Togiak council seeks changes to herring fishery
December's Board of Fisheries meeting in Naknek will give many parties the opportunity to weigh in on fisheries issues around Alaska, and the Togiak Traditional Council plans to be one of them.
The Council has a number of proposals on the docket for the upcoming meeting, regarding some minor, and some major, changes to Togiak's herring fishery.
Council administrator Jonathan Forsling said he and others among Togiak leadership and locals are concerned about the sustainability of the Togiak herring fishery as it is now.
Togiak herring is a sac roe fishery that takes place in late spring-early summer. It is fished 70 percent by a seine fleet and 30 percent by a drift gillnet fleet.
The council believes the fishery, the largest in the state for herring, is fished too vigorously.
"The way it's being fished so aggressively, it's not allowing for the herring to spawn on the kelp here in Togiak," Forsling said.
In the past, Forsling said, regulating bodies have disagreed with locals' claims that the spawn on kelp is decreasing, thus marking a decline in a healthy herring population.
"In the past five years, we've only been able to harvest spawn on kelp maybe two out of five years," Forsling said. When they are able to harvest, the amount individual families have been able to collect has gone down dramatically from historical amounts, Forsling said.
The roe harvested from the kelp is a subsistence food used in a variety of traditional dishes, he said, relied on by both the ecosystem and the people who live near it.
Forsling is concerned with a tendency to refer to traditional knowledge like this as anecdotal, rather than as scientifically viable observations.
The council is suggesting a variety of ways to mitigate what they see as an overfishing of the area, and a lack of involvement by local fishermen. They have a number of proposals, starting with a minimum of what they want, up to closing the fishery all together as a maximum.
The Alaska Department of Fish and Game will have official comments available on the submitted proposals at the meeting in December, said biologist Tim Sands, but he is confident in the fishery's status at this time.
"The department believes that the Togiak herring population is healthy and stable," Sands wrote in an email, "and the current management is sustainable."
Proposal 12 asks the board to split the herring quota 50/50 between the seine and drift gillnet fleet, rather than its current 70/30. The council claims that could improve local involvement in the fishery.
Proposal 13 takes a more aggressive approach, asking that the herring sac roe fishery be closed through 2016.
That proposal states that the commercial fishery is no longer of economic benefit to local fishermen, and is harming the subsistence spawn on kelp fishery that locals do rely on.
Lastly, Proposal 14 asks the board to extend the closed waters in Togiak Bay to protect spawn on kelp beds for the health of the subsistence resource.
Forsling and approximately 10 other Togiak representatives plan to attend the December meeting on behalf of these and other proposals.
"The Board of Fish process is an exceptional process in the way it allows stake holders to have input into the formation and alteration of regulations that govern fisheries in Alaska," Sands wrote?"The department encourages all stake holders to participate in this process fully."
These proposals are part of how the Togiak Traditional Council is advocating for rejuvenation of local involvement in Togiak's fisheries, but they are also approaching it from another direction.
Forsling is concerned about the wanton waste involved in a solely sac roe fishery, where the fish are stripped of their roe and then discarded. He sees here an opportunity to develop the fishery differently.
"There's a lot of value in the resource that just goes to waste," Forsling said. "We are developing markets for our herring. We know that there's market for the roe. We're developing markets for the actual fish, the actual protein of the fish."
Those market strategies are being developed by Togiak's new processing company, Togiak Seafoods. It is owned by the village and Copper River Seafoods.
"Being that it's a sac roe fishery, there isn't a whole lot a money in it," Forsling said.
He'd like to see the fishery shift, though, from a mere quantity goal to a quality one. They have been sending samples out to buyers, trying to establish a market for a quality herring product based out of Togiak.
"We hope to be buying herring for the sale of the herring meat within two years," Forsling said.
More information on the Board of Fisheries can be found at adfg.alaska.gov.
Hannah Heimbuch can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.