Last month, a Juneau judge denied Sitka Tribe of Alaska’s request for an injunction that would have required the Alaska Department of Fish and game to develop new procedures in the lead up to the Sitka Sac Roe herring fishery.
In response, STA filed a petition to the Alaska Supreme Court to reverse that decision last Thursday, Feb. 28.
Leaders of the Tribe announced the petition to the Supreme Court at a public dinner at the Sheet’ka Kwan Naa Kahidi, featuring a herring salad with eggs from the Tribe’s frozen supply.
The atmosphere in room was jovial at times, as the dish was served to about 100 people in a long line that stretched to the front door. But a somber atmosphere overtook those attending as speakers moved away from legal disputes and spoke on the cultural impact of a dwindling supply of herring.
Tribal Council member Bob Sam told the oral history of herring harvesting, of a tribe that was suffering through starvation and a woman who saved them by submerging her hair in the ocean for herring to lay their eggs in it.
“The eggs are sacred,” Sam told the crowd. “If we lose them, we will lose our way. We have to come together for the herring. If we do that, we will win.”
General Manager Lisa Gassman says STA and tribal citizens were very disappointed with the judge’s decision to deny the delay of commercial fishing in the sac roe fishery, which is scheduled to start in March. In a phone interview, she explained why.
“We felt that our documents we filed showed that we faced imminent and irreparable harm not only in the past but would face that in the upcoming 2019 season due to the Department’s failure to ensure STA and our subsistence harvesters had a reasonable opportunity to meet our subsistence needs,” Gassman said.
Gassman added that herring is more than a food to Tlingit people. It’s part of their cultural legacy.
“It’s something that was handed down, taught generation to generation,” she said. “We haven’t been able to get our subsistence herring eggs by many of our harvesters and it definitely is impacting our way of life and our culture. It has been harmed.”
Harriet Beleal of the Sitka chapter of the Central Council of the Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska also spoke to the crowd attending the Thursday dinner of the cultural ties herring has to Tlingit peoples. But she said that’s something the state and the courts don’t understand.
“When they hear ‘cultural,’ they hear ‘emotional,’” Beleal said. “They hear ‘non-scientific.’ We have to teach them what that means.”
In an interview, Tribal Chair KathyHope Erickson said that much is apparent.
“You have to know that they don’t understand because of the decisions that come out at the board level, at the court level,” she said.
As she remembers, the population of herring has dwindled over the course of her life. Herring were once abundant, she said.
“When I was young, my brothers would take buckets and lines down to the dock and catch herring about this time of year,” Erickson said. “They’d bring home the feast.”
Those days are gone but STA believes their lawsuit for stronger protections could help bring back the masses of herring to Sitka. But litigation comes at a great cost, so much so that the tribe has launched a GoFundMe campaign to take donations from those concerned about the herring.