A test set of herring is prepped for sampling by state biologists. ADF&G has guidelines for herring size and roe maturity, but ultimately the market plays a major role in whether the commercial harvest takes place. (KCAW File Photo)

As the summer fishing season gets underway in Sitka, the memory of this spring’s herring fishery grows a bit more distant, but the effects ripple on. What caused the sac roe fishery to fail is debated by many, but there’s no question that the absence of a commercial season had an impact on management, the economy, and subsistence.

Looking at a chart that measures the catch for the Sitka Sound Sac Roe Herring Fishery for over the past three decades, the harvest peaks in 2009, and then begins to decrease for the next decade. And on future charts, 2019 will be blank. Not a fish was caught. 

Some seiners said conservation was the driving factor in the decision to not fish. Some processors felt the fish would be marketable, but with small herring from a fishery in Canadian waters flooding the market, the price seiners called for was too high.

And ADF&G biologist Eric Coonradt says the state could have opened the fishery, too. He observed many schools of fish, but they were too young and small. 

“We could have opened the fishery, pretty much any time after two hour notice,” he says. “It’s just that those fish didn’t meet with the market demands.”

And others, like subsistence harvester Tom Gamble, say holding off was the right call.  

“The current decision to not fish this year by the fishermen was the wisest choice I have ever heard on the record in all of my lifetime,” says Gamble.  

WHY the fishery flopped is still contested, but critics say that this year should be a sign that something needs to change. Gamble says he has anticipated this for years and it’s all due to poor management of the fishery.  

“It’s the same exact thing I’ve been saying. In 2017 I stood before (ADF&G biometrician) Sherri Dressel and their whole entire crowd and I challenged their management strategy,” he says. “I said if you continue to fish you’re going to impact those returning stocks.” 

And Peter Bradley of the Herring Rock Water Protectors thinks the model is flawed. 

“When I say that their old data isn’t consistent year to year, I’m not saying that they should figure out one thing to do and do it for the next 50 years, too,” he says. “They need to be iterative and adaptive and experimental but they need to find ways to be open to the mysteries of the ocean and how to respond.”

Bradley says the department needs to do a better job accounting for various risks to the fishery. He points to Fish & Game’s response after the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill and the subsequent collapse of the Prince William Sound herring fishery a few years later.

“The risks are different, but we don’t really know what happens to herring when they run into the blob, ocean acidification, tons of hungry whales,” Bradley says. “The risk management is simply not there.”

Sitka Tribe of Alaska is pushing ADF&G to change the model too. Representatives from STA declined an interview with KCAW due to pending litigation. Their case against the state is set to go to trial in January of 2020. 

In years past, ADF&G has stood by their intensive model and data collection, and this year is no different. 

“We’re looking at similar programs we’ve had in play for quite a while,” says Coonradt. While the fish were small this year, he says there were a lot of them and a lot of spawn.

“We mapped 55.8 nautical miles of spawn,” he says. “Generally the spawn was very thick, very wide. Not quite as thick or wide as it was in 2018 but the length of spawn was a little over 20 miles longer.” 

Map of herring spawn measured by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game via aerial and vessel surveys in 2019- most concentrated along the shores of Kruzof Island. In a May press release, the department noted the lack of spawn on islands near Sitka in 2018 and 2019 is historically unusual (Photo/ADF&G)

But this fall they’re looking at making at least one change before they determine next year’s forecast.  

“The model gets looked at every year, there’s improvements,” says Coonradt. “They’re looking at a new format for the model, and we’re supposed to discuss that sometime this fall.” 

Whether the fishery is struggling because of management, environmental factors, or something else entirely, there’s no question that the absence of a fishery had a financial impact on Sitka. 

In 2017, six of the roughly 50 permit holders were Sitka boats — but those boats did pretty well. According to data collected by economists at The McDowell Group, that year Sitka permit holders took in $368,000, and the fishery made just over $4 million ($4,275,959 ex vessel value, which is adjusted, post season) with gross earnings topping $3 million. From 2009-2017 the fishery generated just under $6 million dollars in revenue on average annually. That average drops when 2018 is included- according to preliminary data from McDowell, the fishery generated just over $1 million that year ($1,006,556 ex vessel value)- a nine year low.

McDowell estimates that the local share of fisheries business tax revenue from herring averages around $90,000, depending on the harvest. And that doesn’t begin to account for the impact on processors or the uptick in local business during the fishery, or the amount of energy used to process the fish, which is seen in a boost in usage and fees for Sitka’s electric utility. 

Biologist Coonradt says the data points toward a similar season in 2020 — a lot of three- and four-year old herring in Sitka Sound. While this is good news  for future returns, for next year it means a season again dominated by small fish. 

“If the markets remain the same, then we’ll be in a very similar situation that we were in this year,” he says.  

A situation that — at least on the surface — could benefit the subsistence fishery. But that’s not certain, either. Gamble says the fish were smaller this year, and farther from town than usual. He believes that the unexpected break in the commercial fishery is a chance to look for a creative solution to the problem Sitka Sound herring: How to have a commercially viable fishery without undermining the health of the stock, or the people and ecosystem that depends on it. 

A size comparison of herring from this year’s subsistence fishery (Photo provided by Tom Gamble)

“I truly believe that we have to at least have a moratorium and establish something that allows for a rebound every other year,” says Gamble. “I don’t think there’s enough fish out there to sustain 52 permits and 100 processors. Perhaps what the federal government and the state of Alaska should consider is a disaster relief program that allows for those fishermen, at least half of the permit holders, to be compensated.” 

Gamble says it was quieter on the water this year — with no spotter planes circling overhead. And he noted another change: With no high-intensity seining to supervise, Gamble says that state wildlife troopers took to “eyeballing” the subsistence fleet on their patrols. He wasn’t excited about the increased scrutiny. 

“It was a total management shift.” he says.