Biologist Steiner calls for herring permit buyback

Posted: Thursday, October 31, 2002

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- The panel that oversees spending of the Exxon Valdez oil spill settlement is giving a cool reception to a proposal to buy back herring permits in Prince William Sound.

Biologist Rick Steiner, the conservation specialist with the University of Alaska's Marine Advisory Program, asked the council Tuesday to spend as much as $30 million in oil spill restoration funds to buy back fishing permits and to reimburse fish processors and coastal communities for lost income.

''Many scientists now feel that ... herring are more valuable in the water rather than being harvested,'' Steiner said.

Molly McCammon, executive director of the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council, said the buyback could be a tough sell to the council. It nixed previous requests to buy pink salmon permits, in part, she said, ''because our mission is restoration and our focus is on natural resources,'' not in fixing economic and social problems.

McCammon said council members asked Steiner no questions and gave her no instructions to work on it further.

For more than 30 years the Sound had a thriving herring fishery that targeted the roe, or eggs, for export to Japan. A virus drastically reduced the population after the 1989 oil spill, and fishing has been canceled most seasons since 1993. Many believe the disease was exacerbated by oil spill stress, Steiner said, but that theory has never been proven.

Even as Prince William Sound's fishery has ground to a halt, the rest of Alaska's herring industry has suffered other problems. Prices plummeted during the 1990s because of Japan's weak economy and changing tastes. Fish that once brought $2,000 a ton now are worth only a fraction of that. Some fishermen have quit fishing, and some processors have stopped buying.

Perhaps more important than the economic benefit, Steiner said, the buyback would ensure that when herring stocks rebound, they will benefit the entire ecosystem. Herring are a major part of the diet of numerous species in the Sound, from salmon to Steller sea lions.

Research biologist Steve Moffitt, of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in Cordova, said he couldn't predict the environmental value of eliminating the Sound's herring fishery, and can't see the economic value, either.

''I think that would be just one more blow to coastal communities that would be difficult to overcome,'' he said.

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