie the hands of the Department of Fish and Game.

But Board members did express concerns about recent declines. The forecast for the Sitka Sound herring biomass this spring is the lowest in a decade and it’s not the first below-average year, as Fish & Game’s Sherri Dressel explained.

“It hasn’t been a chronic problem,” Dressel said. “But 2011, 2012 and then 2014 have been lower than they have been for the last ten, fifteen years or so.”

Board member Sue Jeffrey, of Kodiak, asked whether that was cause for concern, or just a normal fluctuation. Dressel said she saw no reason for alarm.

“You know, we definitely take notice any time that it’s low, and we definitely have,” she said. “But at this point, it would be premature to say that this is a pattern that we expect will continue.”

Board member Fritz Johnson, of Dillingham, asked Dressel to address public testimony from subsistence users warning that herring populations are far below historic levels. Dressel said she couldn’t speak to numbers before the Department started tracking the population in the 1960s, and there’s no agreement on how many herring swam in Sitka Sound in the early 20th century. But, she said, she could speak to the present.

“If the Department is the scientific consensus, we do have consensus that the population is not depressed,” she said. “It is, at the moment, twice the size of threshold, so I would not call that depressed.”

Still, Board members said the trend of the last couple years made them reluctant to take any steps to loosen protections.

But they also weren’t willing to tighten restrictions. At its last two meetings on herring, in 2009 and 2012, the Board raised the threshold required for a fishery, and closed some waters to the commercial fleet. Chair Tom Kluberton said those decisions were prompted by worries that current models aren’t great at predicting sudden population declines. But any more restrictions could harm the commercial sac roe fishery.

“I tend to regard the Board’s action as providing a good safety measure,” he said.

Speaking after the vote, Sitka Tribal Council member Harvey Kitka said that though the Tribe’s proposals were voted down, he felt subsistence users had gotten the Board’s attention.

“We tried real hard to convince them that this was really the last viable stock of subsistence herring eggs in Alaska,” Kitka said. “And they need to take a little better care of it.”

The Board was intrigued by a proposal to open a pound fishery in Sitka Sound. In pound fisheries, herring spawn on kelp within a net enclosure. The fish then leave the net, and the kelp with eggs is sold.

Jeffrey said the idea was worth investigating.

“I think it seems like the kind of product that we’re moving toward,” she said. “You know, this all natural, healthy super-food type of product.”

The Board voted to postpone action on that proposal until the statewide meeting in March 2016, and will draft a letter in support of the concept.

The Board of Fish is meeting in Sitka’s Harrigan Centennial Hall through next Tuesday (3-3-15). The meetings are open to the public, and stream live online here.