Togiak herring not on menu for processors

For the first time in many decades, there will be no commercial harvest of herring in Togiak this spring, due to lack of market interest.

According to a story from public radio’s Izzy Ross at KDLG in Dillingham, processors have indicated that they will not be buying Togiak herring, as indicated by a survey from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game that was released March 20.

That means that the quota of 57,400 tons of herring will stay in the water and return to spawn again.

Other than a food and bait herring fishery that takes place around Dutch Harbor, which is factored into the Togiak harvest level, there will be no sac roe herring harvest in the area this season.

The Togiak herring fishery was once big business, Ross reports, stating that in the late 1980s and early 1990s the fishermen made as much as $1,000 per ton for the fish, which are largely sold in Japan for their roe. But changing tastes in that country has severely depressed the market, with prices fluctuating between $50 and $150 per ton in the last few years, making it financially much less feasible, especially considering the distance traveled by most boats, with the cost of fuel and groceries taking a larger bite from dwindling profits.

Fish and Game’s manager for the fishery, Tim Sands, said they’ve seen an especially sharp decline in interest since the COVID-19 pandemic began three years ago, and only one processor bought herring.

“Then the last couple of years, we’ve only had two processors,” Sands said. “Previously, we’ve had four, at least, each year. So the economics of it apparently aren’t penciling out for the processors, and they’re making that call not to participate. And this year is the same situation.”

The size of the commercial fleet in Togiak has shrunk as well. It used to comprise hundreds of vessels. But last year no gill netters fished, and just eight purse seine vessels participated, hauling in less than a quarter of the available harvest.”

Togiak herring, meanwhile, are doing just fine. This spring’s herring biomass is forecast to be 316,200 tons, which is far above average. The department says that that large forecast is mainly due to the survival of two age classes of herring. Most of the mature herring this year will be 6- and 7-year-old fish, with an average weight of 321 grams.

“They’re on the smaller side for what we traditionally think of as marketable in Togiak,” Sands said. “Typically, the processors would like 380 gram fish or larger. And so that’s one of the things that makes the fish less desirable these last few years, is that these younger fish that have dominated the total population are just a little bit smaller, and don’t have that additional value for the carcass that we’d see if they were 400 grams and up.”

The herring in Southeast, mostly in Sitka Sound, are much smaller on average, and some processors have declined to participate in recent years because of the large component of younger, smaller year classes. For example, ADF&G predicts an average weight of 134 grams for the 2023 biomass.

Water temperatures in the southeastern Bering Sea and at the spawning grounds near Togiak influence when the herring spawn, and department staff will still survey the biomass this spring. They use sea surface temperature models near Unalaska to predict the run timing and also track the Bering Sea’s ice coverage in February and March. This year, herring are expected to start spawning around Togiak on April 29.

The lack of a commercial sac roe fishery for the run doesn’t affect the Dutch Harbor food and bait fishery to the south, which is allocated about 4,000 tons.

Cristy Fry can be reached at