Kake elder Clarence Jackson says that when he was young, the seas near Sitka boiled with herring.
"The herring have disappeared in my lifetime," he told the House special committee on fisheries Tuesday.
Jackson and others told the lawmakers they believe Southeast's Pacific herring stocks are in trouble from past overfishing and present predation. And they don't believe the state is doing enough to help them recover.
Herring is an important element of Alaska Native subsistence. It's a bellwether species and a foundation of the ecosystem on which many other species depend. And it's a famously lucrative commercial fishery, in which a few boats can gross millions in minutes to an hour.
Thomas Thornton, an anthropologist at Oxford University, said that herring stocks were overfished in the first part of the 20th century. By the time Fish and Game started counting herring, they were already seriously depleted.
Scientist Vince Patrick from the Prince William Sound Science Center compared herring management to salmon. A primary impetus for Alaska's statehood was that locals wanted to control salmon fisheries depleted by outsiders. Now, the salmon fisheries are generally considered a success.
Depleted herring haven’t been as well managed, he said.
Evelyn Brown, a herring expert and former Fish and Game biologist, said Fish and Game's model of herring population is based on guesses - about how many fish there are, how fertile they are and how long they live, for example - that haven't been validated by field research. The model is the basis for the department's harvest limits.
Models always involve some guesswork, but Brown argued the department hasn't done enough field research to back up their estimates.
Meanwhile, the ecosystem is changing. Predators such as humpback whales are on the rise, and herring are shifting their movements.
Brown thinks they are at risk, and the department is not prepared.
"They're doing the best they can," she said. "But they do not have the tools to deal with this complexity."
Subsistence users such as Jackson and Mike Miller, a Sitka Tribe board member, said they felt their concerns fell on deaf ears at the department and the Board of Fisheries. Hence their visit with the Legislature.
The Legislature has no direct role in fisheries management, but it does fund Fish and Game.
But herring sac roe fisherman Chip Treinen said commercial fishermen shouldn't be blamed for any declines; they haven't fished depressed areas such as Lynn Canal for years.
He also questioned whether the herring stocks were really low.
"I think that there are herring," he said. "Often they're not seen very well."
Treinen warned against halting the sac roe fishery, which was worth about $18 million in ex-vessel value last year for 50 permit holders.
"I think you would lose that income. And what are you going to replace it with?" he said.
Fish and Game commercial fisheries director John Hilsinger said the herring fisheries are managed "conservatively."
"I wouldn't necessarily say it's perfect, but I think it is a pretty good program," he said.
He agreed there's a lot about herring that his biologists don't know. Why are they spawning in new places? Are those fish even the same stocks?
Hilsinger said he hasn't given Brown's new analysis a close enough look to critique it yet.
He also said the department was eager to work with outside scientists such as Brown and Patrick - if they were willing.
But he countered the claim of imminent doom. He said biologist-divers this year found the densest spawn deposits near Sitka that they've ever seen.
"The Sitka Sound herring stock is very healthy right now," he said.
The department has cut back in the past on herring programs, which is now about 4 percent of the $18 million spent on commercial fisheries, including out-of-state sources. A position was eliminated for a biologist who analyzed herring stocks from all over the state and coordinated with local biologists.
That would be valuable to have again, he said.
But Hilsinger also said he didn't know of any unfunded research needs in his herring programs.
Elder Jackson, for his part, did not believe any more studies were needed.
"Studies worry me" when they're used to delay, he said. "I want to see herring boiling some places now."
The issue could come up again today, when Fish and Game presents lawmakers with an overview of its budget requests.
• Contact reporter Kate Golden at 523-2276 or firstname.lastname@example.org.