Sitka Tribe of Alaska sues state, claiming mismanagement of herring fishery

Jeff Feldpausch stands in front of bags of hemlock branches, ready for distribution to elders. He noted the bare spots on the branches, illustrating the annual need for subsistence coming up short. (Photo by Emily Kwong/KCAW)

A tribal government is filing suit against the state of Alaska, alleging mismanagement of the Sitka sac roe herring fishery. The Sitka Tribe of Alaska has retained a major Anchorage law firm that specializes in tribal advocacy and subsistence issues.

For 20 years, tribal leaders have been worried about the health of Sitka’s herring. The silvery fish return every spring to spawn and are pursued by commercial fisherman, subsistence harvesters and marine mammals alike. As a forage fish, they’re a cornerstone of the ecosystem.

Jessie Johnnie told the story of Herring Rock to the Alaska Board of Fisheries in 1997 — one of a young Tlingit woman sitting on the rock and lowering her hair into the ocean for the herring to lay their eggs.

“All the herring would come to the rock and swim around,” Johnnie said, “and she would sing lullabies to them.”

Herring have cultural, ecological and economic significance for Sitka. But the message to the Board of Fisheries back then was that the herring weren’t spawning the same way in the same places, and subsistence harvesters were struggling to gather enough roe.

Herman Kitka, testifying at that 1997 meeting, feared for the worst.

“If nothing is done,” Kitka said, “we will lose the herring stock that is left in Sitka Sound.”

In 2018, his son Harvey Kitka went before the Board of Fisheries to say the same thing: Act now, or potentially lose our herring. STA proposed capping the commercial harvest of herring at 10 percent. But the board took no action, maintaining a formula that calculates a sliding scale of 12-to-20 percent depending on the size of the biomass.

KCAW’s Emily Kwong spoke with Kitka afterwards. He said he wasn’t surprised by the board’s decision, but he wondered if his father’s forecast was coming true.

“It’s happening right now, what we were concerned about back then,” Kitka said back in January.

In March, the herring fishery opened and ran into trouble. Because the commercial herring fishery is driven by processors, they need fish of a certain quality to market their product, largely to Japan and other Asian countries.

Eric Coonradt, the Sitka area management biologist for the state, said the fish this year  — most of which were four-year-olds — were simply too small.

“The quality with which processors needed to market these fish was 125 grams or better and 11 percent roe or better, and if you look at our forecast, 92 percent of the fish didn’t meet that demand,” Coonradt said.

In other words, they were looking for the biggest and best fish out there but didn’t find enough. The fleet fell over 8,000 tons short of their quota, and the commercial fishery closed early for the fourth time in six years. The fishery is driven by the formula, and Coonradt noted it’s up to the Board of Fisheries to change it.

“Unless we had a biological concern, we couldn’t close this fishery ourselves. What they’d have to do is bring it to the Board of Fish as an emergency petition. That’s their option,” Coonradt said.

Subsistence harvesters didn’t have much luck either.

Jeff Feldpausch is the resource protection director for STA. While his team bagged hemlock branches covered with herring eggs for distribution to elders, he pointed to bare spots on the branches.

“People don’t want trees in their freezer. It’s all about putting eggs in their freezers, not branches,” Feldpausch said. “This is looking grim. This is really grim.”

Although the harvest was insufficient for both commercial and subsistence purposes, the state is preparing for next season’s fishery under the same model. In December, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game announced they anticipate a spawning mass of 64,000 tons of herring in Sitka Sound, around 9,000 more pounds than was originally predicted — and set a commercial quota at 20 percent of that forecast.

This infuriates the Sitka Tribe of Alaska. On Dec. 11, STA filed a lawsuit against Fish and Game and the Board of Fisheries in Superior Court. They’re not calling for an all-out closure of the fishery; they’re asking for an injunction against Fish and Game, requiring them to develop a new management plan for the fishery prior to the start of the season next March. STA also wants the court to find that the actions of the Board of Fisheries and the Department of Fish and Game are illegal under Alaska law.

In a press release on Friday, STA chair Kathy Hope Erickson called for protection of the subsistence way of life.

“The time is now,” Erickson said, “to ensure our people have the chance to fulfill their cultural responsibilities which have been interwoven with the herring since time immemorial, and to fill their freezers. We cannot sit by while the State of Alaska shirks its statutory and constitutional duties to citizens. We demand action by the state.”

STA has retained the Anchorage law firm of Landye Bennett Blumstein LLP as legal counsel. The state of Alaska has 30 days to reply to the suit.

Editor’s note: Landye Bennett Blumstein LLP is an underwriter for Alaska Public Media.