Subsistence harvesters, seiners react to fuel spill north of Sitka

A tugboat grounded on a rocky beach
View of the Western Mariner and primary boom configuration as of March 25. (ADEC Photo)

Herring seiners and subsistence harvesters are grappling with a large diesel spill near Sitka that happened last Monday.

On Thursday, state managers shifted the focus of the commercial fishery away from the areas where an oily sheen has been reported and were conducting test fishing instead on eastern shore of Kruzof Island.

KCAW spoke with commercial fisherman Matt Kinney on Friday, who said the weather forecast was one sign that fishing could happen soon — which it did, with an opening this weekend.

“I think this nice stretch of weather that we have coming into the weekend is going to cause the picture to change quite a bit, and you’ll see a lot of fish separate out,” Kinney said. “And we’re actually seeing a tremendous amount of biomass out there.”

Kinney has been on the Kruzof shoreline and north into Promisla Bay. No sign of the diesel sheen had been reported in those areas. Over the week, diesel sheen was reported from as far north as St. John Baptist Bay and, as of Thursday, as far south as Krestof Sound, near the Magoun Islands.

Kinney says wind had pushed the sheen north, and the schools of herring commercial fishermen are tracking hadn’t moved into Krestof Sound yet.

“There really hasn’t been any fish mixed with the diesel that I’ve seen, but you know, I know there’s a lot of concern about that,” Kinney said. “And so we’re trying to be really careful. You know, they won’t let us fish anywhere where there’s even a hint of sheen. And that’s really responsible by the department.”

Subsistence harvesters begin to assess fuel spill impact on fishing grounds

While commercial fishermen were preparing for a fishery, subsistence harvesters were trying to figure out how the diesel spill could affect their harvest season, which typically happens a little later in the spring. Krestof Sound — one of the areas where diesel sheen was spotted on Thursday — is an important spawning area for herring.

Andrew Roberts has been harvesting herring eggs since the early 1980s. He was heading out Friday afternoon to scout locations for setting branches.

“I am very concerned. Very concerned,” Roberts said. “And it’s almost like it’s kind of a worst-case scenario of the catastrophic spill like this … during a time when the precious herring are expected to spawn.”

He says in all the years he’s harvested, he’s never seen a fuel spill this big or this close to spawning grounds. He typically sets branches in the Hayward Strait area but said he would be documenting any diesel sheen he spots along the way and looking for safer locations to harvest eggs.

Roberts’ partner, Paulette Moreno, who has been harvesting eggs for the last decade, says the stakes are high for the herring right now, and called on Sitkans to respond.

“I believe this is an emergency. We need more resources sent to the Sound as soon as possible,” Moreno said. “We went through an area close to [the spill site]  just a couple of days ago. And it was such an eerie silence. I didn’t see any wildlife or marine life in sight. And it was a strong feeling of mourning. So I would humbly call on all of us as a community, and supporters of our community, to gather and use their voices, that absolutely every tool and every resource is brought here to Sitka and is put on this area.”

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