The Sitka Conservation Society protects the natural environment of the Tongass National Forest while supporting the development of economically, socially, and environmentally sustainable communities within Southeast Alaska.
Our Focus Areas
The community of Sitka has a long tradition of local grassroots activism and engagement in local, state, and national politics. Sitkans value their home in this temperate rainforest and take political action to ensure the Tongass continues to provide for future generations of Southeast Alaskans. Through community events and by with individuals, we amplify the voices of Southeast Alaskans. Take action, donate, or become a member of SCS today!
We are helping empower young people to lead and thrive on a local, state, federal, and global scale. By sharing intergenerational knowledge, instilling values of conservation, teaching essential skills including hunting, fishing, gathering and gardening, and providing programming that fosters leadership, civic engagement, and environmental advocacy, we are preparing youth for the challenges of the future. These goals are achieved through our 4-H Alaska-Way-of-Life program, our high school civic engagement class, and the Sitka School District and local educational institutions.
Salmon unite Alaskans. We rely on salmon to fill our freezers, feed our families, and sustain our economy. Salmon are an essential component of culture and tradition, and feed our wild eagles, bears, and nutrient-rich forests. We encourage the protection of critical salmon habitat, support small businesses and economic development, and promote sustainable harvest in commercial fisheries. Working and organizing with partners locally, regionally, and across the state, we advocate for land management policies that protect wild salmon habitat and our way of life.
As a founding member of the Sustainable Southeast Partnership, we have the opportunity to work with diverse partners across the region towards the common goals. We are striving for cultural, ecological, and economic prosperity for our families, communities and region.
Halibut caught by factory trawlers await separation from the targeted product. Though thousands of tons of halibut are caught by trawlers each year, the directed fishery is facing closure. ©Paul Logan/HO/The Canadian Press
On June 9th (10th?), Alaskan halibut fishermen, who have seen their individual quotas cut by up to 70% over the last ten years gathered to watch the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council (NPFMC or North Pacific Council) vote on reduced halibut bycatch caps for trawl fleets fishing in the Bering Sea. Fact sheets from ALFA, stories from KCAW, NPFMC’s Environmental Assessment, and our previous blog post all describe the conservation fight over halibut, but here are a few crucial bullet points as a reminder:
Individual halibut quotas in the Bering and Gulf of Alaska have been cut by up to 65% in the last decade.
Last year, seven times as many halibut were caught and discarded as trawl bycatch than were landed in the directed fishery.
The halibut caught as trawl bycatch are overwhelmingly juveniles (60-80% of the halibut caught are under 28” long). More than 70% of juvenile halibut in the Bering Sea eventually migrate to the Gulf of Alaska and as far south as Northern California.
Bottom trawling eliminates seafloor complexity by destroying delicate coral reefs. This habitat destruction means that total mortality of prohibited species from bottom trawling is much higher than the observed bycatch.
Faced with these facts as well as public testimony overwhelmingly supportive of much stricter bycatch caps for Bering Sea trawlers, the North Pacific Council chose to do...not enough.
Here’s what the Council did do:
The NPFMC reduced overall bycatch caps in the Bering Sea by 21%. Specific fisheries took on greater or lesser shares of that reduction. The Amendment 80 fleet, the Seattle-based bottom trawlers long portrayed as the greatest villains in this fight, will shoulder a 25% reduction in their bycatch caps. This will require them to reduce their halibut bycatch by more than 17% from last year, hopefully taking some much needed pressure off the stocks. The Trawl Limited Access sector will only suffer a 15% cut in their bycatch cap, while the Community Development Quotas and the non-trawl pacific cod fishery will both take a 20% reduction in bycatch.
Sounds good so far...
Here’s what the Council didn’t do:
Actually reduce bycatch! While the halibut bycatch cap was reduced by 21%, that new cap is still ABOVE the amount of halibut caught as bycatch in 2014 (which, recall, was 7x the number of fish caught by the directed fishery). The Amendment 80 fleet will be required to reduce their bycatch from 2014’s level, but they will be the only ones to do so.
