Herring

Alaska herring harvest. (NOAA photo)

The upcoming herring sac roe fishery season will boast the highest harvest level in modern history, but fishermen are worried about the potential for low prices. 

“The price is likely to be low,” longtime Kodiak fisherman Oliver Holm said, adding that it’s unlikely that all of the allowed harvest will be caught.

Holm said he had fished for herring from the 1970s until about four years ago, when the price and size of the fish declined. 

Decreased landing revenue has also been reported across many fish species in Alaska because of impacts from the COVID-19 pandemic. 

A report on the impact of the pandemic on the fishing industry released by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in 2020 estimated that landings revenue in Alaska from January through August 2020 declined by nearly 35% from the previous four years.

This translated into a decline of $549 million from $1.59 billion, primarily due to a combination of lower volume and lower prices. 

This year’s guideline harvest level for Kodiak’s sac roe herring fishery has been set at a historic high of 7,895 tons, or 15.8 million pounds. It is slated to open on April 1. 

Although the fish are bigger this year, there is likely to be a high number of small fish that cannot be sold on the market, Holm said, noting that small, juvenile fish are good for fish population health, but they are not large enough to market. 

He pointed out that the market for Kodiak’s herring is dependent on the two bigger herring hot spots in Sitka and Togiak.

“I’m not sure how eager the processors are to buy the (Kodiak) fish. It may depend on Sitka. They have a good guideline harvest level, but (fishermen) may or may not catch it all,” Holm said. “If they catch it, that may impact the market in Kodiak.” 

James Jackson, an area management biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, said participation in Kodiak’s herring fishery might increase slightly, but it is also dependent on Sitka and Togiak’s sac roe fishery. 

“Kodiak is right there in between the two of them,” Jackson said about the herring hot spots. “It sometimes depends on the timing. If Sitka is late and Togiak is early, then even if we have a large GHL, boats will go right by because there is a larger GHL in Togiak.”

Jackson said that last year, Kodiak’s fishery had eight participants, while this year he expects 10 to 15 vessels. 

Kodiak’s harvest level is just a fraction of those in Sitka (33,304 tons, or 66.6 million pounds) and Togiak (42,639 tons, or 85.3 million pounds). Despite the high harvest limit in Sitka, a Fish and Game press release said the harvest there is unlikely to exceed 20,000 tons, or 40 million pounds. 

Jackson said that in many areas in Southeast Alaska where herring congregate to spawn, there has been a large number of older fish growing big enough to enter the fishery, which points to bountiful harvests in upcoming seasons. 

These fish can be traced to a large group of herring that entered the Gulf of Alaska fishery a couple years ago. 

Jackson said he expects good harvests from this group of herring, which will reach 5 years old and “middle aged” over the next couple years. 

Last year, Kodiak had a total herring harvest of 8 million pounds, a big increase compared to previous years that saw harvests below 800,000 — the average annual harvest over the last five years, according to Fish and Game. 

Starting around 2015, many of the older age classes of herring died, and it took several years for the fishery to rebuild. 

After previous years of low herring harvests, this year “should be a good fishery,”Jackson said. 

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