Southeast Alaska’s Pacific herring populations seem to be on the rebound, but even in fisheries regarded as healthy, some contend herring are significantly depleted from historical levels indicated by archaeological records and cultural memory.
Herring have long been used by Tlingit, Haida and other Native peoples, who harvested eggs on kelp or hemlock branches hung in the water during a spawn, or gathered the fish themselves for meat, oil and bait.
The commercial fishery wasn’t managed like it is today until industrial fishing had been underway for decades.
Sitka and other Southeast communities still have some more abundant populations and lucrative, active commercial fisheries, as well as subsistence harvest. While the Alaska Department of Fish and Game says its management is conservative and points to increases in herring populations over the past decades, some say the area hosts far fewer herring than it once did.
Archaeological records indicate greater abundance
Madonna Moss, the lead archeologist studying Alaska’s herring, is doing research that spans the northwest coast. Herring, she said at a presentation this spring at the Sealaska Heritage Institute, were once “much more widespread geographically than is indicated by the commercial fishery today.”
“While modern herring populations can be erratic and exhibit catastrophic declines, the archaeological record indicates a pattern of consistent abundance, providing an example of long-term sustainability and resilience in a fishery known for its modern variability,” she and other authors wrote in a 2013 paper.
That paper used data from 171 historical sites in Alaska, British Columbia and Washington. The oldest site goes back 10,000 years, though most date within the last 2,500 years.
Over years of research, Moss has used an extremely fine-meshed screen to sift historic sites for herring bones.
Herring remains are the most common fish remains in more than half the 171 sites in the paper, and the second most common in a quarter of them. The bones also showed up in 99 percent of the sites.
The best explanation for the difference between the ancient and more recent past is industrial harvesting over the past century, the paper’s authors say.
“We can’t translate numbers of bones in archaeological sites to economic importance, but we can say they were important, ubiquitous and geographically widespread,” Moss said at that spring talk.
Moss hopes her research can be used to inform and adjust fishing policy, but Alaska Department of Fish and Game scientists have said that would be difficult.
ADF&G Juneau area management biologist David Harris said the department would have a hard time turning oral histories and archaeological records into a management tool.
“As managers, we try to be as aware as we can of historical perspectives,” he said. “But you can’t quantify that, and we can’t work it into our scientific models that we use to model the population dynamics.”
Historical catch records aren’t comparable to those today.
“We don’t have records way back, so it’s really hard to say how the abundance now compares to what it was hundreds of years ago or beyond,” said ADF&G Southeast regional herring research supervisor Kyle Hebert. “It’s just really hard to comment on.”
During the reduction fishery, (when herring were harvested for their high oil content), fishermen caught juveniles as well as adults, and the number of fish caught doesn’t differentiate between the two, Hebert said.
Sitka-area commercial fishing management biologist Dave Gordon said if herring populations are depleted from historical levels, he would expect a corresponding drop in the number of predators: whales, sea lions and salmon.
More herring may not necessarily be better, he said; all species have a complex interplay.
“A large biomass of any one species is going to obviously impact other species,” he said. “There is that other side of the equation … it’s an extremely complex thing. There’s never a true equilibrium out there in the natural world.”
Sitka Tribe of Alaska
The Sitka Tribe of Alaska has been vocal in its advocacy of more conservative management of the commercial fishery. Many Native people say they remember when herring were much, much more abundant.
ADF&G sets the harvest at between 10 and 20 percent of the spawning biomass, a number they say is conservative for a fish like herring.
“Overall, we’ve been advocating for more conservative management in Sitka Sound, Southeast Alaska and the rest of Alaska,” Jeff Feldpausch, resource protection director for the Sitka Tribe of Alaska, said.
The tribe, which represents more than 4,000 people of Tlingit, Haida, Aleut and Tsimshian heritage, believes herring harvests quotas are too high. Feldpausch also said it’s been getting more difficult to meet subsistence needs.
“What people are seeing out in ocean is contradictory to what the Alaska Department of Fish and Game is saying about (the) health of stock,” he said.
Feldpausch also makes an economic argument: “On average, worldwide forage fish, such as herring, are worth twice as much left in the water to support other fisheries as they are in direct fisheries,” he said.
