The Council has classified the Prince William Sound (PWS) population of Pacific herring (Clupea pallasi) as a resource that has not recovered from the effects of the 1989 oil spill. The PWS herring population was increasing prior to 1989 with record harvests reported just before the spill. The 1989 year class was one of the smallest cohorts of spawning adults recorded and by 1993 the fishery had collapsed with only 25% of the expected adults returning to spawn. The PWS fishery was closed from 1993 to 1996, but reopened in 1997 and 1998, based on an increasing population. Numbers again declined in 1999, and the fishery remains closed today. The 1993 collapse can be explained by several competing hypothesis; however, data uncertainty makes it unlikely that the reasons will be known.
The Council recognizes the uncertainty with regard to the role of the 1989 spill and the current depressed state of the PWS herring population. However, herring are considered a keystone species in the marine ecosystem and play a vital role in the food chain of many injured species. Thus, rebuilding the herring population has the potential to support the restoration of these injured species. In addition, supporting a healthy herring population may compensate for some of the losses in fishing opportunities that resulted from the spill and its damage to salmon and species other than herring. In April 2006, prompted by public comments about the continuing impacts to communities and commercial fishermen from herring losses, the Council convened scientists and researchers, commercial and subsistence fishermen, and natural resource managers for a herring workshop. One of the most important outcomes of the workshop was the consensus that a long-term strategic herring restoration program was needed if viable herring recovery activities were to be implemented. From 2006 to 2008, Council representatives met with natural resource managers, commercial fishers, scientists, the Public Advisory Committee (PAC) and Alaska Native residents of spill-area communities to gain sufficient input to draft a cost-efficient, scientifically credible, and coordinated program. This effort produced the first draft of the Integrated Herring Restoration Program (IHRP) in December 2008.
The goal of the IHRP is to determine what, if anything, can be done to successfully restore PWS herring; to determine what steps can be taken to examine the reasons for the continued decline of herring in the Sound; to identify and evaluate potential recovery options; and to recommend a course of action for restoration. The document is currently being reviewed and updated with new information and will serve as a general road map for the Council's herring-related funding decisions. The Council has proposed to fund $20 million for research in this area over a twenty-year period.