While it would be easy to dismiss the NPFMC’s ruling as a disappointing but ultimately irrelevant policy mistake affecting communities far away from Sitka Sound, the migratory nature of halibut means that those juveniles scooped up by factory trawlers could very well have ended up on your dinner plate instead. Commercial fishermen in Sitka have already been affected by declining halibut populations, as lower directed fishery allocations reduce the number of halibut Individual Fishing Quota holders can take. It would be unreasonably optimistic to expect that sport and subsistence halibut fishing in the Gulf and Sitka Sound will remain unaffected for much longer.
What are our future opportunities to fix this?
Long-term, halibut’s best hope is consumer education. Bottom trawling is akin to clear-cutting, destroying valuable habitat for decades or centuries. Southeast Alaska banned trawlers in 1998. When Silver Bay Seafoods bought trawl-caught fish in 2012, eight Sitka leaders wrote a public letter to the company asking that they respect the ban on trawling in the future by avoiding trawl products. Silver Bay Seafoods indicated that they would. A local victory, but one that could potentially be replicated across the state. Trawling has been described as “clear-cutting” the ocean floor; the same types of consumers who would think twice about buying wood products from clear-cut old-growth forests or rainforests should also think twice about buying cheap, unsustainably harvested groundfish.
From a policy perspective, the NPFMC is where most of our conservation pressure needs to be focused. As Sitka resident Charlie Wilbur wrote in the Sentinel, “The Council has the ability and moral responsibility to correct this festering problem before halibut become 100 percent utilized as trawl bycatch.” The next North Pacific Council meeting is in October. While an agenda has not been posted yet, the Council indicated at this meeting that halibut bycatch will be on their radar for some time to come. We will be ready.
If you are interested in writing a letter to the NPFMC or learning more about this issue, please contact Esther at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The North Pacific Council. Hardly the most diverse group, but a uniquely powerful one. Visit the NPFMC page for Council member bios.
In May, the Sitka Tribe of Alaska took another important step forward on their journey to establish a shellfish toxin testing lab to serve Southeast Alaska. Representatives from eight regional tribes, the Washington Department of Health, NOAA, the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation (ADEC), and the Southeast Alaska Regional Dive Fisheries Association (SARDFA) met to learn how to test seawater samples for harmful toxins. Lest anyone forget, shellfish toxins such as the saxitoxin that causes paralytic shellfish poisoning or the domoic acid that causes amnesic shellfish poisoning remain a real and intensely present risk in Southeast Alaska. This past December a man in North Douglas contracted PSP harvesting clams only 150 yards away from the boat launch, while a few weeks ago Ketchikan saw their first bloom of the saxitoxin-producing plankton Alexandrium.
A picture of plankton from June 8th's tow at Starrigavan Dock. The scalloped chains in the center are the diatom Pseudonitzschia, a plankton that occasionally produces domoic acid and amnesic shellfish poisoning. Starting this summer, the Tribe will be able to say whether that domoic acid is being produced.
This is the second such meeting in the last year. The first, in November 2014 taught attendees how to collect and monitor plankton species at local beaches. We described that conference in a previous blog post, while KCAW also ran a story (found here). While monitoring plankton species can give several days notice of potentially toxic bloom events and rising toxin levels in shellfish, monitoring species is still a fair distance from testing the toxin levels in the toxins themselves. This meeting aimed to reduce that distance. If potentially harmful plankton are present, Tribes will now test a seawater sample directly for the presence of toxins. Harmful plankton do not produce toxins all the time, so this additional step is a way to reduce unnecessary alarm over high plankton levels.
Why did it (need to) happen?
Commercially harvested shellfish, from geoducks to scallops, are all tested by the ADEC for paralyzing saxitoxins. This is an important and necessary step to keep consumers safe, but it’s also nearly impossible for Southeast Alaskans to get their samples to the Anchorage lab in time. Samples are results are only good for five days from the date of collection. It frequently takes three days to get samples from fishing grounds in southern Southeast to and through the lab, leaving one day for fishermen to travel to the fishing ground and only one day to collect shellfish! If the samples are delayed at any point or fall outside the time or temperature regulations, there may not be an opening at all that week.
