Togiak Sac Roe Herring: Catch the Story Before it’s Gone

My own visual memories of Togiak are not much more than a slate of wide, open grey sky that merged into open grey water. In the early 2000s, I flew out from Homer with a spotter pilot, landed on the beach in the community and then probably took a skiff from the beach to go out to meet my dad’s boat, F/V Agave. At the time, I was certainly not taking notes or paying attention to location details but what I do remember is bleak, grey, bland, flat land. The landscape was nothing like the mountains in south central and south east Alaska, I just recall bleakness. I never had the opportunity to explore the magic features of seeking out glass floats washed from across the Pacific, looking for ivory, exploring the shorelines. I went out to simply fish and retrieve my own juvenile income, not to recall anything else. That was not enough to provide a credible nostalgia of what it was like to fish out there in the peak of the alluring, crazy, chaotic competition combined with a visual recollection of stoic, stark, rural Alaska.

The Togiak Herring Fishing District is located within the Bristol Bay region of Western Alaska. It is a socially isolated area of the state and unlike some of the other herring districts. Sitka, for example, has typical community resources (gear, groceries, medical facilities) in close proximity to the fishery.

“To me, the remote, stark, naked wilderness of Togiak was the biggest difference between that fishery and all the others in the state. Everywhere else you just felt like you were in town. In Togiak it felt like you were in the middle of nowhere, and that was somewhat haunting. In a good way,” described Mitch Flagg who fished herring there with Beaver Nelson for many years.

Commercial herring fisheries in Alaska can not be classified as a substantially historic industry. There were not many state sponsored commercial operations prior to the 1970s. There was a lot of inconsistency in what was and was not available and processors and fishermen with seine and drift gear were looking as best as they could into various opportunities to engage in a lucrative spring fishery. Some of the regions that originally had harvest opportunities no longer exist: Cook Inlet, Prince William Sound, Kamishak Bay. Closures and unavailability of harvestable fish are a result of various issues: climate transitions, disease, past overharvest. Information can be found looking into Alaska Department of Fish and Game reports and technical documents. But, even then, poring over the reports provides fairly sparse detail. It looks tricky and complicated to define why, exactly, the commercial herring fisheries are so elusive and inconsistent.

In the Bering Sea prior to the 1970s, Japanese and Russian trawl vessels targeted the early herring fisheries; effort was there but it was not based in Alaska policy and monitoring. The international efforts ceased with the 1976 federal Fishery Conservation and Management Act. This Act, sometimes referred to as “Americanization,” established the 200 mile exclusive economic zone prohibiting international fishing vessels from fishing inside this zone.

The current status of Togiak herring is incomparable to past records. What boomed in the early 1980s with 356 seine permits in 1986 and 1,042 gill-net permits in 1984 have declined to approximately 23 permit holders for seine, 22 permit holders for gill-net.

When it began, the Togiak roe herring fishery grew very quickly, stabilized (with many transitions in policy through the Alaska Board of Fish) and has tapered dramatically in the past decade or so.

The primary focus of this piece is how the Togiak roe herring fishery was created. It is based on recorded oral history with Beaver Nelson from Homer, Alaska. Nelson was one of the first fishermen to consider the idea of a roe herring fishery and worked his way from Homer, Alaska to Togiak with a barge, the Maren I. But, there are earlier details that promoted and lead to this and Beaver was involved with those, too.

I met with Beaver at his home in Homer in April 2016.

Nelson willingly provided many details about early efforts in the industry

“In 1969 we tried to find herring here in Cook Inlet and Kachemak Bay. We looked at Seldovia. We drove around a little bit but there was nothing to catch. No one could find fish here,” he said.

Beaver explained that he grew up in Seward at the tip of Resurrection Bay and could remember seeing herring in the harbor. “So I suggested that to other folks and we went to Seward. That’s where it started, right in the Seward boat harbor,” said Beaver.

The herring market always had a Japanese focus, so the processors needed to be in touch with market agents based in Japan. In Seward, the contact was Mr. Shigeoshi Kitano, a liaison for the Marubeni Corporation. Marubeni was and still is a large Japanese company that joined the Alaska seafood industry and has operated in it for decades.