Feldpausch said some herring, left over after the harvest of their egg sacs, may be turned into fish meal. Fish meal can be used for livestock and aquaculture feed.
“It’s a little frustrating to see the fact that herring are taken out of our waters and very likely turned into fish meal, potentially feeding farmed salmon,” he said. “All in all we’re advocating for more conservative management … we think herring are worth more feeding the ecosystem than they are feeding farmed salmon. We think we need to do a better job, a more conservative job of managing the resource.”
Sitka resident Paulette Moreno, who called for the Sitka Sound sac roe fishery to be closed at Moss’s spring talk, said “enough is enough.”
“What do we have to lose but everything?” she said.
Andrew Roberts, 64, is a member of the Sitka Tribe of Alaska. He was born and raised in Sitka. He also came to Moss’s spring talk on herring.
“In my generation, I have seen the drastic decline of herring in Sitka Sound,” he said. “They’re one tenth of what they were 50 years ago. They were so thick you could walk on water with nothing but herring.”
Aerial surveys, Hebert said, indicate occasionally low levels of spawning biomass in the 1960s and 1970s in Sitka.
“I think the department has been a little puzzled at times when we hear there was such a large biomass of herring back in those years, because the data don’t seem to support that,” Hebert said.
“We keep being told that stocks are fine, the stocks are healthy, but they’re not what they used to be pre-reduction (commercial herring reduction plants, which harvested oil) in the 1930s,” Feldpausch said. “If you weren’t removing those fish from the ocean … just think what those stocks would look like.”
ADF&G regulates the spawn-on-kelp fishery in four areas in Southeast Alaska — around Craig, Ernest Sound (near Petersburg), Hoonah Sound (near Sitka) and, depending on opportunity, near Tenakee.
In the spawn-on-kelp fishery, fishermen capture herring, create a floating net pen, and hang blades of kelp for the fish to spawn on. They’re allowed to hold the fish for six days, then release the fish and harvest the eggs deposited on the kelp.
The sac roe fishery catches “balls” of herring (they travel in tightly packed schools) in seine or gillnets and removes the eggs while they are still in their membrane sac. It sells primarily to the lucrative Japanese market; Japan has been buying Alaska sac roe since its own stocks crashed in the 1970s.
The fishery occurs in six places in Southeast Alaska: Seymour Canal, Revilla Channel, Lynn Canal, Sitka Sound, Hobart/Houghton and West Behm Canal.
There is also a winter herring fishery, in which the fish are caught primarily for use as bait.
Though the sac roe market is waning — younger Japanese don’t eat it as often as older Japanese — it’s still an important fishery for the around 50 permit holders in Sitka Sound, and for those in other areas. This year, Sitka’s sac roe fishery harvested 16,976 tons of herring.
Steve Reifenstuhl, Executive Director of the Southeast Herring Conservation Alliance, which represents herring fishermen, expressed exasperation with the Sitka Tribe’s position and with the idea of using archaeological data about abundance to inform policy.
Reifenstuhl said herring abundance in Sitka Sound has increased 20-fold since the 1970s, when the Alaska Department of Fish and Game began managing it, from around 5,000 tons to between 80,000 and 90,000 tons.
“You can look at dozens … of species in the archaeological and geological record, and they can have different populations, but there’s no way you can manage it based on what the historical record was,” Reifenstuhl said.
The archaeologists have a term for this sentiment: “shifting baseline syndrome.” In this syndrome, they say, “a degraded sea comes to be seen as normal.”
Reifenstuhl said the archaeological record “doesn’t really matter.”
“We’ve got to manage based on what is currently there, not what happened 100 years ago, or 1,000 years ago,” he said. “You could say the same thing about humans. There were a lot less 10,000 years ago … It’s not reality in terms of what we can do in today’s age.”
Some areas, such as Lynn Canal, and Prince William Sound, are still depressed, even from modern-day levels. Whale predation also has an impact; while whales are not to blame for localized herring populations’ decline, they may be keeping depleted stocks down, some scientists say.
Unlike salmon, sometimes herring spawning populations move to a new location. Cultural memory, say some, indicates this was not always the case.