STA employees sorted and weighed a 700 pound truckload of herring eggs on hemlock branches to distribute to Sitka elders. (KCAW photo / Enrique Pérez de la Rosa)
Tribal elder Harvey Kitka told the Alaska Board of Fisheries that it takes about three days of spawning to coat hemlock branches with a desirable amount of roe — “about 5/8 to 3/4 inches thick,” he said. Subsistence advocates say that the herring biomass — albeit large — doesn’t spawn reliably anymore in areas accessible to most local harvesters, and the window of opportunity often closes quickly. (KCAW photo / Enrique Pérez de la Rosa)

Public testimony during Day 2 of the Alaska Board of Fisheries meeting drew attention to the fundamental problem with herring management in Sitka: How do you reconcile a science-based approach toward commercial fishing, with an unscientific – yet very well understood, and very old – subsistence tradition?

Note: The Alaska Board of Fisheries is expected to deliberate this weekend on over a dozen proposals for herring management in Sitka.

Sitka Sound is home to the largest herring biomass remaining in Southeast Alaska, and recently, the state has calculated that biomass this spring to be the largest on record.

Those records really don’t go back very far, however, only to the 1970s. And subsistence harvesters, who lay hemlock branches in shallow waters near Sitka each spring in the hope that they’ll be coated with a thick layer of eggs, say this large biomass of herring has been forced into less accessible areas under pressure from the commercial seine fleet.

Biologist Kyle Rosendale works for the Sitka Tribe of Alaska. He explained to the board how you can have a high abundance of herring, but a poor subsistence harvest in Sitka Sound.

“We are talking a lot about biomass, because that’s our only actionable metric at this time in this fishery,” said Rosendale. “But I think there’s a lot more nuance with some of the spatial data that ADFG has been collecting over time that show we’ve sort of had this contraction in the duration of spawn, and sort of this westward migration in the spawn. It’s really hard for folks to make sure they have places where there are three consecutive days of spawn to harvest that good quality and quantity of eggs. And this is particularly true for folks in smaller skiffs. There’s a very, very small window that people can obtain a good quality harvest in some years, not all years, but in some years.”

A number of Sitka’s tribal citizens traveled to the Anchorage meeting to press the point, that despite the high abundance of herring, the subsistence fishery was failing. Pete Karras, Jr. drew an analogy for the board.

“Well, when I was being carried in my mother’s womb, I was eating herring eggs,” he testified. “So it’s been in our culture for many years. And it is our right, it is our way of life. And I think if the tables were turned, and you had your refrigerators, your freezers, your food cabinets locked, and you could not get into them unless I said that you could. That is what you are doing. And it is just unacceptable.”

Karras also thought that state management was pushing herring stocks dangerously close to collapse. The reason Sitka herring are so prized is because stocks elsewhere in the region have been depleted – some while being managed by the state.

“And if your eyes are closed, open them because it doesn’t take rocket science to figure this out,” Karras continued. “If you put this problem between 9- and 10-year old children, and you ask them the same questions that we’re asking each other today, they would say, ‘Stop fishing.'”

Imposing a moratorium on the commercial herring fishery is not a radical idea. The Alaska Native Sisterhood, in fact, passed a resolution urging the state to do exactly that. Daphyne Albee, ANS Grand President, reminded the board of her organization’s position.

“The Sitka Sound herring stock one of the last within the state of Alaska that provides a viable cultural food harvest of herring eggs for indigenous people that is shared throughout Alaska and lower 48 communities that we represent,” Albee said. “According to ADF&G, the amount of necessary egg harvest for the Indigenous peoples has not been met for nine out of the last 10 years.”

But a moratorium on commercial fishing would shut down a multi-million dollar harvest, and create an economic ripple effect beginning with the 47 active permit holders in the fishery, and extending to the tenders, processors, and to the communities which support them.

Julianne Curry is a second-generation herring seiner from Petersburg, who’s been active in commercial fishing advocacy her entire life. She cautioned the board against rash decisions.

“I’m a subsistence and a personal use harvester and my business is fully dependent on sustainable fisheries management,” Curry said. “I’m proud of my fishing heritage and my way of life. And I’m even more proud of Alaska’s reputation of having the best managed fisheries in the world. I’ve been an advocate in the regulatory process for sustainable commercial fisheries since 2006. And I’ve spent a lot of time working on hearing issues and past Board of Fish cycles. In that time, and as my time as a harvester, I’ve learned that one thing is true. Biomass always fluctuates. Ups and downs don’t signify a stock collapse, or a collapse of the resource. And we can’t manage fisheries based on a strictly on a ‘what if?’ scenario.”

The board may have found valuable insight from some of Sitka’s tribal elders, who carry a memory of herring far beyond the beginning of state management – and even beyond statehood. In territorial days, herring reduction plants were common throughout Southeast Alaska. Consequently, the state government inherited a herring population that had been driven into serious decline.

Harvey Kitka told the board that basing today’s high abundance on a baseline set in the 1970s created a false impression that Sitka herring were thriving.

“Oh, in the 70s, using that as a baseline — that was a far cry from what it was back when we first became a state,” Kitka said. “When we first became a state, we were still able to harvest eggs almost anywhere in Sitka Sound because the whole Sound turned white (with milt from spawning herring). And therewere a lot of places where we had our own private places to set branches. Now we’re competing for the tiny spot (aka the “core area”). And sometimes it’s really hard to get the quality eggs  that we need. There’s so much that we we’ve been competing for eggs over the years.”

Kitka’s testimony resonated with at least one Board of Fish member John Wood, of Willow.

“Mr. Kitka hits something that was on my mind not only in relationship to the herring industry, but also to salmon throughout the regions,” Wood said, “and that is what I call shifting baselines. Because when I came on the board, I was under the impression that part of our responsibility was to restore stocks to their historical levels. And you hit on that today. You, sir, are a treasure, in that you go back to actual active harvesting, back to a time before statehood.”

Kitka stayed at the testimony table for 15 minutes, answering board member’s detailed questions about subsistence practices in Sitka, how many days branches are left in the water, how thick a coating of eggs was desirable.

When asked what he would recommend to solve the problem in Sitka, Kitka replied, “Fish conservatively.”