Alaska herring stocks on the rise, but fleet is not finding the right-sized fish

Published on
February 15, 2021

Just two seiners and one gillnetter participated in the 2020 herring season in Togiak, Alaska. With a guideline harvest of 38,749 metric tons (MT), it is believed those that participated did well, though exact harvest data will remain confidential due to rules allowing the participants not to report catch data with fewer than five vessels partaking in the harvest.

Elsewhere in Alaska, the Sitka sac roe fishery struck out last year after managers and the industry decided the fishery should remain closed for its second year in a row. The predominance of herring recruiting into the fishery have been three-year-olds. With weights of about 90 grams per fish, buyers aren’t interested in the tiny egg skeins for salted roe markets in Japan.

Managers had hoped the fishery would target a growing population of four-year-olds, but they average 110 grams – still shy of the 140-gram fish that produce ideal skein size for the market. It didn’t help that the processing industry had been hobbled by the onset of COVID in the weeks before the season typically opens. 

Meanwhile, more than 900 miles northwest of Sitka, the Togiak industry suffers from fish too large for the market. In the Bering Sea, herring grow to 285 to 330 grams by the time they are six- and seven-year-olds, which is the predominant age class harvested in the fishery. Still, one floating processor anchored at Togiak last year and sent product to Japan.

While the abundance of herring stocks in both Sitka and Togiak continue to rise, the declining trend in demand over the past decade for the salted skeins indicates the industry has returned to its levels from the 1960s and early 1970s.

As for the coming season, Tim Sands, the state’s area management biologist in Dillingham, said recent surveys indicate there will be plenty of fish and that 27 percent of those will be 240-gram five-year-olds, which are a bit closer to the target for market size. Another 47 percent are expected to be six- and seven-year-olds, which should weigh in at under 300 grams.

“This is a much smaller fish size than we’re used to at Togiak,” Sands said.

With 42,000 MT on tap for the 2021 season, it’s highly likely only a fraction of the potential harvest will make it to market.

“Even with four processors, you can’t catch that many fish. You can’t freeze them,” Sands said.

Reporting by Charlie Ess

Photo courtesy of NOAA

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