“Mr. Kitano was known as “Captain K.” and acknowledged as a famous individual in the herring and salmon fisheries of Alaska,” said Beaver.

Beaver Nelson maintained consistent contact with Captain K. while other early herring fisheries were getting started.

Around the same time, Nelson looked into his own processing operation. The Maren I was a 160-foot converted LST purchased in 1975 in Seward. Originally, it was built for World War II as a rocket launcher and maintained some of that gear and technical details. Post-WWII the vessel started an Alaska seafood career as a barge to haul canned salmon from Alaska to Seattle. Beaver purchased it because other forms of herring tenders were not keeping up with the amount of herring he was capable of catching.

“The year we got it, I spent the whole winter chopping apart, converting it into more or less a live aboard herring processor. I did it all myself in the Homer boat harbor with all kinds of tools: sledge hammers, cutting torches and welders. That probably took several years off my life! It never came outof the water and it had to be towed, no propellers or anything like that,” he explained.

At first, “we took it to Prince William Sound and then Kamishak Bay in south western Cook Inlet. Kamishak had quite a few boats at that time, probably 50 or 60,” he says.

The Maren I itself went to Kamishak, but brought the fish back to Homer or Seward to get crew; the craft did travel and pick up the fish on scene. The squeezing and processing operation took place in Homer. The processor had a crew of about 20 people. Jessie Nelson, Beaver’s wife, also present at the interview, organized most of the squeezing operation that lasted from the time fish appeared until about May.

“So, once we started fishing in Bristol Bay, we had to choose between the two—Kamishak or Togiak. The fishing boats could leave Kamishak and make it out west in time for the season but we couldn’t do it with the barge operation,” she said.

The original idea for Bristol Bay came from Captain K. Before they took the processor out, Kitano chartered an airplane “and had me fly out to Togiak with him in mid-June to see if seining looked possible. Of course, this was much too late for the fishery, but we just needed to evaluate and survey what it looked like out there,” Beaver said. When Beaver saw topographic details of the shallow water he was convinced that it did look feasible. It was definitely shallow but fishable.

This was not the first attempt at efforts towards a roe fishery in Togiak, but the shallow water was a limitation. A deep-draft seiner went out in 1974 and could not even begin to get where the fish were.

“The big speculation was that seining was not possible; the belief was that boats had to be gill-netters because it was so shallow and rocky and that’s the way the Native residents had harvested their subsistence herring.”

In 1976, a Seldovia seiner, Tuggle Entout, went to Togiak in partnership with Homer resident Bob Needham in attempt to fish for the company operating out of the the village itself.

“Entout had no problem catching the fish. There were plenty of fish and he could catch them like crazy, but the tender hired to deliver them for processing drew 12 feet of water and couldn’t even begin to get close to where the plant was located in the community so it turned out that nothing happened with the operation,” explained Beaver.

Once Nelson and Kitano made the initial observational flight, they decided to bring the Maren I in 1977. Additionally, they brought two 27 foot jitney seiners that were built in Homer. The jitneys used three strip seines. That same year Kitano was still working as a liaison with Icicle Seafoods and wanted to ensure that we would catch fish by having some gill-netters come along too.

“So, we put our operation, Nuka Point Fisheries, together with Icicle Seafoods kind of like a joint venture in 1977 and 1978. Icicle brought up five gill-netters and Nuka Point Fisheries had our two jitneys,” said Beaver. “The jitneys were small so they just went right on the deck of the Maren I. It wasn’t that big of a deal to carry them on-board.”

“That first year we got up there about May 15, and that was a little late for the best fishing. But, we still caught 1,400 tons!”

About a week later a Kodiak company, All Alaskan Seafoods, showed up with five Kodiak boats.

The next year in 1978 came “the realization that the jitney boats were not efficient enough. They couldn’t hold enough net, larger seiners could hold more. So Kitano and I made plans to bring ‘the real seine boats’ up with us,” Beaver said. That’s when Ken Jones and Mark Meadows came with the F/V Lancer, a seiner.

“I had the Nuka Point then, a 42 foot Delta seiner. And there were two jitneys that came along, too — four boats total.”

The second year there were 25-30 other fishermen out there. Other people and processors were getting interested. Then it jumped again to about 100 boats the third year (1979), then 250 in 1980 and after that participation soared. “It was nuts after that and the gill-netters started coming in too.”

