The Not So Ugly
While we’ve toured through the good (sustainable) uses of herring to the bad (unsustainable) uses of herring, now popular culture dictates that we tour through the ugly uses of herring. Although we’re all suckers for Clint Eastwood movie titles, however, “the ugly” is a poor description for the herring fishery we’d like to explore: the spawn on kelp or “pound” fishery. On the contrary, pound fisheries have potential to marry the sustainability of the traditional harvest with the economic gain that accompanies the sac roe industry. Not so ugly after all!
Eggs coat a blade of Macrocystis. While wild eggs on kelp are beautiful, one challenge of pound fisheries is getting a more consistent product. ©Bethany Goodrich
What is a pound fishery?
A pound fishery harvests herring roe deposited on kelp blades, more frequently referred to as spawn on kelp or SOK. Commercially, SOK is harvested on Macrocystis kelp, although hair kelp is frequently harvested by traditional users as well. Pound fisheries come in two flavors: closed pounds and open pounds.
Closed pounds give this fishery its name. A “pound” is a pen made of nets that surrounds stalks of kelp, usually suspended from the water’s surface. With a closed pound, herring are transported into one of these pens before spawning, held for several days during the spawn, and released upon completion. Closed pounds are carefully regulated by Fish and Game, who specify everything from the maximum size of the pens (800 square feet), the number of pens that can be combined (no more than 2), the number of kelp blades per pound (allocated based on herring populations), to the maximum number of days herring may be kept in a pound (6) and the time of day the herring must be released by (midnight). Closed pounds produce kelp blades thickly coated with eggs.
Kelp blades coated in eggs hang in a closed pound. ©Juneau Empire
An open pound is a bit of an oxymoron - in this case the pound, or pen, does not exist. Open pounds consist of Macrocystis blades attached to platforms that are anchored where herring are predicted to spawn. Much like setting trees for the traditional harvest, collecting SOK using an open pound requires intimate knowledge of where the herring will or are spawning and a fair amount of luck to acquire a consistent product. Since the herring are not confined, open pound SOK produces a much thinner layer of eggs over the kelp blades.
Why are they so sustainable?
Pound fisheries are sustainable in much the same way that the traditional harvest is sustainable: the fishery does not actually harvest fish at all! As we have discussed, herring survivability from eggs to juveniles is incredibly variable. It is much more important to herring populations to leave more fish in the water than it is to leave more eggs in the water. As a result, pound fisheries have a much less detrimental effect on depressed herring stocks than seining does.
In another parallel to the traditional harvest, pound fisheries can create some additional habitat for eggs to develop in. All nets and gear must be left in the water for four weeks after the harvest occurs to let the the non-harvested eggs develop normally. Unfortunately, that time delay leads some people to leave their gear in the water all year, which is both illegal and a major source of contention in communities with limited mooring space.
Herring eggs on a net start to develop eyes. With luck, at least a few of these eggs will grow up to be adults. ©Captain Quinn
Open pound fisheries have one more sustainable advantage that their closed counterparts do not share: fish are left entirely to their own devices with open pounds. This, again, mimics the traditional fishery. Closed pounds, unfortunately, are not quite this low-impact. Schools of fish are seined or herded into rigid net cages (tow pounds), towed slowly alongside the boat to the standing net structure, and released. When this is done slowly and carefully stress on the fish is minimal, but there is a real risk of some fish trauma and mortality during transport. For that reason, while both closed and open pound fisheries are preferable to the sac-roe harvest, open pounds are the most environmentally friendly option.
What does the future hold?
Currently, pound fisheries only exist in four areas: Tenakee Inlet, Craig/Klawock, Hoonah Sound, and Ernst Sound. Due to low numbers of herring, only the Craig/Klawock pound fishery was opened this year. “If this fishery is so sustainable and non-disruptive to the fish,” you may ask, “why are so many of the pound fisheries closed this year?” While the number of eggs in the water is not the primary control of herring populations when talking about small numbers of eggs, the majority of the returning herring must still be allowed to spawn normally and their eggs left to develop. As with all fisheries, pound fisheries need a certain amount of product to be economic. If that product would be an unacceptably high percentage of the eggs laid that year or a there will not be a high enough concentration of fish, the fishery is closed.
The real hope for the future is that sac roe seiners in Sitka Sound are allowed to trade their permits for pound permits. That was the subject of a proposal to the State Board of Fisheries this year that generated quite a bit of interest within the Board. Unfortunately, that possibility is at least three years away. Any new fishery must first go through the Commercial Fisheries Entries Commission, then can seek approval from the Board of Fisheries. That means the proposal will not be reconsidered until 2018 at the earliest.
What does the future hold? Hopefully a lot more of this!
Is this something we would be excited about? Absolutely! Fishing is Sitka’s most important industry and, when well managed, is likely our most sustainable industry after tourism. Switching sac roe permits for open pound SOK permits recognizes this economic reality, while switching a less sustainable use of herring for a more sustainable one. What’s not to like?
Let’s cheer the pound fisheries on and get ready for the 2018 Board of Fisheries!