Left: the promise of unopened boxes fills the air as Sitka Tribe's new lab comes together. Right: Dr. Vera Trainer (NOAA) shows Brian Holter and Ray Paddock how to filter a water sample. ©seator.org.
The importance of the regulations requiring shellfish testing and specifying the treatment of samples can not be overstated. Properly handled samples are necessary for good lab results, and good lab results are essential when we’re looking at toxins that can cause people to stop breathing. The issue is not the testing process, but instead that the State of Alaska does not have the resources to open a regional testing facility, nor do they have the resources to expand their shellfish testing program to recreational and traditional shellfish harvesters. ADEC is doing an excellent job testing samples with the money they have, but there is a need for a regionally-based lab that can also serve recreational harvesters. The Sitka Tribe and the SEATT partnership are hoping to build just that.
So why was this meeting so exciting?
As we pointed out before, the Sitka Tribe’s leadership on this issue is an important step toward reclaiming local ownership over a healthy, wild food source. Here in Sitka, our beaches are littered with mussels, butter clams, littleneck clams, and cockles. We are surrounded by food, but paralyzed with fear (pun intended). Having access to real information about current plankton levels and toxin levels would change that, opening up our beaches to traditional and recreational harvesters alike.
More importantly, however, this May meeting was important because of the partnerships it has created and strengthened. The November meeting featured seven Southeast Tribes, NOAA, and the Washington Department of Health (WDOH). This meeting featured eight Tribes, while three more are committed to joining at the start of the next fiscal year. NOAA and WDOH have both remained involved as well. The real triumph, however, is the new participation of SARDFA and the State. This project will not succeed without the support and patronage of the Southeast divers, and it can not even get off the ground without the tacit approval of the State.
Federal, state, private, public, local, regional, and Tribal organizations. All working together, all working to build a regional lab devoted to local and regional food. Alaskans are fond of saying that resources belong to the people. The partnerships this project has brought together prove the truth of that statement.
We wish the SEATT partnership solidarity, good fortune, and few plankton blooms. Sample on, friends!
SEATT members learn to collect a whole water sample. ©seator.org.
Every year, trawlers in the Bering Sea/Aleutian Islands (BSAI) management area catch and discard as much as 7x the number of halibut caught by commercial halibut fishermen in the same region! That halibut is going to waste is bad. That halibut bycatch allowances have not been appreciably lowered even as commercial halibut quotas have been slashed over the last fourteen years is even worse. That halibut bycatch is overwhelmingly juvenile fish who have not yet reproduced is perhaps the worst news of all.
But the Bering Sea is far away from our fisheries here in Sitka Sound, right?
In a word, no. Most juvenile halibut tagged in the Bering Sea are later recovered across the Gulf of Alaska. Some have even been recovered as far south as California. That means that what happens in the BSAI directly affects subsistence and commercial opportunities here.
Large amounts of halibut bycatch would be deplorable under any circumstances, but that's especially true when the populations are declining and trawl bycatch specifically removes immature population.
We have an opportunity to act!
The North Pacific Fisheries Management Council is meeting in Sitka from June 1st to June 9th. Write the Council a letter by May 26th asking for a 50% reduction in bycatch allowances. Need ideas? ALFA has posted a great halibut fact sheet. Comments should be emailed to email@example.com and should reference Agenda Item C2. You can also sign up to testify to the Council on June 4th or 5th. Find out more about commenting or testifying here. Be sure to attend the meeting to show your support for halibut!
Habitat restoration in Tongass young-growth forests is expensive. If we can utilize the by-products of restoration projects to offset the costs, we can conduct more restoration. For the past several years, SCS has studied the potential of the restoration technique of creating "gaps" in even-aged young-growth forests. A "gap" is a very small clearcut (about 1/4 acre or less) that emulates the small-scale windthrow that is common in old-growth forests. With the USFS Sitka Ranger District, SCS recently monitored a restoration site and completed an analysis of a 23-year old data set. This study is unique in that it is the only study of the gap restoration technique in a commercial-aged young-growth forest, and the only gap study with a long-term data set. We found that the technique is effective at restoring deer habitat. The trees that were cut to create the gap have commercial value, which presents an opportunity to experiment with ways to remove the trees. Maybe we can have our cake (restoration) and eat it (wood products) too!
