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Sitka's wild-and-crazy herring fishing rodeo facing some harsh realities

Brendan Jones
Seine boats participating in Sitka's herring sac roe fishery. Brendan Jones

Just as daffodils and groundhogs, cherry trees and robins announce the arrival of spring elsewhere, so the sac roe herring fishery spells the end of winter here in Sitka, Alaska. Seine boats with names like Storm Chaser, Perseverance, Leading Lady, Defiant and Invincible begin to appear on our island from points north and south, often rafting to my tugboat here in Eliason Harbor. The herring fleet holds its collective breath -- generally in the smoky air of the Pioneer Bar -- awaiting the green light from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game to begin fishing.

It's difficult to argue against the romanticism of the current fishery, which speaks directly to the spirit of Alaskan individualism. Boats engage in strategic gamesmanship in an effort to take "high catch" of the day. Along with being an engaging spectacle, the fishery brings more than a million dollars to Sitka's economy -- damaged significantly when its pulp mill closed in 1992 -- "taking the town out of the darkness of winter," as Brandon Ihde, a crew-member on the Star Shadow, and native of Sitka, poetically summed it up to me the other day.

But is the fishery sustainable?

Last year, Fish and Game announced that just under 29,000 tons of herring would be available to permit holders for the 2012 fishery, by far the largest quota in the history of Sitka's sac roe fishery. Consider that in 1976, when the fishery began, the quota in Sitka was 780 tons.

To protest the outsized number, the Sitka Tribe of Alaska, which represents the Tlingit native community and subsistence rights in Sitka, created the Southeast Alaska Herring Preservation Alliance, and called an emergency "Herring Summit." Trollers and longliners testified on the decline in abundance and weight of king salmon and halibut -- staple Alaska fish that depend on herring for food. Absurdly, Alaska is the only state on the west coast that does not classify herring as a "forage fish," thus denying it protection under the Forage Fish Management Plan.

Last March, as the fishery went ahead, boats were able to net only 13,231 tons, falling gravely short of the allotted quota. Even among the seiners -- crew and captain were forced to cut across my stern deck on the way to the P-Bar -- there were grumblings that we were in danger of fishing out the area. A few boats left town before the fishery closed, the captains explaining that they did not want to deplete the resource for 2013. Last year the Kenai king salmon fishery crashed, and trollers here in Sitka saw a dismal return of king and silver salmon. Many pointed to starvation as a possible cause – simply not enough herring. Trollers in Ketchikan have gone so far as to create the Ketchikan Area Herring Action Committee, to protest the fishery.

This March, Fish and Game chopped the quota to 11,549 tons, a 60 percent cutback from last year, and representing 15 percent of the entire biomass of herring in Sitka Sound. This is a step in the right direction. But is it enough? Sitka Tribe of Alaska has pressed for a more conservative approach, taking only 10 percent of the biomass.

The world does not have a stellar track record when it comes to conservation of natural resources -- be it fur, coal, oil, diamonds or trees. Nevertheless, under leadership of folks like Dave Gordon, an area state biologist in Sitka, has earned a reputation of maintaining a stable marine ecosystem. Why put this reputation at risk by endangering one of the central building blocks of the entire fishery?

Fish and Game should take seriously the risk that overfishing could bring the collapse of the Sitka Sound sac roe fishery. In 1976, there were seven major spawning areas in Southeast Alaska, along with a number of smaller ones. Starting in the 1980s, there have been collapses in West Behm Canal, Lynn Canal, Auke Bay, Kasaan Bay, Zimonia Strait, Duncan Canal, and others. Today, there are only two major spawning grounds left in Southeast -- one off Prince of Wales Island, and the other in Sitka Sound.

The collapse of herring fisheries has followed a worldwide trend. Stocks of the fish, critical for the survival of larger ocean species, have been depleted in Japan, Norway, the Grande Banks of Nova Scotia, Norway and East England. After Washington State's herring stocks in Puget Sound crashed, British Columbia and Southeast Alaska are among the last remaining major spawning grounds open to fishing in the world.

Tlingit elders speak of days when Sitka Sound boiled silver with herring as far as the eye could see. Oral histories describe catching the fish with rakes, and filling canoes. From the turn of the 20th century until the early 1960s, millions of tons of the fish were taken in the reduction fishery, causing a crash. The factories were closed, and herring stocks rebuilt themselves -- until 1976.

The openings themselves are dramatic: Fish and Game puts the 48 permit holders on two-hour notice, and tenders and seine boats motor out to grounds in a World War II-type armada. There's a countdown over the VHF radio from ten. A gun goes off, and the sound of diesel engines echoes off surrounding mountains, a cloud of black smoke rising into the air as seine boats throttle up, rooster tails of water spewing from jet-powered seine skiffs as they race to encircle the fish with nets.

I first came to Sitka in 1997, at the age of 19, to work in a salmon hatchery. I remember watching the opening from different spots along the 14 miles of road on the island. Folks would set up picnics on the rocks, or on the roofs of houses, tuning in to VHF channels to hear the skippers curse and yell. A swarm of floatplanes buzzed overhead, searching for schools and reporting back to boats.

Over the years, as the fishery has moved farther and farther outside of town, the Byzantine network of alliances and code-words joining certain boats has grown only more complex. Hulls are regularly rammed, shotguns are brandished, and lives threatened as crews -- who have spent all year mending nets, overhauling boats, and working for no pay -- vie for the best sets and largest crew-shares. YouTube footage of the fishery proliferates -- generally to a background of heavy metal music -- as seine boats inflict thousands of dollars of damage to one another. I've seen $100 bills tucked beneath urinal cakes at the P-bar -- message being, if you need this money, take it -- you're not catching any fish.

The other morning I had coffee with Joe Lindholm, skipper of the Star Shadow. He argued that this cowboy tradition, romantic as it is, has outlived its usefulness. If the 47 other sac roe fishery permit holders pooled shares, insurance rates would go down, catch rates would go up due to lack of competition, and the gear class could work in tandem, instead of competition, he said. A herring consortium of permit holders would also give the fleet a unified voice when it came to setting quota -- and defending the economic boom that seiners bring to Sitka.

One by one the boats arrive, spooling out practice sets in the Sound, and making stools at the P-Bar more and more difficult to come across.

I'd hate to see this rite of spring disappear. 

Brendan Jones lives in Sitka, Alaska, and has recorded commentaries for NPR, and published in Popular Woodworking. He was recently selected as a 2013 Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford University.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.