Tribal citizen Tom Gamble asked for a more cautious approach to herring management at the preseason meeting. (Emily Russell/KCAW)

Subsistence harvester and former Sitka Tribal Council member Tom Gamble questioned the Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s forecast model at the preseason herring meeting on Thursday, Mar. 16.

Downloadable audio.

Gamble said the spawn surveys don’t accurately reflect how much herring are actually returning to spawn. He said subsistence users like himself have felt a decline firsthand.

There’s a serious decline in the overall herring populations and it’s being felt by the subsistence gatherers,” Gamble said. “It doesn’t reflect in the ex-vessel values. It doesn’t show up anywhere in the economy. It shows up in our freezers.” 

Gamble and other tribal citizens say their subsistence needs haven’t been met in recent years, that their freezers aren’t as full of herring eggs as they have been in the past.

He fears Fish and Game is overestimating the spawn by just sampling in the waters close to town.

If we went on the other side of these mountains, all the way down to Aspid Cape 45 miles south of here, [Fish and Game] are not doing their spawn deposition surveys [there], but that’s where their fisheries boundaries are,” Gamble explained, “and they’re not doing their spawn depositions out in Salisbury Sound. They’re doing them all right in these places right off of Sea Mart and places we know they’ve been spawning for centuries.”

If they surveyed the entire 65-mile fishing grounds, Gamble said the data would show the decline in spawn. He wants management to take a more cautious approach, so if an event wiped out an entire portion of the population, there would be some leftover to repopulate.

[The] management plan doesn’t allocate 20 percent for whales and 20 percent for seagulls and 20 percent for king salmon 50 percent for humans,” said Gamble. “What I think that this fishery really needs to do is to say that if there’s 80,000 tons out there, what’s really available is 40,000 tons to be considered for a fishery. The rest of it is for conservation.”

The spawning biomass in Sitka Sound this year is expected to consist of up to 80-percent 5-year old herring. Gamble is concerned that heavily targeting a single age class is potentially harmful to the overall population.

The subsistence harvest of herring eggs is a Tlingit cultural tradition. He’s not trying to prevent the fishery, Gamble said, he’s trying to preserve it.