Story last updated at 7/9/2014 - 2:11 pm
At the end of June, herring returned to Auke Bay to spawn in significant numbers for the first time in more than 20 years - and though the ultimate success of the eggs remains to be seen, it's a promising sign for those working to increase herring's abundance in Lynn Canal and Southeast Alaska.
Lynn Canal herring stocks have been depressed for decades. For the last seven years until recently, first Lynn Canal and then Southeast herring stocks were under consideration for listing as an endangered species, but neither population was deemed distinct enough for the listing.
The herring fishery closed in Lynn Canal and around Juneau in 1982, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The spawning biomass has, for the most part, been less than 2,000 tons. Between 2001 and 2004, it was less than 1,000 tons.
More recent surveys point to significant improvement, and the return of herring to Auke Bay gives hope to those who remember the abundance of decades past. Dwain Reddekopp is one of those; he grew up there.
"There used to be milt all the way from Berners Bay down to Tee Harbor," he said. "There was a big herring pod in Indian Cove, where halibut fishermen got fresh bait before they went out ... Back when we were kids growing up in Auke Bay, we could go sport fishing (and) we never had to buy herring."
Spawn volume is measured in miles, said marine ecologist Michelle Ridgway. The area used to consistently have at least 12 to 13 miles of spawn. But since the 1980s, there's been less than a mile. In recent years, it's been just small areas.
Ridgway has an office in Auke Bay and has been keeping tabs on herring there and elsewhere for a while. Some three-year-old-herring overwintered in Auke Bay, arriving around Thanksgiving and disappearing in the spring, she said. And about two weeks ago, much larger female adult herring she estimates at between five and eight years old entered the area and began spawning on eel grass, marine algae, cobbles and pilings, mostly in the Fishermen's Bend area of Auke Bay.
"It's pretty significant biomass spawning," she said. "There were a lot of eggs over a three-day period which are still on the pilings and on the biological substrate. It's really exciting. We're definitely trying to see rebuilding of this portion of the stock."
Ridgway isn't sure about the eggs' viability though, as she didn't see any males, or any of their milt, which turns the water a milky, opaque turquoise.
"Added to that, of course, it's a very active harbor area, so water quality issues are certainly a concern as well for fish viability," she said.
The water temperature has also been warm, about one in 20 herring have white patches on them that looks like fungus, and some of the spawning is on creosote pilings, which can have toxic effects on eggs.
Just the same, Ridgway thinks Auke Bay could still have significant capacity for herring spawn. The overwintering herring provide hope, as well. Unlike salmon, herring live after spawning, meaning the event may repeat.
In order to see why the stock in this area decreased so drastically, all a person has to do is look in the mirror, Ridgway said.
"We did it," she said. "We know we did it."
Fisheries in the Auke Bay area in the mid 1980s decimated the population, she said.
"They were literally round hauling herring in Auke Bay Cove," she said. "We've not seen significant spawn since then."
Round hauling is when seiners quickly close their nets, as opposed to leaving them open for a short time, in the presence of large amounts of fish.
Kyle Hebert, Southeast Regional Herring Research Supervisor with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, said the story of herring is complex.
"We don't know the full story about herring in Lynn Canal," he said.
Alaska Department of Fish and Game's monitoring program focuses on the spawning season, he said, though NOAA has done some surveys in the winter months.
"Based on our surveys, we've been seeing a general build up in the stock over the past decade," he said. "Of course, the stock has been at very depressed levels for the past 20 years or so."
Herring, he said, are a volatile stock. The variability is typical of many Southeast fish, especially those with shorter life spans, he said.
Instead of increasing gradually, the stock will jump up, come down, jump up, and drop way down. The overall trend, however, is toward "somewhat of a rapid increase," he said.
Why has the herring stock been deeply depressed for so long?
"That's the million dollar question," Hebert said. "We don't know what was driving the stock to be depressed for so many years. Certainly, back in the 1970s and 1980s there was commercial fishing going on, and that was probably one of the factors that drove the stock down. But the fact that it stayed depressed for so long without any rebound without any fishing pressure puzzled us. It may be that it just took decades to rebound ... it's kind of a mystery."
Return to the past
Sealaska Heritage Institute Director of Culture and History Department Chuck Smythe said Auke Bay used to host the largest herring run in the area.
Sunshine Cove and Eagle Beach also got large numbers of spawn, he said. Indian Cove was called Herring Cove until 1959, when the Park Service acquired the area.
"There were herring eggs at Indian Point for hundreds of years," Ridgway said. "It was a quality spawning and nursery area. But we knocked the population down hard and then we had a lot of buildup in the area."
Around April 15 each year, herring used to arrive in Auke Bay and "spawn on everything," Reddekopp said.
"I know when we built the ferry terminal, they were spawning on the pilings as fast as we could drive them," he said. "A lot of natives used to go out there and put hemlock boughs to get herring eggs ... the pilings were just, every place in Auke Bay, covered with eggs a half an inch thick."
"The good news is that it's here - it's still here - and it's never too late to do the right thing to maintain the balance between herring and other forage fish habitat," Ridgway said. "I think we can strike that balance. ... It's still far less than 20 years ago, but it gives us hope. Auke Bay has still got it."