Commercial seiners in Sitka Sound harvest approximately 20% of the available herring biomass during the Sac Roe fishery, so a high biomass forecast generally results in a high indicative harvest level (GHL). The exception to this rule occurs when state managers want to “hedge against uncertainty” in certain herring age classes. This is why the harvest recommendation was lower in 2021, even though the biomass was higher than expected for 2022. Nevertheless, the herring roe market has been in decline for at least a decade. (KCAW/Rachel Waldholz)

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game announced Friday (1/14/21) the largest harvest guideline ever for the Sitka Sac Roe Herring fishery this spring – over 45,000 tons – but it is unlikely that the market can accommodate that many fish.

Aaron Dupuis is the biologist responsible for herring management at Sitka. The seiners only landed 16,000 tonnes of herring last year, just under half of the harvest guideline. In 2020 and 2019, there was no fishing at all. Dupuis says market demands — as much as biology — have shaped roe fishing in recent years.

“The reason there was no fishing in 19 and 20 was not a biomass issue, it was the size of the fish,” Dupuis said. “The size of the fish was not marketable for what they wanted in Japan.”

The total herring biomass in Sitka Sound (225,820 tonnes) is actually somewhat lower than last year. The high harvest target (45,164 tonnes, or 20 percent) is the result of a favorable age distribution of fish: nearly 60 percent of this spring’s biomass is expected to be 6-year-olds, weighing 136 grams – near the sweet spot for herring buyers in Asia.

However, Dupuis does not see license holders, processors and buyers mobilizing to harvest the available supply.

“It’s going to be attractive,” Dupuis said, “but similarly the markets can’t handle that much, so it wouldn’t be physically possible for the industry to harvest the full GHL (Guideline Harvest Level ) with the infrastructure in place today.”

The most recent high tides for the Sitka Sac Roe fishery were in 2009 and 2010, when the roughly 50 license holders landed between 15,000 and 18,000 tonnes of herring, which sold for more than $12 million each year . Since then, purse seiners have had much larger harvests, which have sold for much less. In 2018, purse seiners landed just over 11,000 tonnes, which sold for around $1 million.

See ADF&G’s Sitka Sac Roe Herring crop brief.

Dupuis would say the 2022 biomass forecast is a peak – if not for the large number of 3-year-olds seen in the Sound last year – the sixth-largest “class” of 3-year-olds in the history of the department. These fish are now 4 years old and – at more than a quarter of the overall biomass – they are just behind the 6 year olds.

“I feel quite comfortable with what we see coming at the back to fill this huge age group,” Dupuis said. “So it’s not going to be a precipitous drop, at least compared to what I’m seeing right now.”

Dupuis says this year’s bag egg fishery will take place around the same time as the Southeast Fisheries Council meeting on fish and shellfish – originally scheduled for Ketchikan in January, but since postponed to March in Anchorage. While there are numerous herring proposals on the board’s agenda, Dupuis (doo-PWEE) does not expect any regulatory decisions to change the course of this year’s fishery.

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