‘Herring Protectors’ gather at Sitka’s courthouse as commercial fishery gears up

person holds a sign outside a courthouse
Demonstrators gathered outside of Sitka Courthouse earlier this week as the annual commercial herring fishery is slated to begin. (KCAW/Berett Wilber)

A commercial herring fishery in Sitka will likely happen this year after a two-year hiatus, but the fishery continues to face opposition from local tribes.

Last week, about 60 demonstrators gathered outside Sitka’s courthouse in the pouring rain to call for changes to the management of the fishery. Some brought drums and sang. Others held signs that read “Honor the herring” and “33,000 tons? You’ve got to be crazy.”

The demonstration was organized by a local activist group called the Herring Protectors. The group advocates for herring and subsistence harvesters, and calls into question the state’s management of the commercial herring fishery. The group said it chose the location because the Alaska Department of Fish & Game office is inside the courthouse.

Standing in front of the courthouse doors, Louise Brady spoke to the crowd.

“I really appreciate you being out here because the voices of our Tribal Elders, the voices of our culture bearers have spoken loud for several decades at the Board of Fish with no response,” she said. “Our herring are so precious to us.”

Brady pointed at sign that read “Respect Tlingit Science.”

Tlingit people successfully took care of the land and waters for thousands of years, she said. Elders have been testifying before the state’s Board of Fisheries for decades now, concerned about changes to the herring spawn and a species in decline.

“They have been trying to tell the state that without herring, we all are going to be in trouble because the herring, the spirit of the herring, they feed us every spring,” she said. “They feed the salmon, they feed the birds, they feed the whales. They feed us.”

The commercial fishery didn’t open last year or the year before. The fish were too young and small to be marketable abroad.

But this year, a fishery is looking more likely. Based on its models, state managers believe it’s sustainable to open the fishery this year, with the highest forecast of fish since the state started recording data in the 1970s.

Fish and Game predicts about 210,000 tons of herring will return to Sitka Sound this year. Of those fish, it has set a harvest limit of 33,000 tons. So far this spring, state aerial surveyors haven’t observed herring spawn in Sitka Sound. Spawning could begin any time between now and April.

But subsistence harvesters continue to report harvesting challenges.

Sitka isn’t the only place where access to the traditional food has become more difficult: The Gwa’sala-‘Nakwaxda’xw Nations, a First Nations government in British Columbia, filed an injunction on March 9 to stop a commercial herring fishery near Vancouver because they found stocks were too low to sustain a harvest. 

Sitka Tribe of Alaska also sued the state over management of the commercial fishery in 2018. Litigation is ongoing, but the Tribe has already won some ground in the fight. Last year, a Juneau judge ruled the state had not demonstrated that it allowed for “reasonable opportunity for subsistence” in the management of the fishery, and ordered the department to make some changes.

According to a news release, the Tribe is working with the state to conduct in-season subsistence harvest monitoring this year, a result of the court’s ruling. The daily data they collect will be considered by state biologists throughout the commercial fishery, to ensure subsistence harvesters have “reasonable” access to the resource.

The commercial fishery goes on two-hour notice March 20. The Herring Protectors say they will continue to organize in the coming weeks.

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