Historically, March is when crews would start gearing up for the herring fishing season to start in April, but herring have been slow to recover in the 30 years since the Exxon Valdez oil spill.

Scott Pegau, coordinator of the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council's Herring Research and Monitoring Program, said herring numbers dropped and stayed low for years after the spill, citing information from a 2012 Prince William Sound Area Finfish Management Report.

"Once the herring collapsed, it went down to, from about 120,000 tons to under 20,000 tons, and it stayed there for a long time," Pegau said.

According to the report, herring numbers recovered for a couple years in the late 1990s, about a decade after the spill, but then collapsed even further.

Pegau says he and some others believe the decline is directly related to the oil from the 1989 spill and that disease has started to show up in herring.

"What a lot of us believed caused the initial collapse, it's a really lethal viral infection that can drop the population pretty rapidly," Pegau said.

Another leader in Cordova says the economic impact of lower herring numbers has been huge.

Katrina Hoffman, president and CEO of the Prince William Sound Science Center, says the center commissioned a report on the economic impact of the oil spill and herring numbers.

The 2017 study included the loss of Cordova’s herring fishery.

"Cordova owned about 40 percent of the permits in that herring fishery, and so you can roughly translate, this town incurred about 40 percent of the value of the losses. You can't understand what the impact of a loss of $400 million is over 30 years to a town of this size and a state like Alaska. It goes well beyond just the dollar value," Hoffman said.

Hoffman added that there are also cultural concerns with lower herring numbers. 

"A lost way of life, not to mention the Native villages that exist in Prince William Sound still today such at Tatitlek for whom gathering herring eggs is a huge part of their annual ritual,” Hoffman said. “It's the start of spring. It's a point of pride. It's a point of sustenance. It's just a practice that people hand down from one generation of a family to another that folks are no longer able to do.”

Research involving the Prince William Science Center on why herring numbers are lower in ongoing, including looking at what herring eat and tagging them to see where they travel as well as tracking the fish with sonar and conducting spawning surveys.

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