To read the report, follow this link HERE to the website of the Southeast Alaska Long-term Monitoring Network.
This restoration site and the long-term monitoring effort is due to the persistence of the late Greg Killinger, USFS Wildlife Biologist. Greg is in one of the study site gaps in the photo below.
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!
As we continue our tour through the more and less sustainable human uses of herring, we inevitably find ourselves moving from the good (traditional roe on branch harvests) to the bad: the sac roe fishery.
Sac roe, or unlaid herring eggs still in their skein (egg sack), is a delicacy in Japan known as kazunoko. The golden, pear-slice shaped egg skeins are beautiful additions to any sushi plate and have become a relatively high-status gift item for people to eat on New Years or other special occasions. Kazunoko used to be harvested locally, but the Hokkaido/Sakhalin stock collapsed in 1958. Now, most of those eggs come from Sitka. Only certain herring produce high quality kazunoko. As it turns out, Sitka Sound herring have perfect, golden egg skeins with no obvious veins. As we always suspected, we are the best!
We'll admit it - kazunoko is a tantalizingly appetizing product. But is it worth it?
So far this all sounds like just another standard fishery, but with the bonus of people eating the egg sacs too. That would be ideal. Unfortunately, it turns out that the sac roe fishery is astonishingly wasteful and is both directly and indirectly harmful to our salmon populations and fisheries.
But people eat salmon roe too. What makes this so different?
The primary difference between the salmon roe market and the sac roe market is that almost 100% of salmon meat goes to human consumption. “But people eat herring meat all the time!” you may protest. That’s true, but it’s a fraction of the total caught. As discussed, most Sitka Sound herring goes to Japan to supply kazunoko. The Japanese also eat herring meat, but prefer larger fish according to Dr. Shingo Hamada’s recent talk at UAS. Those larger fish come from Togiak, from the North Atlantic, or from the Barents Sea near Norway.
Fair enough. But what exactly makes you label this fishery as “bad” on your sustainability scale?
First, though we mentioned that exports are nothing new to Southeast Alaska, they’re a lot better for our local economies if we can do some of the processing within the region. Much like exporting old-growth trees in the round provides very few jobs beyond local lumberjacks, the way we export herring does not provide many economic opportunities for anyone beyond the fishermen themselves. Kazunoko is a labor intensive and expensive product to extract, so we ship frozen whole fish to Japan to be sorted by sex and dissected. The cost of additional processing here may be too high for the market to bear, but that’s certainly nothing to celebrate here in Sitka.
Industrial sac roe production (left) vs. roe extraction done by local middle school students at this year's Herring Camp. Next year, we'll be sure to put those kids to work!
Secondly, and more egregiously, since our herring are only prized for their sac roe, this fishery collects ~88% bycatch by weight! Why so high? If the meat of our exported fish is not being eaten by people (it isn’t), then the targeted product is only present in 50% of the fish caught, the females, and only makes up about a quarter of their weights at the most. This year was one of the most successful years for our fishermen in terms of roe percentage - up to 14% according to the seiners. Only 86% bycatch! It’s pretty hard to spin such a small reduction in the bycatch amount positively.
If that didn’t make you angry, what happens with that bycatch certainly will. After the kazunoko has been extracted from our herring, the remainder are ground into fish meal. “That’s better than nothing!” you might say. Indeed, it’s certainly preferable to simply dumping the waste, but fish meal should come from actual fishery waste, such as halibut heads, rather than from a wasteful fishery. In this case, the cloud’s silver lining fails disguise all the rain.
A successful set in this year's harvest! Too bad 86% of that biomass goes to waste or to farmed fish.
Fishmeal gets fed to farmed tilapia, shrimp, and salmon all over the world - fish that often compete directly against our wild stocks. This is a classic case of robbing Peter to pay Paul. Our wild salmon have their preferred dinners seined up, frozen, and sent across the Pacific, where they go to feed farmed salmon somewhere else. That’s a lot of expense and fuel consumption to recreate a food chain that already exists right here in Sitka Sound.