Alaska Department of Fish and Game herring management strategies were new in the early 1980s and the agency was diligently working to refine stock assessment techniques. An ADFG regional information report states that, during the period of foreign fishing prior to 1976 the only catch information available was from foreign sources. In those days, the vessels used were offshore trawlers and it is likely that catches were from mixed stock herring.

When Togiak herring really started taking off the fishery was wide open and ADFG also did not originally separate the two gear types: seine and gill-net.

“The sunken gill nets were everywhere, there was a lot of tangling. It was a bit of a mess,” Beaver said. “There were so many people out there then we’d only be able to have one 20 minute opening. But it was worth it because fish prices were 500-1,000 dollars/ ton.”

The Nelsons explained that in 1979 the price in Prince William Sound was 1,500/ ton and Togiak was 1,000/ton and then in 1980 Prince William Sound went back down to 200/ton.

“So, it was worth it. Everybody wanted to take their shot at it,” Beaver said.

There were gill-netters using standard drift techniques but there was also the development of a “gill-seiner,” presumably to achieve higher volume without the separation of the two gear types.

I asked Ken Jones to clarify that vessel identity.

“A gill-seiner is a fisherman who set his 32 foot drift boat up to seine. You have to have a mast, a deck winch and a power block — the guys who did it had the bigger drift boats, kind of the top fishermen. Those guys were mostly from Seattle or Petersburg — but they all store boats and use the Dillingham yard so they’re right there. One local guy, Robert Heyano — he’s been doing it forever. They don’t have to pack fish so holding capacity doesn’t matter,” said Ken Jones.

Jones makes a projection regarding this option and the poor contemporary status of the Togiak fishery: “When the fish prices get low enough and fuel prices gets high enough, those guys will be the last survivors because they won’t have to drive out west. It works pretty well these days,” said Ken Jones.

The energy and intentions of those early years did lead to some real conflicts — both physically and politically.

In an opener that’s only 20 or 30 minutes long, all of the fishermen are trying to catch the big school. Beaver explains that there was a lot of jockeying and aluminum boats bounce off each other pretty nicely. Everyone was extremely competitive in catching the fish. There were pretty aggressive incidents out there.

“Those kind of deals, I always stayed clear of,” he said. “I just let them jockey each other and mess each other up and then take advantage of what’s left over. A lot of times that’s the best set.”

Beaver also explains the salmon drifting mentality witnessed in the herring fishery: “Those guys are used to fishing the drift boats and bouncing off each other and running over other nets. That’s how they fish salmon out there.” That’s how many of them fish the line — not everyone does it like that but the real competitive boats do.

In addition to the brawl scene, the delivery process once the fish were caught often took a very long time — many hours post actual catch time. One memory from the early Togiak days is from Kasilof resident Steve Schoonamaker who worked as a skiff man for another Homer seine boat:

“I remember how cold it was out there and how long it took to deliver fish — sometimes you had to wait for the tenders to get other boats first and then, once they finally did get to your boat, it sometimes took hours to get a set unloaded. We had our wild, fast sets in a 20 minute opening and then clipped buoys onto the cork line to keep everything floating. It was exciting and you didn’t pay attention to what was happening to your clothes. Our sleeves would get wet from plunging arms into the water and, as the skiffman, you can’t get out of the skiff. I remember the other deckhands ducking inside the cabin and I just had to stand there for hours, maybe six or seven hours. It was freezing!”

And, according to Beaver, “That’s why they started wearing Mustang Suits. It was cold out there and we did throw them coffee and food. The skiff man had to stay on his side of things and couldn’t warm up.”

If given the opportunity to catch the fish, the fishermen will accomplish it. In a 2009 report from ADFG, Tim Sands, management biologist from the Togiak district, explained the complications of this from a 1992 opening: “Over 20,000 tons of herring were harvested by purse seines in one 20-minute period. The magnitude of harvest from this single opening, combined with a limited processing capacity, resulted in holding times up to 7 days, and large-scale deterioration of flesh and roe quality.” Management had to account for slowing the fishery to allow delivery and processing to keep up with the fishermen.

