Committee hears lengthy testimony about herring

Support for protection strong, but concerns persist about burdens of endangered status

Posted: Thursday, November 08, 2007

Many people want to protect and restore Lynn Canal herring numbers, but there's some concern about the burdens of listing the fish as endangered, a public hearing indicated Wednesday night.

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The hearing was one of the first on the herring issue since news came in September that the National Marine Fisheries Service is studying whether to list the fish under the Endangered Species Act, a move that came as a result of a Sierra Club petition filed in April.

The Juneau Douglas Fish and Game Advisory Committee heard about three hours of testimony from about a dozen members of the public in a room of about 50 people gathered Wednesday at Centennial Hall.

Many noted that within their lifetimes in Juneau, people could pull buckets full of herring from the beach as they spawned in Auke Bay.

Dean Williams, 90, said he has seen the decline with his own eyes from his cabin on Lena Point.

"There's no question in my mind that the herring situation as we have it has gone down ... just visibly in watching what's going on. It's very much impressed in our minds something has to take place to turn this around," said Williams, who has lived in Juneau all his life.

Longtime Native leader and Goldbelt board member Bob Loescher said he does not support an endangered listing, but hopes the state will study the matter because herring "are the basis for everything in Alaska."

"The worse thing we can have is some kind of a cloud that would be created by a public initiative that would restrain or restrict or hold back any lawful developments. I don't think we need that for our community. We need to find a clear balance between the conservation needs and what we need for our community," Loescher said.

Kevin Hood, the Sierra Club's spokesman on the herring issue, told the committee that endangered species do not always bring burdensome restrictions. He said Benjamin Island is listed as protected habitat for sea lions, but that hasn't affected boat activity in the area that much.

"One thing I would encourage people to do is not just try to run with this as far as your fears will take you. It's a very science-based process, and the only ramifications have to be based on science that shows what's best for the herring," Hood said.

The petition lists proposed developments in Berners Bay as possible threats to the fish.

Kathy Hansen, the committee's chairwoman, said Hood seemed to expect that a herring listing might have an effect on those projects being able to move forward.

"That's not my intention, so I'd like to clarify that. ... There are serious proposed developments that would occur in what's become the compressed spawning grounds, and that does add the exclamation point to our concern. But if there was some kind of listing, ... there might be certain provisions (required) to ensure this stock doesn't go extinct. It doesn't mean you can't do things," Hood said.

Many, including Phillip Gray and Steve Behnke, wondered why nothing has been done on the declining herring numbers until now.

"I would like to view you, the local Fish and Game advisory committee, as a advocate for fish and wildlife stocks," Behnke said. "The corporations that benefit from building roads are going to do a good job of looking out for their own interests, but you are one of the few groups around that have a specific job of looking out for the fish and wildlife populations and I would like to encourage you to do that."

Jev Shelton was staunchly opposed to an endangered listing, saying that in the rest of the country such listings have resulted in "serious violations of common sense." He also pushed for more studies of herring.

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