Seiners gathered over the weekend in preparation for the Sitka Sac Roe herring fishery, and while they met to hear updates from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game on this year’s fishery, they were also concerned about opposition to the fishery leading to acts of civil disobedience on the water. But they didn’t need to look far, after a “Protect the Herring” demonstration interrupted the meeting.
People filled the chairs and lined the walls at an organizational meeting on Saturday for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, the day before the Sitka Sac Roe Herring Fishery went on 2 hour notice. Over 75 seiners and Sitkans listened as Fish and Game biologists spoke about last year’s fishery and gave an outlook for this year. Commercial fisheries biologist Sherri Dressel gave a rundown of how the department’s predictions compared to last year’s biomass.
“This triangle is what I gave you last year as the forecast. The biomass that came back was very close to what we forecast, it was actually about 5 percent higher. We also now have a forecast for 2019 which you’ve seen in a news release. The forecast is about 64,000 tons, it’s a little bit higher than the estimate in 2018.”
But seiners weren’t just thinking about the harvest level. Some wondered how the state would respond to interference with the fishery. Wildlife trooper Kyle Ferguson said his priority was the same as always, to maintain an orderly fishery. But this year, he was also preparing for demonstrations on the water.
“Our concern in that regard is that the fishery be conducted in a safe manner,” Ferguson said. “Safe for all parties. And if there’s any on-the-water protest activity, we respect people’s right to protest but we expect people conduct that activity in a safe manner.”
One seiner asked Ferguson to define “interfering with commercial fishing” and another asked if support vessels and skiffs were included in that definition. Ferguson said they were.
“Interfering with commercial fishing means that either gear is damaged or the activity of fishing is prevented- reckless disregard of the activity, to prevent it from happening, or damage to gear,” he clarified.
Jay Willimon of the U.S. Coast Guard’s marine safety detachment also spoke about vessel traffic.
“People have the right to voice their concerns,” he said. “They have the right to do that on the water. The only thing we will be looking for is that it doesn’t impede the vessel traffic or the safe navigation of a boat.”
But it turned out they didn’t have to go out on the water to witness a demonstration- At one point during the meeting, Louise Brady and David Sam, who are part of a local citizen group called the ‘Herring Rock Water Protectors’ held up a sign that read “Protect the Herring” behind Tribal elder Herman Davis, as he spoke.
“A lot of you remember when it used to spawn, even in the channel right here, all the way out to Halibut point and then all the way out to Middle Island,” said Davis. “These herring eggs are a part of our food,” he continued. “And a small spawning area last year, and they didn’t even get their quota…what’s gonna happen? Are we going to be left without it?”
Throughout the meeting, subsistence users and members of the Herring Rock Water Protectors posed questions about how the model used by ADF&G considered subsistence fishermen’s needs. And some, like Patty Dick, questioned why the state’s model didn’t reflect the changes they’ve seen over the years.
“What I’m understanding you’re saying is that our biomass is going up, but the herring are not coming to this beach, there just not coming here, but we still have more than we did all those years before. Is that what you’re saying?” she asked.
Troy Denkinger, a seiner and president of Silver Bay Seafoods, noted that the data the department presented showed more spawn measured on beaches, not less.
“This is physically measured spawn by the department,” he said. “So I look at 2002. Every year since 2002, including last year and currently, there has been more spawn measured on the beaches in Sitka Sound than any year prior to 2002. And if you put the 70’s on there it even goes down even further.”
But Peter Bradley, of the Herring Rock Water Protectors, challenged the data the department collected in the 1970s.
“I’ve been trying to wrap my head around that discrepancy between what people are seeing and what you guys are seeing. Part of what put me on this track is going back and looking at the 70’s research data. Nothing I’ve read makes me think other than that all that the department was studying in those years was Katlian Bay,” Bradley said. “I don’t understand how the department can use that in direct comparison with modern biomass numbers if they were only deriving that from Katlian Bay.”
The willingness of the Herring Rock Water Protectors to take action on the water was not put to the test over the weekend. On Sunday morning, the commercial fishery went on two-hour notice, but was never opened.