State predicts Sitka’s commercial herring harvest will fall short of annual limit

as seen from above, waves crash against a rocky coast on a cloudy day
The herring fishery didn’t happen in 2020, but the state continued to survey and map herring spawn. (ADF&G)

In an unusual move, the Alaska Department of Fish & Game set a large guideline harvest level for the commercial herring fishing in Sitka this spring on the understanding the fleet is not likely to hit that mark.

In a news release Monday, ADF&G announced a guideline harvest level — or GHL — of just over 33,000 tons for the upcoming Sitka sac roe herring fishery.

But that much probably won’t be harvested: In the same release, Fish and Game predicts the commercial harvest won’t exceed 20,000 tons. Area Management Biologist Aaron Dupuis said the state arrived at that number after speaking to processors about potential market demands.

“Just from our conversations, like what the individual markets want in terms of herring,” he said. “Part of the reason why we put that in the announcement was just to temper people’s’ expectations for what will likely get harvested in the fishery. “

Dupuis said 33,000 is already a conservative estimate. The guideline for harvest is 20% less than what the state would typically allow based on the population forecast, a mature biomass of 210,453 tons. Even so, he said the state is gearing up as usual for a fishery this year.

“We’re gonna be getting ready for a fishery like we normally do,” he said. “It’s been two years since we’ve had a successful fishery, but we plan on managing it like we normally do.”

In recent years, the fishery has been far from usual. The annual fishery didn’t happen at all in 2019 or 2020. Most of the herring were young, and too small to meet international market demands. The coronavirus added some additional challenges in 2020. Dupuis said he doesn’t expect the pandemic to get in the way of the fishery happening this year.

“Everybody had all of last year to kind of figure out what works on the processing side with the salmon season and with other species, so I think they’ll be able to come up with something,” he said. “For the state, we have standard COVID protocols, especially with the state vessels that were in place last year for the dive surveys. We’ll be able to adequately manage the fishery given those COVID guidelines.”

This year, herring managers believe most of the available herring stock (around 86%) consists of five-year-olds, closer to marketable size. Nevertheless, they will just be on the cusp of being large enough to sell. Last year, marketable size was estimated at around 110 grams. This year, the state estimates the average five-year-old fish weighs in at around 109 grams, and average of the entire population is about 112 g.

The fishery has continued to see pushback from subsistence harvesters who argue the management of the commercial fishery has harmed the fish population over the last few decades. Herring eggs are highly valued as a traditional food and resource among Indigenous communities in Southeast.

The Sitka Tribe of Alaska brought suit against the state in 2018, challenging its management of the commercial fishery. The fight continues, with a superior court judge hearing oral arguments Thursday on whether the state has upheld its constitutional obligation to meet reasonable subsistence needs.

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