Alaska’s herring hauls mostly go into the grinder

AK's roe herring fisheries are underway! Too bad most of the fish are used as feed for fish farms.

by | March 28, 2022

Herring brings bycatch issue closer to home

Roe herring fishery at Sitka Sound Credit: KCAW

Seiners at Sitka Sound are out on the water now with the arrival of Alaska’s first big herring fishery. And this year’s

catch levels from each of the three main areas are record breakers. The combined harvests total 118,346 short tons, or nearly 237 million pounds!

The numbers come from fisheries at Sitka Sound where the catch this year is set at over 45,164 tons (90 million pounds). That’s followed on April 1 at Kodiak where a harvest of 8,075 tons (16 million pounds) can be hauled in. Alaska’s largest roe herring fishery at Togiak in Bristol Bay kicks off in May with a whopping harvest this year set at 65,107 tons (130 million pounds).   

But once again, the bulk of the available fish will go unharvested due to no buyers. 

AK has only one herring customer

Since the 1970s the value of Alaska’s herring fishery has been driven by the roe-laden skeins in the female fish. When the huge schools arrive, managers monitor the condition of the ripening females over several days to obtain the highest-value product.

Only then do they open the fishery to seiners and gillnetters.
           
In the 1990s, the roe herring could sell for well over $1,000 per ton to buyers in Japan where the skeins are considered a delicacy. At that time the fishery tallied over $60 million to fishermen. Since then, changing tastes and attitudes in Japan have driven the value below $5 million in 2020 with catches averaging just $.08 per pound.

And Japan is Alaska’s only roe herring customer.

“It’s maybe the most extreme example of how a major Alaska industry could be dependent on an extremely specialized foreign market. And it is a stark contrast to the diverse buyers of other Alaska species,” said Gunnar Knapp, a retired University of Alaska fisheries economist.

Female herring skein is on the right; Male herring with milt ripe for spawning
Credit: Comox Valley Record

Pack it up, ship it out, grind it up

Most of the herring is frozen whole and shipped out in 15 pound bags to secondary processors in Seattle or Asia, and then sent to Japan. The herring are sorted by sex and the egg skeins are “popped” from the females.

The males that are taken as bycatch and the female carcasses are ground up for meal for foreign fish farms, or simply discarded. A small portion is sold as bait.

The herring not destined for human consumption runs as high as 88% each year

“It’s like hunting a herd of deer only to harvest the liver. Maybe it’s time to start calling the industry what it is — the fishmeal industry,” said K’asheetchlaa Louise Brady of the Southeast Herring Protectors in a March 2 opinion piece in the Juneau Empire.

Frozen Pacific herring Credit: Alibaba

“Herring is an unutilized resource. We are going to have a Togiak herring quota that will largely go unharvested because there is not a market. We’re working with the processing sector to try and find a market,” said Alaska Dept. of Fish and Game Commissioner, Doug Vincent-Lang at ComFish in Kodiak. 

Herring is a mainstay in countries around the world where it’s filleted, smoked, pickled, salted and pated. The fish are provided primarily by Norwegian fleets and can pay out at $1.40 a pound to fishermen.

In Alaska, only Togiak herring are large enough to develop into fillets. Togiak fish can weigh between 14 ounces to nearly one pound compared to 4 to 5 ounces for other herring. 

ASMI aims to build markets

A report by the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute says that herring fillet production at Togiak could boost the first wholesale value to $14.5 million.  That compares to an average value of $2.7 million between 2000 and 2019. 

To reintroduce herring to American diners, ASMI in 2016 launched a wildly successful, weeklong Northwest Herring Week in Seattle with about 10 high-end chefs. The event was led by ASMI Food Aid Director, Bruce Schactler of Kodiak, who obtained donations of Togiak herring fillets from North Pacific Seafoods. The next year nearly 60 chefs and restaurants participated.

The Alaska legislature has expanded a product development tax to include herring. Marketers must have a ready customer before they can take advantage of the tax break.

Tagged as: Bycatch, Herring, roe

About Laine

Laine Welch has covered the Alaska fish beat for print and radio since 1988. She also has worked “behind the counter” at retail and wholesale seafood companies in Kodiak and on Cape Cod.

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