We find it interesting that the National Marine Fisheries Service has recently considered listing the Lynn Canal herring stocks as threatened or endangered. In its approximately 75 years, NMFS' Juneau laboratory has conducted extensive research on herring populations throughout Southeast. In 1982, they witnessed how six years of a state-managed sac roe fishery depleted the herring stocks in Lynn Canal to a level which could no longer sustain the population of whales, sea lions and salmon that had thrived on it, causing its collapse.
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Why, after 25 years, is NMFS just now considering this listing? Is it really for the sake of the herring, depleted long ago and never able to recover - or is it to appease the Sierra Club, which, having shown no previous interest in the welfare of our herring stocks, now wishes to use them as a tool to halt development of a mine in this area?
Lynn Canal is not an isolated case of depleting these rich and oily fish that are so essential to several species of salmon and bottomfish, as well as most marine birds and mammals. It was once one of seven major herring spawns along with dozens of smaller spawning populations that painted Southeast's waters white each spring, keeping salmon and other predators fat and healthy.
Of thousands of square miles of Southeast waters, only Sitka Sound remains as a major herring spawning area. All other areas now host much smaller, severely depleted or nonexistent populations. Herring were once so abundant that from 1900 to 1960, more than 60 herring reduction plants operated year-round throughout Southeast, employing more than 2,000 people. The bays were so full of herring that bait herring were seined in the boat harbors and in front of the cold storage docks.
In 1976, the sac roe fishery began in earnest, with Japanese buyers paying more than $2,000 per ton just to get the eggs. In a few short years, local residents began seeing a significant decline in Southeast herring populations. As local pilots, sport and commercial fisherman and other residents watched the herring biomass wither, Alaska Department of Fish and Game biologists with bachelor degrees denied there was anything wrong with the way they managed the fishery. Instead, they claimed that in each case the herring "must have moved." Biologists failed to factor into their equations the steady increase in the whale population following the implementation of the National Marine Mammal Protection Act in 1972.
We are now witnessing significantly larger humpback whale populations, which prefer to feed on herring and can consume as much as 3 tons per day per whale, putting enormous pressure on what remains of Southeast's dwindling herring stocks, making it impossible for depleted stocks to rebuild to any extent.
The depletion of herring stocks can be attributed to at least two factors. One is a broken system of management. Fish and Game makes recommendations to the Board of Fish, but all final decisions are directed by the seven-member appointed board, the majority of who are involved in the fishing industry. Every proposal submitted to the public relating to herring conservation since 1993 has been rejected. At times, four of the seven board members have been herring permit holders. The "fox has been guarding the hen house" for far too long.
Secondly, federal biologists lacked adequate long-range planning while drafting the marine mammal protection act. They did not factor in the huge impact on available food resources from the resulting population explosion of several species of marine mammals.
Unfortunately, as things stand, the cycle will probably have to run its course, culminating in the starvation of large numbers of herring predators, including humpback whales. Meanwhile, be prepared to continue seeing smaller runs of smaller fish as hatcheries continue to release millions of salmon fry into waters that once teemed with herring but are now "plowed fields."
With the popularity for herring roe in Japan dwindling, and the prices paid to fishermen only a fraction of what was once a very lucrative market, aren't herring really worth more to all of us if left in the water?
Andy Rauwolf and co-writers John Harrington and Laurence "Snapper" Carson are members of the Ketchikan Herring Action Group.