The state on Monday closed the Prince William Sound herring season before it even began, saying the oil spilled by the Exxon Valdez would poison too many fish and eggs to permit a harvest this year.
Shallows where herring congregate to spawn in April are covered with oil, and toxins from the more than 10 million gallons of North Slope crude spilled March 24 have filtered down through the water column, said James Brady of Cordova, area biologist for the state Fish and Game Department.
"I can't do a firm estimate of the loss, but all circumstances are there. We could lose a lot of eggs," he said.
The closure will cost hundreds of fishermen the jobs and income many depend on to stay financially afloat until the summer salmon season begins. The fishery is worth about $12.2 million annually, according to the state's figures.
"Fishermen are always broke in the spring," said E.J. Cheshier of Cordova, who fishes salmon in the summer and makes money from the herring season as a spotter pilot. "A lot of them will do herring so they can get their salmon gear in tiptop shape," he said.
The closure was expected to generate a flood of compensation claims against Exxon, the oil company responsible for the spill, the largest in the history of the country.
Fishermen have been told they can file claims for losses, based on what they can show they may have earned from the herring season, said Michelle Hahn O'Leary, a representative of the Cordova District Fishermens Union. Fishermen will be asked to document their claims with income tax returns or processor receipts, she said.
Exxon claims workers refused to discuss the process with reporters.
Fishing plans have been endangered since the 987foot tanker ran onto rocks carrying more than 50 million gallons of oil. Capt. Joseph Hazelwood, who has been accused of being under the influence of alcohol at the time of the wreck, had turned the bridge over to an unqualified third mate.
The oil has fouled beaches on several islands, and continues to drift in slicks and patches, throughout a huge area of this oncepristine marine environment. Some oil has reached the Gulf of Alaska.
The loss of the herring season is so far the most serious economic shock from the massive oil spill.
The spill caused Fish and Game Department to order the pot shrimp season to an early end Monday, and to cancel the black cod season, which was scheduled to open April 1. Both are much smaller fisheries.
Brady said he does not expect returning salmon to be harmed as much as the herring. The salmon are still far out in the North Pacific, he said. Water quality should improve between now and when the salmon return this summer, he said. Also, salmon will not spend as much time in contaminated water as the herring do.
The fishery management plan allows a total harvest of 20 percent of the herring, Brady said. Though it could not be figured exactly, the oil will damage enough of the resource to equal or exceed the effect of a 20 percent harvest, he said.
Sonar scans have found herring schooled beneath oil slicks, Brady said. There is a history of herring spawning in the shallows around the Naked Island group and other areas hard hit by the spill.
Brady said "numerous" scientific studies show that herring larvae exposed to North Slope crude oil either die or have developmental defects.
The 1988 Prince William Sound harvest totalled about 10,000 tons.
The major herring harvest in the Sound is the seine fishery, and it is fast and furious. Boats stand ready on the fishing grounds until the state gives the signal to drop nets and start fishing. Often the quota is filled in hours.
Most of the eggs taken from the herring are frozen and shipped to overseas buyers. The price is as mercurial as the harvest. Last year fishermen were paid $700 to $800 a ton; the harvest was about 7,900 tons, according to the Department of Fish and Game.
The herring pound fishery is more measured. "Pounders," as they are called, import kelp from Sitka, anchor it in ocean pens and wait for the herring to deposit eggs on the kelp. The kelp with eggs attached is harvested and sold for a price fishermen said ranges from $15 to $25 a pound.
There is also a small herring gillnet fishery in the Sound. And a varying number of individual divers harvest eggs from wild kelp.
"This was going to be probably 99 percent of my income this year," said pounder Jeannie Buller.
The processing industry will also feel the pinch, said Ken Roemhildt, superintendent of North Pacific Processors in Cordova. "It's not going to break you, but it's not something you want to see," he said.
The herring season at his plant usually lasts four or five days and means jobs for 20 to 30 people, Roemhildt said. During the salmon season the plant employs about 250, he said.
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