This morning at 10:30 the seiner fleet started fishing. The Sac Roe Herring fishery started north of Middle Island and lasted for 8 hours. It’s a controversial fishery. It takes tons of herring to get the egg sacs of the females. The rest of the biomass becomes cat food I suppose. Native elders say that taking the fish in this way depletes the resource and tell stories of how you used to be able to stick a paddle in the water and it would stand up, held there by the mass of herring.
Native Alaskans traditionally eat the eggs, but they lay out hemlock branches for the herring lay eggs on. Some fall through the needles and hatch, others remain on the branches creating “Easter trees,” boughs laden with herring eggs. And the herring live to spawn another year.
Fish biologists claim that the take by the purse seiners is sustainable and the fishery has been well- managed. The tribe disagrees and sought an injunction to stop this year’s fishery. (The fishery didn’t go for the last two years either because of low quality roe or a bad market.)
It’s always exciting when this fishery starts. It is the harbinger of spring. Folks line the shore with binoculars trying to catch the action, and it is a fishery with lots of action. Boats try to position themselves for the best catch, with airplanes overhead spotting the schools of herring. Skiffs set out from the mother ship spreading their nets.
Sitka is full of fishermen from all over the region. Just under 80% are Alaskans but not too many are from Sitka. Each year I’s good to see friends from Petersburg or Homer. But the fact that the permit holders are almost all from outside Sitka adds to local resentment and to the controversy over the fishery.
But despite the controversy the fishery is on and I drove out to see if I could see the seiners work the fishery. Some years they fish right along the shore. This year they were further out. I could see them at a distance.
Close up there was a different fishery going on. As I was driving back from my walk, I saw a line of cars parked along the road and pulled over. There was a mixture of rain and snow and it was slushy underfoot.
The boats were in the distance but closer in, remarkably close, humpback whales were fishing. They fish in a similar way as the fisherman. Rather than setting nets made of fiber they blew “nets” of bubbles, herding the salmon into ball, just like the fishermen, and then lunge upward, mouths open, eating their fill. No permit needed.