Spring herring season kicks off

The Alaska spring herring season kicked off in Sitka Sound on March 19 with a 3-hour and 20-minute opening that rounded up 3,500 tons of sac roe herring, followed by a very short 15-minute opening three days later that scooped up around another 3,800 tons, which brought the season total to about half of the 14,600 ton quota.

That quota is down from 15,674 tons in 2016.

Another opening on March 25 which also lasted 3 hours and 20 minutes, brought the cumulative harvest for the season to 13,543 tons.

That left a mere 995 tons on the table, not enough to make room for another fleet-wide opening. That means that fishermen and processors are working together to come up with a cooperative fishing plan to finish off the quota.

Reports indicate that the roe quality is good, between 10.6 and 12 percent, with fish weights around 116 to 118 grams.

The next anticipated fishery in Southeast is a pound fishery at Craig, where herring are seined up and released into net pens (pounds) to spawn on kelp and then released.

Pacific herring spawn every year after reaching maturity at 3 or 4 years of age, and herring in Southeast Alaska live about 8 years, so pounded herring may return for several more years after being released alive.

Herring returning to the Bering Sea/Togiak area live about twice that long.

There are about 20 pounds on the grounds at Craig, and as of press time there was considerable spawn and predator activity taking place, indicating an imminent opening.

The commercial herring fishery in Alaska has a long history, with the first recorded fishery taking place in 1878, when 30,000 pounds were harvested for human consumption at a value of $900, worth around $21,000 in 2016 dollars.

Most herring harvested in Alaska today are for their roe, sold mostly in Japan, or for bait.

The herring harvests follow the coast from Southeast to Cook Inlet, where there is a small bait fishery, to Kodiak, and on to Togiak and then Norton Sound.

Prices for sac roe herring have been depressed in recent years, with some processors offering as little as $50 per ton advance price, as generational changes in Japan reduce demand.

Prices for Sitka Sound herring seine permits have dropped from a record high of $540,000 in 2011, when herring prices were around $600 per ton, to $227,500 in 2016.

Cristy Fry can be reached at realist468@gmail.com.