Airplanes were always critical for observance of herring in Togiak. Individual sounding equipment was not feasible.

Beaver explained, “It’s too shallow and/ or if the boat were to drive over the top of a school of herring, it would scatter the fish and you couldn’t see them on the down sounder to get the set around them. The water there is also very cloudy, semi-turbid. You can’t see herring from the boat the way you can from the air. There always had to be pilots.” He was very clear about this and confirmed it several times in our conversation.

Pilots were a necessity, but the setting was also a very hazardous scene for so many pilots multi-tasking in a relatively small air space.

“The pilots are very experienced and still, quite a few pilots have been killed by collision and crash incidents,” Beaver explains. The planes have to deal with all standard flight details but also need to be extremely aware of the dense flight zone. Eventually, flight tactics transitioned to having a second person in the plane to help monitor for other planes but even then collision frequency was hazardous.

The ADFG Bristol Bay Herring Management Plan was established in 1980 and the primary intention was to coordinate an orderly fishery and strive for the highest product quality with minimum waste.

Eventually, the Alaska Board of Fish needed to provide several transitions in how quota was allocated between gear types. This lead to the development of guideline harvest levels of the annual quota divided between the various user groups. The subsistence spawn-on-kelp fishery was also taken into consideration and the intentions and interest of this group are removed from what the commercial fishery interests are.

There were many intricate details to note regarding details such as how much farther one group could get ahead of the other or how one group would have to close if the other couldn’t reach its quota.

The vessels with different gear types eventually had to be separated in order to avoid some of the chaos of mixed gear fishing in the earlier years.

Inevitably, these policy transitions created argument and conflict across user groups. Everyone wants “their” fish.

But, as exciting as it was in those early years and how quickly the Togiak fishery boomed, the market for it has essentially suffered collapse. Beaver offered a few opinions on this. For one, it is a point of cultural transition.

“Japanese young people started eating western foods as a result of cultural changes in lifestyle instead of herring roe,” Beaver said. Another feature involved a Japanese tradition of gift-pack markets and that’s where the product sales were always based. “When roe became strictly a food item and nothing that could really be marked up, that really dropped the market price way down,” he said.

“Roe herring are not something that world wants to buy these days,” Beaver explains.

They want to buy it but it’s becoming less marketable — the price is just declining too much for it to be worth the catch effort. It’s just not as desirable from the fisherman’s perspective. Roe herring market demand is definitely declining.

Other international markets are really not an option. Herring in other locations are harvested for food product or bait, not roe. The ripe fish in Togiak are not necessarily larger fish but by the time they have ripe roe all of the fish fat content is in the roe and the flesh itself is less marketable. Mature herring are not a food product. “Roe herring, bait and food herring are different products. Food and bait tends to go together. Roe herring is entirely separate,” Beaver explains.

“In the 80s, when the gill-seiners got in they all ordered seines. When the fishery started going bad, the nets stayed even when the boats didn’t come. Everyone was just dumping/ abandoning their nets. All the herring seines were sitting around and getting sold for next to nothing or literally just hauled to the dumps. You could purchase a herring seine for pretty cheap out there,” Beaver recalls.

As an anthropologist, the fishery transitions, facts and management considerations are important, but so are the people involved and what they notice and experience will impact future fishing operations. Everyone has a unique story and a unique contribution to help understand the cultural components of fishing. Beaver is a symbolic demonstration of this — his participation in the fisheries clearly comes from personal fascination and fish interests. Though Beaver’s last year in Togiak was 2007, he’s still clearly content to work away at the logistics of Prince William Sound salmon in the summer.

“I’m still happy to be doing Prince William Sound. I do go late and come home early but as long as I’m having fun I’m going to keep doing it. Every year there is something new to try, something that makes the experience different. I don’t like to do the same thing day after day or year after year. I always want to try new things out. As long as I have a spark to check something out, I will keep doing it,” he says smiling.

Emilie Springer is a lifelong Alaskan and descendant of the original Ninilchik settlers. She is finishing her doctorate in anthropology at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. This article is reprinted with the author’s permission from National Fisherman.

Togiak Sac Roe Herring: Catch the Story Before it’s Gone
Togiak Sac Roe Herring: Catch the Story Before it’s Gone