“All in all we’re advocating for more conservative management … we think herring are worth more feeding the ecosystem than they are feeding farmed salmon. We think we need to do a better job, a more conservative job of managing the resource.” -Jeff Feldpausch, Director of the Resource Protection Department, Sitka Tribe of Alaska.
In an ironic, but all-too-typical economic twist, Alaska actually imports fish meal to feed its hatchery salmon. It’s not just a little bit of fish meal, either. Alaska spends $20 million/year to get that feed, primarily from South America. Alaskan salmon do love Peruvian anchovies, but it’s hard to make the argument that the salmon enjoy them more than the Pacific herring they’ve evolved over millennia to eat. At the very least, the bycatch from this inefficient fishery should go directly to our hatchery salmon, giving them back the meals we’ve removed from the local ocean.
Is there any good news?
There are a few bright spots. First, the Sitka Sound Sac Roe Fishery is exclusively a seine fishery. The alternative possible gear in this case would be gillnets, but gillnets do not allow for any live releasing and they increase the potential for non-herring bycatch. Catch and release with seine nets is not without fish stress and mortality, but it definitely beats the near complete mortality and commitment associated with gillnets. Of course, that catch and release temptation can lead captains to “high-grade”, or release sets without a high roe content, but ADF&G Area Biologist Dave Gordon explicitly warned seiners this year against doing that. Seining over gillnetting is not great news, but we’ll take what we can get.
Secondly, we can be happy that our harvest rate is considerably less aggressive than herring harvest rates in Europe. The Barents Sea herring fishery, controlled by Norway, considers harvesting 30%-40% of the biomass to be both conservative and sustainable. Our harvest rate is set between 12% and 20% of the biomass. Does that mean we’re in no danger of overfishing? In a word, no. The only Southeast Alaskan herring stock that still manages to support a herring fishery is Sitka Sound, down from Hobart Bay, Lynn Canal, Auke Bay, Kah Shakes, West Behm Canal in previous decades. Our own stocks are on a pretty significant downward trend, with this year’s quota the lowest since 2003. Is this downward trend due to the commercial fishery? Fish and Game believes that it’s due to low ocean survivability (ocean acidification? global warming?). It’s easy to imagine the fishery being the straw that breaks this camel’s back, though, and with it, the backbone of our marine ecosystem.
Yes, we are more conservative than Norway. No, it does not mean we can rest easy.
How can we improve this?
First, let’s find better things to do with that bycatch than to feed it to Malaysian farmed fish. Best case? We start eating the herring ourselves. If that’s not palatable, let’s at least stop exporting fish meal to feed other nations’ aquaculture projects while simultaneously importing fish meal to feed our own. This is inefficient, carbon intensive, and detrimental to both our wild and NSRAA-supplied salmon. It’s wrong, and it needs to stop.
Second, let’s stop eating sac roe in the first place. Why not consume roe on kelp instead? All of the deliciousness of herring eggs without the unwelcome spice of guilt.
Finally, let’s consider the possibility that we are overfishing our stock and consider reducing our harvest rate. Forage fish are worth much more left in the water than they are on the market. Let’s bow to economic and ecosystem pressures and leave more herring where they belong: feeding salmon and whales in Sitka Sound.
Whales feasting on herring © Bethany Goodrich
Herring milt fills bays in Sitka Sound. As the water turns white, traditional harvesters set their branches.
If the hundreds of circling eagles, dozens of bubble-netting whales, and armadas of fishing boats didn’t already make this obvious, the most important and controversial marine resource in Southeast Alaska has returned - the herring. Huzzah! Across Sitka Sound, seiners play out their nets, traditional harvesters lay their branches, and kids jig for small fish in the harbors.
Why all this hullabaloo over only one type of fish? We could go on (and have) about herring’s importance to the marine ecosystem. Their importance cannot be overstated. But herring aren’t just important for growing salmon - humans rely on them as well!
You could argue that the health of the marine ecosystem easily trumps any economic benefits we may get from herring harvesting. That argument has been made, and compellingly so. But let’s engage in some productive narcissism for the moment. Let’s only consider the ways that we humans use herring. Even considering our own wants first and foremost, it still behooves us to think about the sustainability of our herring-related harvest.
