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Spend any time on the water at all, and you quickly realize that herring truly are the lifeblood of the entire ocean ecosystem. Not only do they exist in nearly incalculable numbers at times, they also show up around Alaska's shores at the perfect moment of spring to mean the difference between life and death for many different creatures that have starved their way through the long hard winters.
If you consider a halibut a brick house, then herring are the bricks that it's mostly made of. Most of our salmon species grow fat eating them. Then there's the bears, the birds, the seals and the sea lions, and on and on. Everything depends on the herring in one fashion or another, especially the fisherman.
It was interesting to me to sit in on the discussions over various herring proposals at this spring's board of fisheries meeting, where different users groups presented many different points of view. Having no dog in the fight over any of the existing proposals directly, as there are no commercial herring fisheries anywhere near the community that I live in, I had the unique vantage point of being neutral. I heard good and bad points from all sides.
The only point I would make if I were the referee of a similar tug-of-war is this: Be careful you don't break the line, it happens to be our lifeline.
Some folks seemed to favor local historical knowledge, others seemed to favor scientific data. I have seen both proven to be right in the past, and I've also seen both be wrong.
So, who's right and who's wrong? It's hard to say, in my opinion, but I did make this observation. The sac-roe seine fishery is by far the biggest user group. This is where the work must be done if there is going to be any compromise. I respect my fellow commercial fishermen, and more so their right to make a living. I just have two humble thoughts on the matter.
First, when you're talking about a species that is so all-important as herring, I think all would be better off to err on the side of too little use rather than too much.
Having said that, my second point is, if I were a seiner I wouldn't want my yearly income to fall. But I question, does it have to? Herring roe is kind of a luxury item, isn't it? Like caviar? So when you boil it down to what a single serving of herring roe sells for, is there no room to get paid more for less fish, and make the same amount of money? Have all avenues on this been researched between catchers and processors?
It just seems to me that if you could help preserve the fish you're making your living on, you'd have a sound fishery in later years and you'd be money ahead.
The old excuse that higher prices will scare consumers away and they'll eat something cheaper than our product doesn't cut it with me. If you're into eating herring roe, what are you going to replace it with that's cheaper but tastes as good? Every other place on the planet is facing depleted stocks too, so there's not really anywhere to run off to.
I came away from this Board of Fisheries meeting with this as my single most important thought about all the issues I listened in on: It's time for Alaska's commercial fishermen, lodge owners and charter boat operators to recognize that we have it and they want it. Everywhere else is out of it, or very nearly.
The time has come for all of us to work together and take control of our resources, rather than continue to give it away while were busy bickering with each other.
A special thank you to all who made me feel welcome.
Casey Mapes is a Yakutat resident and lifelong commercial fisherman who serves as vice chairman of the Yakutat Fish & Game Advisory Committee. He recently spent a week at the Board of Fisheries meeting in Sitka as one of the delegates of his community.