Sealaska Heritage Institute Comments on the Increase of Commercial Sitka Sound Herring - P.O.W. Report

Thursday, December 26, 2019

Sealaska Heritage Institute Comments on the Increase of Commercial Sitka Sound Herring

On December 23rd, The Alaska Department of Fish and Game announced that the target for the 2020 Sitka Sound sac roe fishery season would be 25,824 tons. This is near double what was set for the 2019 season at 13,000 tons. [You may read the story here].

On Facebook Sealaska Heritage Institute made a comment and linked to a study on this issue;

We are almost at a loss for words over this turn of events. Despite the loss of herring runs across Southeast Alaska and the fear that the last stronghold of herring runs in Sitka Sound is now in peril because of the commercial over-harvest of herring roe, the State of Alaska just announced they will double the commercial harvest level for the Sitka Sound sac roe fishery next year.

We just published a study on the frightening state of herring populations in Southeast Alaska and the worry people have for herring, the species that depend on herring, and the pending demise of the ancient subsistence herring roe fishery in Sitka:

Our book, “The Distribution of Subsistence Herring Eggs from Sitka Sound, Alaska” by Tom Thornton, Ph.D., includes more than 50 interviews with Native people who have spent decades watching the decline of herring in Southeast Alaska.

LISTEN to some of the people on the front line of this issue:

“The feeling you [normally] get when herring season comes around, you’re just like a kid in Christmas and you can’t wait to be a part of it and watch the eagles, everything around and the whales and all the marine mammals … and now you go out there and … it’s desolate. It’s lifeless. The powers [that] be are lying to everyone about the health of the stock, they’re lying about the [amount of] spawn, you know, it’s just a big lie anymore and it’s disheartening.” —Wade Martin, Sitka (Hoonah)

“I remember, I had one of those long freezers … And I actually filled that thing up with one-gallon bags of herring eggs. And that winter, I went to a party in Angoon. I took 20 bags and fed everybody in that building. And I sent some to Hoonah you know. But I still had those bags in my freezer. But that’s how good it was then. Now, I got five quart-bags in my freezer. That’s it you know. And the sad thing about it is that, you’re going to wait for a special period to bring out that one quart and eat it. This is how bad it’s got; it’s not where you can reach in there in your freezer, grab a gallon bag out and have a feast every other week maybe, you know.” — George Bennett, Sr., Sitka (Hoonah)

“Unless the State of Alaska changes its management approach to the commercial herring fishery or establishes a moratorium on the commercial herring fishery, the ancient subsistence cultural tradition based on the harvest, distribution, and utilization of herring eggs will become extinct. We will see the demise of yet another Indigenous cultural practice. ... We can hope that this study will not be a record of a cultural tradition that has succumbed to poor fisheries management and a commercial harvest.” —Rosita Worl, SHI President

The Sitka Tribe of Alaska has filed a lawsuit against the state for its mismanagement of the herring fishery. We stand behind the Sitka Tribe of Alaska.

Excerpts from the Study:

The study, which was sponsored by Sealaska Heritage Institute (SHI) and led by Investigator Thomas Thornton, Ph.D., found that spawning populations of herring outside of Sitka Sound have been depleted by commercial reduction and sac roe fishing and that the role of Sitka herring as a keystone subsistence resource and foundation forage fish for salmon, sea mammals and other fish and wildlife in the marine food web should be a matter of public policy concern, review and reform. [...]

The Tlingit and Haida both have ancient oral histories on the origins of herring egg cultivation. At the Tlingit community of Sitka, herring eggs were said to have been first collected on the hair of a young woman as she lay sleeping upon Herring Rock (Yaaw Teiyí). Herring Rock was taken as a crest by the Kiks.ádi clan and names were given to commemorate the woman and the event (Yaaw Sháa, “Herring Woman,” or “Herring Maiden,” sometimes collectively applied as Yaaw Sháawu, “Herring Women,” or Kaxátjaa Sháa, “Flipping Girls”), names which continue to be passed on today. Herring are so important to the Tlingit that the species is depicted on sacred objects or at.óow, such as the Herring Rock Robe owned by the Kiks.ádi clan. [...]

Fishermen interviewed for the study who plied the waters of central and southern Southeast Alaska in the first half of the twentieth century recalled vividly when herring schools extended for miles and their feeding activities near the surface resonated like a mighty rain or wind, Thornton wrote. But such herring abundance has not been experienced since before Alaska statehood in 1959, the study said.

The industrial exploitation of herring began with the founding of the Killisnoo herring reduction plant in 1882 near Angoon. According to Dr. Walter Soboleff, who worked at the plant in the early 1920s and was in his 90s when Thornton interviewed him for a 2008 study, fishers supplying this plant targeted herring locally until supplies were diminished, at which point they moved down Chatham Strait and into areas of Frederick Sound.

In the late 1970s, a herring sac roe fishery was introduced to supply a growing Japanese market for kazunoko, herring roe that is marinated in dashi soy sauce seasoning. The fishery expanded in the 1980s and 1990s, and since that time, herring returns have been inconsistent and herring runs have declined or disappeared. [...]

For herring, the state uses a management approach called “maximum sustained yield,” meaning it allows for a certain number of fish to escape harvest to allow for the species to spawn. Through this regime, the goal is to allow for maximum sustained harvest of herring by people, rather than an abundance of the species. [...]

The study argues that in order to deliver its maximum benefits to humans and other critical species in the food chain, such as salmon, herring needs to be managed for abundance, not for maximizing commercial yields of whole herring that are stripped of their roe for Asian markets.

That point especially rankled people interviewed for the study, who said the subsistence herring roe fishery in Alaska is being depleted for the benefit of another country, as the commercial harvest goes primarily to consumers in Japan.

“It’s not even for our own use,” said Tammy Young of Sitka Tribe of Alaska. “It doesn’t make sense that we would overuse a resource for another country that doesn’t really know that this resource could go away. Otherwise they wouldn’t continually be utilizing it the way they are.” [...]

On December 11, 2018, the Sitka Tribe of Alaska filed a lawsuit against the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and the Alaska Board of Fisheries in Superior Court, charging them with unlawful conduct and requesting an injunction against ADF&G that would require them to develop a new management plan for the fishery. The injunction was denied in February 2019. The case is expected to go to trial in January 2020.

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