The Sitka Fish and Game Advisory Committee has voted against supporting a proposal by the Sitka Tribe that would change the way the state sets the herring harvest rate each spring.  When it met on Thursday (11-4-21), Advisory Committee members were split over whether to back the plan, the first of three the Tribe is sending to the state Board of Fisheries in January.

Listen here to the story that aired on 11-8-21 or read the expanded version below

It’s the busy season for the Sitka Fish & Game Advisory Committee, which began weekly meetings in October. The group’s main role is to advise the Alaska Department of Fish and Game on allocation and harvest proposals up for adoption at the Alaska Board of Fisheries meeting in Ketchikan next January. 

When the committee met on Thursday (11-4-21) it decided against throwing its weight behind a herring proposal from the Sitka Tribe of Alaska, but the decision was not unanimous. Currently, Fish & Game calculates the commercial seine harvest based on a percentage of the total number of herring in the Sound. Proposal 156 would change that ratio.

Read all herring proposals to be considered by the Board of Fish next January

Moe Johnson, who holds the seine seat, said he believed there was room for a more conservative approach to how the commercial fishery is managed, but proposal 156 wasn’t it. 

“Even though I’m in the seine seat, I’m looking out for the health of the population of the herring, and I have to be truthful with what I see,” Johnson said. “And right now it looks really good for the future. And I think this proposal, at this time, is a little bit too conservative.”

Johnson said he’d prefer a proposal for an upper limit for permit holders, as in no matter how big the biomass, permit holders could only take a certain amount of tons. Eric Jordan, who represents commercial trollers said he’d support something like that and asked that they consider something at a future meeting.

Others, like Kent Barkau, who is a commercial fisherman and holds the hunting seat, thought being this “too conservative” with the fishery wasn’t a bad thing. 

“Sitka Sound, more so than the open ocean, is warming and acidifying. And we know that those two variables are going to have effects. We don’t know, maybe, what they are. But we know which direction they’re going, I mean, as far as warming and becoming more acidic,” Barkau said. “And I think it would be wise to allow for a bit more caution.”

Read KCAW’s 2020 interview with a researcher examining the effects of climate change on pacific herring

Four people spoke in favor of the proposal, during public comment including Matthew Jackson.  

“I would really ask that everyone present tonight consider the regional context of the Sitka Sound fishery as the last in Southeast Alaska that still provides occasional, occasionally sufficient subsistence harvests,” Jackson said. “I’m from Ketchikan originally, and they’re no longer, you can’t get subsistence eggs down there anymore.”  

Two spoke against the proposal, including seiner and Silver Bay Seafoods co-founder Troy Denkinger.

“You know, the state of Alaska, I think the proofs in the pudding for the last 40 years on, you know, the direction the stock and health of this stock, the direction its been heading,” Denkinger said. “I think, we’re at some of the largest biomass we’ve been seeing, recorded, you know, in the last 40 years in Sitka…so their management, what they’re doing is working.”

Ultimately the AC’s support for the proposal failed on a 5-7 vote.

Proposal 156 would reduce the minimum harvest rate for herring in the Sitka sac roe fishery from 12 percent to 10 percent, and would increase the forecasted mature biomass necessary in order to meet the maximum 20 percent harvest rate. STA fisheries biologist Kyle Rosendale said the proposal was slightly less conservative than a similar one the AC supported before the 2018 Board of Fish meeting. And he said it would make the formula to determine Sitka’s harvest levels more consistent with other herring fisheries in Southeast.

“The Sitka HCR, right now, it reaches a 20% harvest rate, at only 1.8 times the biomass. Every other Southeast herring population, it reaches the 20% harvest rate at six times the threshold,” Rosendale said. He continued that the aggressive formula, “implies that the productivity of Sitka is much greater than other Southeast Alaska herring populations. We don’t really have a good quantitative analysis to demonstrate that yet. So the reason that this harvest control rule is so much more aggressive is really unclear.”

Sitka Tribe sued the state over management of the fishery in 2018. The suit, which ultimately did not go to trial, alleged that the state’s management of the commercial fishery was not allowing a reasonable opportunity for subsistence.

When asked about whether subsistence needs were currently being met for harvesters, Rosendale said that subsistence needs were only met once out of the last 10 years. 

ADF&G’s position on the Sitka Tribe’s proposal was unclear at the meeting. Area fisheries management biologist Aaron Dupuis said staff comments on all of the proposals to the Board of Fish haven’t been published yet, but he says that information will be available before the January meeting. While Dupuis’ comments on the proposals were limited, he did estimate how it could affect the commercial fishery.

“And based on recent years, it is expected that the proposed GHL would be about 70% of those currently calculated with the current formula,” Dupuis said. “By reducing the commercial GHL, herring that would be unharvested by the commercial fishery may benefit other species as prey or user groups by an unknown extent. Under the proposed harvest rate strategy, the maximum harvest rate of 20% would only be realized if biomass estimates that are approximately 150% of the average unfished biomass, or the average biomass that would occur under no fishing. And this would make achieving the maximum harvest rate, a rare occurrence.”

In 2021, the fleet caught just under 16,000 tons of herring. It was the fourth biggest commercial harvest since the state began managing the fishery in the 1970s. Still, the fleet harvested less than half of the 33,000 ton guideline harvest level set by the state, due to limited processing capacity. In 2019 and 2020, the fishery never got off the ground, when the fish were too small and young to be marketable abroad. And while subsistence users have been reporting poor spawn quality for years, when asked by AC member Eric Jordan if there was a conservation issue with the size of the herring population in Sitka, both Dupuis and state fisheries biologist Sherri Dressel said there was not.

Proposal 156 is one of many herring proposals the Board of Fish will consider this year from different user groups. The Sitka Tribe of Alaska has also put forth two additional proposals involving quotas tied to population age, in an attempt to reduce the impact the fishery has on older herring. 

The Sitka AC has extended its discussion of herring proposals for the Board of Fish to Monday (11-8-21) at 6 p.m. and Wednesday at 6 p.m. — the meetings are being held remotely on Zoom, and are open to the public.

The Alaska Board of Fisheries meets January 4-15 in Ketchikan. 

For more information on Monday’s Sitka AC meeting including a Zoom link to attend, click here. For more information on Wednesday’s meeting, click here.