- Associated Press - Saturday, March 29, 2014

SITKA, Alaska (AP) - With seiners on the verge of wrapping up this year’s sac roe herring fishery, attention is shifting back to the traditional importance of the Sitka Sound herring spawn: herring eggs.

Members of the Kiksadi clan gathered in front of the Sheet’ka Kwaan Naa Kahidi Tuesday morning for the Blessing of the Herring Rock, marking the ceremonial start of the subsistence harvest season for herring eggs.

Members of the tribe and other Sitkans gathered at the rock - a piece taken from the original Herring Rock in Sitka harbor where the spawn would traditionally start - to commemorate the season and offer thanks for the herring spawn.

Fred Hope, who is the leader of the Point House in the Kiksadi clan, said the multi-million dollar blitz of the sac roe fishery is troubling to those who rely on herring eggs for subsistence.

“The whole of Sitka Sound was a spawning area, and that’s a big area. Every rock had spawn around it. Every bay had spawn around it,” Hope said. “It was amazing.”

After decades of the commercial fishery, Hope said, the herring spawn no longer sprawls across the harbor the way he remembers it.

Hope said the sac roe fishery, which removes thousands of tons of herring before they have spawned, has led to a decline in spawning herring and he’s worried that Sitka may join other communities who over-fished the resource. Hope lead a march down Katlian Street, from the ANB Harbor to New Eliason Harbor, to raise awareness of the effects of commercial fishing on the herring population.

Commercial herring fishing started in Alaska in the 19th century, when the fish were salt-cured for human consumption and large reduction plants converted herring into oil and meal for industrial and agricultural use. The last reduction plant closed in 1966 after stocks had been seriously over-fished.

The commercial seining of herring for sac roe started in 1971. The fishery is managed by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game based on the department’s expectations of the returning herring population. The guideline harvest level is set at no more than 20 percent of the total spawning biomass, and even lower if the biomass is unusually small.

Hope said these measures aren’t doing enough to protect the long-term health of the herring population.

“For years we protested herring fishing and they never did a thing about it. The Fish and Game always says ‘we have it under control.’ They don’t have it under control. It’s completely out of control,” Hope said. “All those blank spaces out there in Sitka Sound? They used to have herring and now they don’t. It’s just a matter of time before none of them are left.”

After the sac roe herring harvest is over, the traditional subsistence harvest of eggs on hemlock branches begins.

Hope and a handful of other members from the tribe will display signs protesting the seine herring fishery during their march this evening. The signs include phrases like “Let the Herring Spawn.”

Hope said raising awareness is one of the few options they have to protest the herring fishery because the stakeholders “seem to be focused only on the profit.”

Hope added that his hope for herring management is that the sac roe fishery will be closed to allow the population to grow.

“You shouldn’t even open it. You should keep it closed and never even open it again because it’s too important,” Hope said. “You have to have an industry that will keep the salmon alive, the halibut alive, black cod, ling cod … they all have to be alive.”

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Information from: Daily Sitka (Alaska) Sentinel, https://www.sitkasentinel.com/

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