As it turns out, our harvest of herring and herring eggs spans quite a large swath of the sustainability spectrum, from the good to the bad to the (not so) ugly.
Good news first! The traditional herring egg harvest.
While Sitka boasts gorgeous mountain ranges and beautiful natural harbors, it was the herring that made this a desirable place to live thousands of years ago. Herring eggs were one of the first fresh sources of spring protein and were widely traded across Alaska. That trade didn’t stop with the colonial period; even today, Sitka Sound herring eggs can be found as far north as Barrow! Herring eggs continue to be an important special food item and appear at most potlatches and community events.
What exactly is the traditional harvest?
Herring lay their eggs in the shallows just below the low-tide line. The sticky eggs attach to the seafloor, to kelp, and to strategically placed hemlock branches. For thousands of years, Tlingit people from all over Southeast Alaska attached young hemlock branches or trees to anchors just before the herring started spawning. Hemlock is used because it doesn’t impart flavor to the eggs, and it’s also an incredibly efficient surface to collect eggs on. A fully loaded tree can easily hold up to 1,000 pounds of eggs! After 2-4 days underwater, branches are retrieved and the eggs are pulled off. Eggs are eaten fresh or frozen for future use.
The traditional harvest also includes some spawn on kelp (SOK), although roe on branches makes up more than 90% of the typical traditional harvest. Herring eggs will settle on whatever is available, including hair kelp and Macrocystis kelp. SOK is gathered either from boats or from the shorelines with long rakes. Macrocystis SOK is also a commercial product harvested in “pound fisheries,” but that's a future story.
What makes the traditional harvest so sustainable?
First, it’s very small. Tlingit traditional harvesters commonly advocate taking only as much as they need, but true sustainability comes from taking only as much as the ecosystem can support. Happily, the Amount Necessary for Subsistence, the State’s assessment of how many pounds of herring eggs are necessary to satisfy traditional demand throughout Alaska, is well below the carrying capacity of Sitka Sound.
Second, the traditional harvest leaves the herring themselves completely unmolested. The survival rate of herring from eggs to adults has been calculated to range between 1 and 6500 per 1,000,000 eggs, a massively variable amount! Ideally, the more eggs in the water, the more herring in the water, but that enormous variability in survival rates means that egg deposition is not the primary control on herring populations. Fewer herring taken from the water, however, means much more to the population. As a bonus, branches that are lost or otherwise not worth recovering (too little spawn, too much debris) provide excellent habitat for those eggs to develop, but that perk is well overshadowed by the benefits of giving adult herring the chance to spawn another year.
It is! We’re lucky to have such a connection to past populations here. We’re luckier still to live in a place that allows us to live with (rather than off) the land and sea. With as much as 95% of our food coming from elsewhere, it’s refreshing to see such a sustainable, culturally-rich use of a local resource.
May the traditional harvest of herring eggs inspire us to gather more local foods in just as sustainable a manner.
Milt along the Sitka coastline.
The State Board of Fisheries (BoF) met this week to discuss fishery policies and regulations for Southeast and Yakutat finfish. Sound boring? It wasn’t! Herring policy debates were especially animated. This year, the conservation-minded proposals of the Sitka Tribe of Alaska butted up directly against commercial proposals submitted by the wryly named Southeast Herring Conservation Alliance. Every proposal had a counterproposal and every proposal had its champions. Faced with an array of options and with very little hard science to base decisions on, the Board of Fisheries opted to leave the sac-roe status quo intact, voting down every change put before them.
Was this a success story for industry? A success story for conservationists? A bitter pill to swallow for both sides? The continued decline of herring populations or their future recovery will answer that question. The clear success here is the Board of Fisheries process, which heavily emphasizes public participation and comment. Should we be genuinely excited about so much democracy in resource management? Absolutely!
How does the BoF Process Work?
The Board of Fisheries consists of seven members appointed by the governor and approved by the legislature. The governor’s appointees are chosen for their knowledge of fisheries and interest in public affairs, but with eye toward representing all interest groups (broadly broken into commercial, sport, and traditional). The BoF is advised by ADF&G scientists, but is not typically made of up scientists itself.
