The state has set a record harvest for Sitka herring, but a weak market will keep many of those fish in the water

Two seiner boats pull up nets in front of a rainforest town
The seiner Infinite Grace pursing up during the third opening in the Sitka Sound sac roe herring fishery, on Wednesday, March 26, 2014. (Rachel Waldholz/KCAW)

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game has announced the largest-ever harvest guideline for the Sitka sac roe herring fishery this spring — over 45,000 tons. But it’s unlikely that the market can accommodate that many fish.

Aaron Dupuis is the state management biologist for herring in Sitka. Seiners landed only 16,000 tons of herring last year, which was just under half of the harvest guideline. In 2020 and 2019, there were no fisheries at all.

Dupuis says that market requirements, as much as biology, have shaped the sac roe fishery in recent years.

“The reason why there wasn’t a fishery in ’19 and ’20, there wasn’t a biomass issue — it was the size of the fish,” Dupuis said. “The size of the fish wasn’t marketable for what they wanted in Japan.”

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The total biomass of herring in Sitka Sound — 225,820 tons — is actually a little smaller than last year. The high harvest target of 45,164 tons, which is 20% of the biomass, is the result of a favorable age distribution of fish: Almost 60% of this spring’s biomass is expected to be 6-year olds, which at 136 grams are near the sweet spot for herring buyers in Asia.

Still, Dupuis doesn’t see permit holders, processors and buyers ramping up to harvest the available supply.

“It’s gonna be attractive,” Dupuis said, “but by the same token, the markets can only handle so much. So it wouldn’t be physically possible for industry to harvest the entire GHL (Guideline Harvest Level) with the infrastructure in place right now.”

The most recent high-water marks for the Sitka sac roe fishery were in 2009 and 2010, when the roughly 50 permit holders landed between 15,000 and 18,000 tons of herring, which sold for over $12 million each year. Since then, seiners have had some much bigger harvests that sold for far less. In 2018, seiners landed just over 11,000 tons, which sold for about $1 million.

Dupuis would say that 2022’s biomass forecast is at a peak.

“I’m feeling pretty comfortable with what we’re seeing coming in the back to backfill this huge age class,” Dupuis said. “So it’s not going to be a precipitous drop, at least from what I’m looking at right now.”

Dupuis says this year’s sac roe fishery will occur at about the same time as the state Board of Fisheries’ Southeast Finfish & Shellfish meeting, which was originally scheduled for Ketchikan in January but was moved to Anchorage in March. Although there are numerous herring proposals on the board’s agenda, Dupuis doesn’t expect that any regulatory decisions would alter the course of this year’s fishery.

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Robert Woolsey is a reporter at KCAW in Sitka.