Over two days last month (March 10, 11) seventy people testified on herring, most on one side or the other of the six most-contested herring proposals. This note put an end to debate, and the Board of Fish moved on without voting. (BOF image)

One of the most important policy decisions taken by the Alaska Board of Fisheries at its Anchorage meeting last month, was taking no action on a slate of six competing proposals for herring management in Sitka: three from the Sitka Tribe, and three from commercial seiners. After over two days of testimony and committee work, the parties submitted a joint, one-sentence note withdrawing their respective proposals.

Listen to the story that aired on April 7 or read the print version below

The six herring proposals that were pulled from consideration were hotly debated by stakeholders in Sitka in the months leading up to the Board of Fisheries meeting. But just two days into the meeting, they were withdrawn. During public testimony on March 12, Steve Reifenstuhl with the Southeast Herring Conservation Alliance, which represents the interests of commercial seining fishermen, said the decision came after negotiations concluded the night before with the Sitka Tribe of Alaska (STA). 

“I would like to thank all the parties that worked so hard to come to an agreement on these proposals and would like to thank the board members that were involved late last night working on this same compromise,” said Reifenstuhl regarding the first of three proposals the Alliance withdrew. “It was a difficult task, but we all worked diligently, and we arrived at a consensus to withdraw this proposal.” 

Three proposals from STA would have changed the way the state sets the herring harvest rate and limited the harvest of older herring in the commercial fishery. The proposals from the seiners advocacy group would have required permitting subsistence harvesters, and allowed the reopening of some closed waters to seining.

Months earlier, the Sitka Fish and Game Advisory Committee discussed each proposal at length, took public testimony, and ultimately voted to support only one of the Tribe’s proposals.

“Given how long this has been going on, I’m really grateful and excited to see that there was an agreement made yesterday, and both parties are talking to each other,” Sitka AC chair Heather Bauscher told the Board of Fish.

“Based on the conversation that happened this morning, there’s many folks that have been involved in this for a long time that view that as a victory,” Bauscher said.

Nevertheless, the abrupt withdrawal of the six controversial proposals did not feel like a resolution to some. Sitka resident, Matthew Jackson, said he wished the Board had taken up the matter.

“I’m not a party to STA or the [Southeast] Herring Conservation Alliance, but I did want to state, for the record, that I think there would be value in having the board on the record for these, and not withdrawing them. I know I speak for plenty in the audience,” Jackson said. “There’s value in having the board taking a position on these on the record and deliberating on the pros and cons of these.” 

KCAW reached out to representatives from the Sitka Tribe of Alaska and the Southeast Herring Conservation Alliance for clarification on why the items were pulled and what was negotiated. In an email, STA General Manager Lisa Gassman said STA had no comment at this time. In an interview with KCAW, Chip Treinen of the Herring Conservation Alliance said some Board of Fish members had urged the alliance and the Tribe to negotiate. 

“Several members of the Board of Fish were really anxious to get us to agree on some kind of a way to move forward, so that they didn’t have to make a decision that would harm one group or another,” Treinen said. “And so they were asking us to negotiate a settlement in a way that would work for both of us.” 

Treinen said it was a difficult negotiation that happened over a couple of meetings. 

“In some ways, from our perspective, we would have loved to see ours pass, but we would not have appreciated the Sitka Tribe’s proposals passing,” Treinen said. “And so we made a calculated decision to withdraw our proposals in return for the Sitka Tribe withdrawing their proposals.”

But withdrawing the proposals doesn’t mean all is settled – far from it. While the state insists that the herring population in Sitka Sound has shown steady growth, subsistence harvesters have observed long-term trends in spawning patterns and the habitat that are of serious concern. 

Later on the day the proposals were withdrawn, subsistence advocate Louise Brady, who is a Tribal Council member but was speaking on behalf of the Herring Protectors, told reporters in Anchorage that she remained frustrated with the Board of Fish process. 

“I don’t think that the board is an effective forum because we are not a user group,” Brady said. “This has nothing to do with economics, it has to do with human rights. Right now, we don’t have access to a more appropriate venue. But we will. We will someday.” 

Brady signaled a new course for tribal subsistence advocates, who would continue to pursue change at the state level, but were prepared to go further. Brady said that stewardship of the herring is a human right – one that should be protected under the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

“We are not going to let the state of Alaska take our precious relatives from us. We want the herring in the water, that’s where they belong. Leave the herring in the water,” Brady said. “So we have two years, like we did in 1802. If they follow the cycle, we will go back, and we will strategize, and we will come back even stronger with even more knowledge. That’s what I’m thinking.”  

For now, Brady said she would direct her energy toward preparing for the Yaaw Koo.eex’ which happens on April 16 in Sitka.  

APM’s Anne Hillman contributed to this story.