The strength of the BoF is the degree to which the Board’s meetings draw on public opinion. Comments and testimony were heavily solicited before and during the meeting. The real public process, though, is the “Committee of the Whole”. This was an opportunity for everyone present at the BoF meeting to reach a spontaneous agreement. No time limits, no set order, just discussion between proponents and opponents of each proposal. Unfortunately, unlike a round-table discussion where participants are speaking directly to each other, the open-room format with the Board as an audience seemed to inspire participants to perform for the Board. As salmon troller Eric Jordan pointed out, this part of the BoF is an opportunity for groups to avoid an arbitrary and often unwanted decision by the Board, but if participants don’t have the “fear of the seven dark angels...they have no incentive to come to an agreement.” With herring, this was especially apparent. Traditional and industry supporters upped their rhetoric and moved further apart on every proposal, each fearing compromise far more than the unknown of the Board’s decisions. Does this reflect a broken Board process? I think not. The need for real public input far outweighs the disappointment of watching increasing polarization between groups and with less emotionally-charged fisheries, the Committee of the Whole was productive.
After public orations and discussions, the Board deliberates and decides. Now, the public is the passive audience, and the Board restricts their questions to ADF&G staff members. Happily, Board members frequently cited written and oral public comment as well as the open discussions.
Why do we want this to be democratic?
It’s a reasonable question. Why would we want the ultimate decisions about herring fisheries to be made not by scientists, but by, in a worst case scenario, people who are blatantly biased non-experts, thinly disguised industry reps, random members of the public, and arbitrarily chosen government appointees?
First, in many ways natural resources like herring are public goods. Proper management of herring doesn't just benefit sac-roe seiners or roe-on kelp fishermen, it benefits the entire community. Properly managed, herring provide direct economic benefits to the fishermen who harvest them, indirect economic benefits to salmon fishermen, food for the marine ecosystem, a reason for whales to return to Sitka Sound and bring their entourage of tourists, cultural benefits for traditional users… the list is endless. Given this diversity of user groups, would anything other than the messy, publically accessible process of the BoF give adequate representation to all parties?
More importantly, there is no such thing as pure “science-based” resource management. Bias is endemic to the process. Even by calling herring a “resource”, we have introduced a bias toward harvesting and economic exploitation. By contrast, nobody talks about krill as a resource even though they occupy a similar trophic level to herring. After we decide to prosecute a herring fishery, we look to science to tell us how many herring are returning, what levels of harvest are sustainable, and why the population is fluctuating. Science cannot tell us whether seiners or gill-netters should have more of an opportunity to fish. Science does not inform the discussion about whether the cultural benefits of traditional roe on branch harvesting can be replaced by increased access to roe on kelp. Science has no opinion on the number of herring whales should be allocated given concerns of fishermen, nor can science quantify the full inspiration and ecological benefits of having a healthy whale population in Sitka Sound. Science, in short, tells us how much pie we have to manage and how many groups want a piece of said pie, but it says nothing about who “deserves” the largest slice. Resource management lies at the intersection of scientific knowledge and the needs and wants of interested user groups. Who has the right to judge between two groups, each of whom are asking for a larger allocation of herring? Only a collective, democratic body. In Alaska, only the Board of Fisheries.
As you may know towards the end of 2014 the federal government passed the Sealaska Lands Bill, a small measure attached to the much larger National Defense Authorization Act. This legislation transfered public ownership of nearly 70,000 acres of the Tongass from the Forest Service to the private Sealaska Corporation. The land selection finalizes the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, the 1971 legislation that transferred ownership to the Regional Native Corporations.
In order to inform the Sitka Community SCS wanted to share the locations and sizes of the various land claims across the Tongass. Some of the larger areas that have been signed over include portions of Kosciusko Island and Tuxekan Island, plus on Prince of Wales sections of Polk, Mckenzie and Keete Inlets. Closer to home there are parcels of land near Sitka at Kalinin Bay, Lake Eva, Fick Cove, and North Arm.
Maps showing the location and size of the various areas that were transferred to the Sealaska Corporation can be accessed on a Forest Service website here: http://www.fs.usda.gov/detail/r10/home/?cid=STELPRD3824925