Herring, salmon draw public heat at Fish Board

The Alaska Board of Fisheries wrapped up four days of public testimony on Southeast fisheries Tuesday with most of the debate surrounding proposals to change herring and Chinook salmon management.

More than half of the testimony revolved around a group of competing changes to Sitka Sound’s sac roe herring fishery.

The Sitka Tribe of Alaska, which represents many subsistence herring fishermen in Sitka, wants to shrink the amount of herring commercial fishermen can catch. Proposal 99, as it’s known, would cap the commercial harvest for Sitka Sound at 10 percent of the spawning biomass, a reduction from the current level of 12-20 percent.

Subsistence users capture eggs by allowing herring to spawn on branches, which happens after herring make it through a gauntlet of million-dollar fishing boats hoping to scoop them up. The herring population in Sitka Sound and the number of commercial boat fishing there has grown in recent years, and as the fishery has grown, the tribe argued, fishing pressure has changed herring spawning patterns.

“The Sitka Tribe of Alaska firmly believes that this increased fishing effort is disrupting the spawning patterns of herring in the Sound and is causing a high frequency of subsistence herring egg harvester needs not being met,” the tribe wrote.

Another proposal, No. 98, would go even further to limit commercial boats, reducing the quota to 0-10 percent of the spawning biomass, or the amount of weight the fish total.

Meanwhile, a commercial fishing group called the Southeast Herring Conservation Alliance wants to similarly limit the amount of herring available for subsistence harvest. The alliance’s proposal, No. 94, would reduce the amount of herring available to subsistence users from 136,000-237,000 pounds to 60,000-120,000 pounds.

Denis Houston, a member of the Sitka Tribe and a commercial sac roe commercial fisherman of 15 years, said there’s no reason to change current management. Many subsistence users who testified at the meeting said they were having a harder time harvesting herring roe in recent years.

But Houston, who travels in both the commercial and subsistence worlds, testified that he’s never had that problem.

“I can’t speak for the entire community but I can speak to myself: We’ve never had an issue going out and harvesting herring eggs for subsistence,” Houston said.

The board also heard substantial public testimony over a group of proposals aimed at protecting struggling Chinook salmon stocks on the Stikine, Chilkat and Taku rivers in northern Southeast.

The board will discuss the so-called “action plan” for Southeast Chinook today and vote on the proposals Thursday.

Southeast commercial salmon trollers, who make about half of their gross earnings fishing Chinook, showed up in opposition to proposals in the action plan that would severally limit fishing in areas Chinook traverse.

Eric Jordan, a commercial troller based out of Sitka, argued that trollers should still be allowed to fish for chum and coho salmon in those areas.

He said that the lures commercial trollers use when fishing for chum and coho are not the type they would use fishing for kings. Troll fishermen are not “shaking,” or releasing kings in a substantial number when fishing for other species, Jordan said.

Managers can be expect trollers to avoid the struggling species.

“We do not believe, based on our longtime experience as trollers, that king salmon are an issue at all. … On the issue that we are shaking a lot of kings, I tell you we are not,” he said.

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