Vessels sitting in Sitka’s harbors on Wednesday morning- seiners have been abstaining from test fishing since Friday (KCAW/Rose)

As of Tuesday evening, herring seiners in Sitka were standing down from further test fishing — but they weren’t calling it a strike. After a full week spent looking for schools of marketable size and roe content, the Alaska Department of Fish & Game couldn’t interest any boats in making test sets over the weekend. KCAW’s Katherine Rose spoke with seiners about their collective decision to stay tied up at the dock.

Commercial fisherman Matt Kinney of Sitka has been involved with the sac roe herring fishery for the past 10 years and he says each year it’s exciting to take it all in.

“It’s a big biomass out there that supports a lot of life whether it be sea lions or eagles or whales, but it’s pretty impressive to see on a grand scale.”

So far this year, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game has found a lot of fish, but most of the samples have been too small, and with roe percentages under 11 percent, making them hard to market abroad.

Kinney says that as seiners assess where the fishery stands, feelings are mixed.

“We want to go fish but the resource means a lot more to us than going out and fishing,” Kinney said. “Especially at an economic standpoint right now. We’ve been feeling lately, that waiting until we see larger fish is integral to us making that decision.”

The only fishing they’ve actually experienced so far is “test fishing.”

Each day, two or three seiners volunteer to explore different locations on ADF&G’s recommendation, catch 200-300 tons of fish and take a sample so they can determine how close they are to opening the fishery. Then they let those fish go.

But after a week of running test sets, remaining on two-hour notice, seiners decided to stop volunteering.

“We don’t want to say we are on strike. We have stood down until there’s a change in the distribution of fish or some kind of indication that we should  test those fish to see if there in some kind of marketable type,” said Chip Treinen.

Treinen is a seiner and the leader of the Sitka Herring Conservation Alliance, a group that represents the interests of commercial fishermen.

He said the decision to stand down happened at the March 22nd  meeting of the Sitka Herring Association.

Treinen didn’t specify what spurred the decision other than the marketability of the fish. He said while he thought processors would like to see seiners doing test fishing, he didn’t think they were completely opposed to the seiners’ decision to stop.

“I think the processors would like to see it but they’re also aware that we need a change before we can find a marketable product that we can really sell.”  

David Marifern of Icicle Seafoods in Petersburg, says that a large fishery in Canadian waters has harvested many smaller fish this year, taking up market space and driving the demand and price down. He said processors felt some of the fish caught in the test samples would be marketable but seiners weren’t happy with the price.

“The price we feel we can take in the market is just a little bit lower than what fishermen are requesting right now,” he said.

But Kinney said that restricting the test sets is a move to disturb the fish less.

“We want to make sure that we allow these fish to act freely. If at some point we reach a larger group of fish that’s sustainable for a fishery, I guess we’ll talk about that later. We’re looking at the biomass and how little of an impact we can have on it.”

Seiners have seen more pushback in the community this year about the impact the fishery has on the herring stocks. After failing to win support at the Board of Fish meetings last January, the Sitka Tribe of Alaska filed a lawsuit against the state calling for a stricter management plan for the fishery. A judge denied the Tribe’s motion for an injunction on the fishery in February, and STA petitioned the Alaska Supreme Court to overturn that decision. And the “Herring Rock Water Protectors” a group supporting STA’s efforts, have held numerous public demonstrations, including a sit-in at the ADF&G offices right before closing time, many saying the model ADF&G uses to determine the harvest level is flawed.

“I’ve had enough people tell us to ask nicely,” Louise Brady said during the Herring Rock Water Protectors demonstration at the ADF&G offices. “I think we’ve been asking nicely for 30 years. So we are going to continue to stand and we are going to continue to take action, because it’s time people listen.”

The Sitka Herring Conservation Alliance joined the suit as a third party in favor of the state. Treinen believes ADF&G’s assessment of the stocks is usually accurate, but thinks the public’s perception of seiners isn’t.

“I think there’s a perception amongst some that we’re a bunch of greedy pirates that are coming in here to plunder the resources, the precious resources, of the community,” he said. “We have a much longer perspective than that.”

Kinney says seiners are very invested in making sure the fish aren’t exploited, hence the decision to hold off on test fishing.

Both said that while the fish this year are small, there’s a promising class of 3-year-olds, and that leads them to be optimistic about the future of the fishery. Kinney said if people understood the care seiners took to protect not only the resource, but also their investment in their boats, crews, and families, he thinks the perception would shift.

“A lot of times people take it in a negative light,” Kinney said. “What they can’t see is what’s going on under the water. Although it may appear like we’re taking advantage of a resource, we’re barely scraping the surface of what’s truly out there.”

But they may not even scrape that surface this year. Some herring have started spawning, indicating that the window of opportunity for the sac roe fishery is beginning to close. And if seiners continue to refrain from test fishing, ADF&G may be unable to gather the data needed to open the fishery, regardless of how big the herring become.