It is a very unusual year for herring, to say the least. In addition to, and in some part because of, the crisis created by the COVID-19 pandemic, the Sitka Sound sac roe fishery was essentially canceled due to lack of buyer interest, Togiak has one buyer, and the Kodiak is ongoing and productive.
James Jackson, area management biologist for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in Kodiak, was upbeat, and said that 10 boats were fishing, four processors were buying, and lots of fish were being caught.
“We haven’t really had a fishery for a few years because the fish have been spawning early, but the (Alaska Board of Fisheries) made a change at this year’s meeting to change the start date from April 15 to April 1, so that changed a lot,” he said.
He said about 1,400-1,500 tons had been taken as of Tuesday and he had heard the price was around $300 per ton.
“It looks like we have a lot of herring on the island,” he said.
He added that the majority of the fish looked to be in the four-year age class, so they were trying to keep the quotas low to allow those fish to grow.
Jackson said there was probably another two to three weeks left in the fishery, but that perhaps half of the fleet might be headed for Togiak.
However, that seems unlikely.
According to public radio station KDLG in Dillingham, Icicle Seafoods is the sole processor buying Togiak herring this spring, which ADF&G area management biologist Tim Sands said he expects to open around the first week of May, and that Icicle expects two seiners and three gillnetters, mostly local, to participate.
Chris Pugmire is Icicle’s general manager of operations for Western Alaska, and he told KDLG they have a preventative strategy in place to protect the health of the surrounding communities by eliminating any contact between them and the processors. They plan to accomplish this by utilizing a floating processor, the Gordon Jensen.
“Our plan is to bring the Gordon Jensen up to Togiak here at the end of the month. We’ll anchor off-shore, and we’ll keep our crew and staff on board the vessel for the duration of the fishery,” he said, adding that Icicle plans to have “zero impact” on the communities.
According to Pugmire, Icicle is not straying much from its normal playbook with regard to the Togiak herring fishery. The workers on board the Gordon Jensen have not had contact with anyone off the vessel since early March, when Icicle locked down operations and stopped bringing on new crew members due to the pandemic.
The market for herring has declined in recent years, and even before the COVID-19 pandemic, Trident Seafoods pulled out of the fishery. Still, Pugmire said, Icicle is holding out optimism despite the uncertainty surrounding this season.
“We feel that it’s going to be strong enough to certainly justify the effort, but beyond that, I wouldn’t even feel comfortable speculating, because there’s just so many variables right now that could influence market conditions and… I mean, we’re always optimistic,” he said.
Sands said the shrinking participation from processors and fishermen is due to the lack of market for herring.
He said that the pandemic is affecting ADF&G research as well, and that this year, they are not bringing a field crew out to sample the commercial catch.
“The one processor is going to have a floating processor, so it’s going to be harder for us to get samples from them, versus if they were in Naknek and we could just go down to the plants and get them,” he said.
Sands will also be the only person conducting aerial surveys. While that’s not ideal, Sands said, they will work with the data they have.
Meanwhile, in Sitka Sound herring have not stopped doing what herring do whether there is a fishery or not.
Spawn sightings began around March 25, about 5 miles worth at the time, and about the same time of year as last season. Area management biologist Aaron Dupuis said while it is too early to determine age class, the fish appear healthy.
Cristy Fry can be reached at email@example.com