Homer Alaska - Seawatch

Story last updated at 7:25 PM on Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Controversy surrounds Southeast fishery

A tempest has been brewing in Southeast Alaska over the Alaska Department of Fish and Game's plan to open West Behm Canal to commercial sac roe herring fishing in March or April, something that has been a possibility since a Board of Fisheries decision in 2003, but has not actually happened since 1967.

West Behm Canal has had fluctuating stocks throughout its history, with some disagreement as to the cause, or even whether the stocks are fluctuating or merely moving around.

Fish and Game Ketchikan area management biologist Scott Walker laid out some of the history, saying that the West Behm stock is part of three related stocks labeled as the Revilla stock, although they are semi-autonomous, sometimes merging, sometimes not.

The West Behm portion of that stock for many years was at pretty low levels, according to Walker, coming in at around 2,000 tons for a good part of its history.

Then, in the early 1990s, it started growing, reaching a high of around 15,000 tons in 1996, the largest on record.

"It was the top end of a cycle," Walker said, "and we then had a lower dip in the cycle. Then it came back in the early 2000s, and it built again, and everyone started taking notice of that."

That led to a proposal with the Board of Fisheries in 2003 to open the commercial fishery in 2004. Everyone geared up to fish, but the herring never showed up. Less than 1,000 tons came in to spawn.

However, it was clear to the biologists that the West Behm stocks did not disappear, they just spawned elsewhere, noting that the amount of spawn in the general area in 2003 almost exactly matched the spawn in 2004, they just were not in West Behm Canal. They were spread out around Annette Island, which is managed separately by the federal government and the local Native organization, out of state jurisdiction.

Since then, the West Behm population has begun to return, and has reached the 6,000 ton threshold necessary for a commercial harvest.

Walker said that ever since the first Board of Fisheries ruling in 2003 that created the possibility of a commercial fishery, there has been plenty of controversy.

"There were agenda change requests (asking the BOF to take up the matter out of cycle), there was an emergency petition, there were calls to the Governor, there were calls to legislators, he said. "The fishery died kind of on its own, but as things have built up again, there has been more and more opposition locally. It has gone back in front of the (BOF) four times, and has been re-established, or at least has not been denied, so here we are."

A small group of citizens calling themselves the Herring Coalition have been protesting the potential fishery, calling it a "travesty."

In an opinion letter printed in SitNews in Ketchikan, the coalition claimed that the West Behm herring stocks have been depleted by commercial fishing, as well as predation from other fish species and marine mammals, most notably humpback whales.

"Prior to the Marine Mammal Protection Act (in 1972), fewer than 200 humpback whales existed in Southeast Alaska," it reads. "Today there are approximately 6,000, with an annual population increase estimated at 7 percent. Each adult whale consumes about 2,500 lbs. of small fish daily, mostly herring. This calculates out to 7,500 tons daily. Is it any wonder that depleted herring populations have been unable to recover?"

Walker said he looked into the whale information put forth by the coalition, and did a study of his own to see what the linkage was.

"The biggest thing is that no one has gone out and killed a bunch of whales and done stomach analysis," he said.

Walker said that some of the information is based on a group of 27 whales killed in the 1950's, and only two species in the stomach were identifiable, neither of which were herring.

Walker does not dispute that whales eat herring, and that herring could make up a substantial part of their diet, but that does not necessarily mean that a commercial fishery in West Behm Canal would endanger the humpback whale population.

"They're very opportunistic, they're in the West Behm eating herring. That's why they're here."

Walker said he is also a diver, and has seen large populations of other humpback feed, including krill and needlefish, which he has also seen from the air.

There is no evidence that herring populations in Southeast are struggling. In fact, the 2011 Sitka Sound commercial sac roe fishery quota is set at a record 19,490 tons, eclipsing the previous record in 2010 of 18,293 tons. There is some confusion as to why the West Behm Canal is singled out as a problem area when stocks are flourishing all over Southeast.

Walker said some of the objection may have a personal basis.

"I think one of the reasons is that we have this one group (Herring Coalition) that has been consistent in their opposition," he said. "In my opinion, it's pretty consistent with putting out misleading data, putting out misleading facts, putting out what they feel is the situation. This is an area they like to recreate in, they just don't want a commercial fishery here. They just keep the fires going, so to speak."

Walker said that ADF&G manages individual herring stocks in Southeast on their own merits, regardless of the Herring Coalition.

"We have this group of people that look at the facts a little bit differently," he said. "One thing thing we do is we look at each stock individually, so the fact that the Sitka stock is doing great wonders doesn't necessarily mean that every other stock in SE is. Every stock operates in itself."