Archaeological records and cultural memory indicate that in addition to being more abundant in Southeast Alaska, herring spawning locations were once more consistent.
Though the Alaska Department of Fish and Game says its data don’t support either conclusion, a new program at the Sealaska Heritage Institute intends to restore herring to areas where they proliferated.
David Harris, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s Juneau-area management biologist, said herring aren’t anywhere near as predictable as salmon; their spawning location can shift over time.
“For some reason they’ll sort of shift their focus of spawning,” he said. “(For Lynn Canal) at one time, it was more in the Auke Bay area. Now, it’s more in Point Bridget, in Berners Bay.”
Scientists know approximately when and approximately where herring will spawn, but it changes every year, Harris said.
Contrary to current trends, the archeological record indicates herring spawned in the same locations more consistently than they do now, according to a 2013 paper authored by the lead archaeologist studying Alaska’s herring, Madonna Moss, and other researchers.
“Over the period represented well by the archaeological record (2,500 to 200 years before the present day) Pacific herring populations also appear to have exhibited higher abundance and greater consistency in their distribution than is indicated by the dynamics of industrially harvested populations over the past 50-100 (years),” the paper says.
Given current variability, that’s a difficult thing to envision for some.
“It’s hard for me to grasp that there was some sort of consistency to a specific spawning location for a great length of time,” said Sitka-area management biologist Dave Gordon. “The ecosystem 2,500 to 10,000 years ago is a bit of an unknown, as well. Things may have been very different back then.”
Gordon said Fish and Game monitors large spawning events, but there are many spot spawns and smaller spawning events it is unable to monitor.
“It’s certainly substantial, and probably the total could add up to quite a bit of herring,” he said. “It would be a difficult thing to adequately assess the entire Southeast spawning event. It’s too much territory, and it’s too much money.”
Partly because of that, some scientists don’t think recent egg deposition at Auke Bay, around Fishermen’s Bend, is exciting news. They say “spot spawning” — isolated pockets of spawn — happen every year.
“We get periodic reports in Auke Bay of fish spawning on the pilings in June,” Harris said. “There’s little spawns all over the place that will occur.”
Just the same, Harris and Gordon say they see balls of herring in most bays they fly over.
Lynn Canal is still far from an open commercial fishery, Harris said.
Last year, the spawning biomass was above the threshold for a fishery, but that doesn’t mean the projected population would be enough to merit one, he said. (This year, the spawning biomass was below that threshold.)
“We want to see some number of years of strong return before we contemplate a fishery,” he said.
Herring revitalization and reintroduction
Chuck Smythe, the director of Sealaska Heritage Institute’s culture and history department, is spearheading an effort to reintroduce herring to areas they historically spawned, but no longer do.
“We’re primarily finding that herring is kind of in a depressed state,” Smythe said. “There used to be many more herring than there are today.”
The project, “Development of a pilot herring restoration plan using local and traditional knowledge,” started this January. Smythe said the organization hopes to use it as a springboard for a more substantial effort.
The program provides spawning structure, such as hemlock branches, in places that used to be abundant in herring. It also sometimes relocates fertilized eggs to places that historically had spawn, but no longer do, he said. Along the coast, many places named for the fish — Teesoshum (milky waters from herring spawn), Yaaw Teiyi (herring rock); and Shaan Daa (White Island, so named for its spring spawning activity) — no longer have them, as Moss points out.
Citing unpublished data from researchers including Moss, the authors of “High Potential for Using DNA from Ancient Herring Bones to Inform Modern Fisheries Management and Conservation” write, “Coastal First Nations report that herring consistently returned to the same bays to spawn every year and the archaeological record demonstrates consistency in spawning locations through the millennia.”
Over the course of the program, SHI hopes to develop monitoring factors related to spawning success, like water conditions, that might be replicable, Smythe said.
Right now their efforts focus on Sitka, but like the herring, it’s too early to tell where they will show up.