Herring are a keystone species in Southeast Alaska, playing a central role in marine food webs and also of significant importance as a commercial and subsistence species in many communities. NOAA Fisheries conducted a status review of the Southeast Alaska distinct population segment of Pacific herring under the Endangered Species Act in 2014 and found that the species did not warrant listing.
About the Species
Pacific herring is a coastal schooling species found on both the eastern and western sides of the Pacific Ocean. In the eastern North Pacific Ocean, herring range from Beaufort Sea, Alaska, south to Baja California, Mexico.
Commercial fishing of Pacific herring in Southeast Alaska began during the late 19th century in the form of reduction fisheries—fisheries that "reduce" or turn their catch into fishmeal and fish oil. These essentially unregulated removals significantly reduced populations throughout the region until the industry closed in the 1960s. Current herring fisheries are managed by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game to ensure sustainability and include methods that target both adult fish and roe.
Pacific herring typically form large schools in depths from the surface to 1,300 feet. In addition to schooling, they use countershading for protection from predators—they are dark blue to olive on their backs, shading to silver on their sides and belly which makes them hard to see from above and below. Pacific herring can reach 18 inches in length, weigh up to 1.2 pounds, and can live up to 19 years.
Adult Pacific herring migrate inshore, entering estuaries to breed once per year, with timing varying by latitude. They do not feed from the start of this migration through spawning, a period of up to two weeks. Herring spawn in shallow areas along shorelines, between the subtidal and intertidal zones. Eggs are deposited on kelp, eelgrass, and other available structures. After spawning, herring return to their summer feeding areas.
It is generally thought that after hatching, herring larvae remain in nearshore waters close to their spawning grounds where they feed and grow in the protective cover of shallow water habitats. After 2 to 3 months, the larvae metamorphose into juveniles. During the summer of their first year, these juveniles form schools in shallow bays, inlets, and channels. These schools disappear in the fall and then move to deep water for the next 2 to 3 years.
Herring feed on phytoplankton and zooplankton in nutrient-rich waters associated with oceanic upwelling. Young feed mainly on crustaceans, but also eat decapod and mollusk larvae, whereas adults prey mainly on large crustaceans and small fishes. Although some mixing occurs, tagging studies show that Pacific herring stick together, remaining in the same school for years.
Conservation and Management
The commercial herring fishery in Lynn Canal and the Juneau, Alaska area has been closed since 1982.
The Southeast Alaska Herring Management Plan for other spawning aggregates in Southeast Alaska requires that forecasted biomass estimates meet a designated minimum threshold, preset for each of the stocks, before commercial fishing is allowed. Harvest policies are then guided by a sliding-scale harvest rate between 10 and 20 percent. The maximum exploitation rate is 20 percent of the mature biomass, which is consistent with other herring fisheries on the west coast of North America. Learn more about the management of commercial herring fisheries in Southeast Alaska.
Herring population abundance trends are very dynamic and are subject to fairly substantial changes on both large and small geographic scales. Fluctuations in abundance are largely determined by marine conditions, which affect herring survival, growth, and recruitment. In Southeast Alaska, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game manages the herring fishery on a long-term, sustained yield basis. The agency monitors and manages several spawning aggregations within Southeast Alaska, including:
- Hoonah Sound
- Seymour Canal
- Tenakee Inlet
- Ernest Sound
- West Behm Canal
- Revilla Channel (Kah Shakes/Cat Island)
- Lynn Canal
Key Actions and Documents
- Announcement of Listing Determination/Not Warranted
- Status Review of Southeast Alaska Herring (PDF, 177 pages)
- Summary of Peer Reviewer Comments and Response for the Status Review of Southeast Alaska Herring (PDF, 7 pages)
2008 - NOAA Fisheries found that listing Lynn Canal Pacific herring as threatened or endangered under the ESA was not warranted because the population did not constitute a species, subspecies, or distinct population segment under the ESA. However, NOAA Fisheries initiated a status review for a larger Southeast Alaska distinct population segment (Dixon Entrance northward to Cape Fairweather and Icy Point) which included all Pacific herring stocks in Southeast Alaska, including the petitioned Lynn Canal population (73 FR 19824).
- Status Review of Lynn Canal Herring (PDF, 155 pages)
2007 - NOAA Fisheries received a petition (PDF, 88 pages) to designate the Lynn Canal stock of Pacific herring as a threatened or endangered distinct population segment under the ESA.