Only about 12% of AK herring used for human consumption
Herring fishery at Sitka Sound
The herring watch continues at Sitka Sound where aerial surveys have been ongoing for the past week.
State fishery managers are predicting another huge haul of herring at Sitka – 30,124 short tons (60.25 million pounds). That is based on a herring biomass that is projected to be “among the highest observed over the past five decades.”
The 2022 Sitka fishery, which ran from March 26 to April 10, had the largest quota ever at 45,164 tons (90.32 million pounds). Twenty-eight of the 47 permit-holders participated in the Sitka roe herring fishery, taking 56% of the allowed harvest which fetched around $300 per ton on average.
Up next on the herring circuit is Kodiak which opens on April 1 with a harvest level of 8,650 tons (17.3 million pounds). That compares to an all-time record take last year of 9,000 tons (18 million pounds). Only about 10 seiners have fished for herring at Kodiak in recent years.
That will be followed by Alaska’s largest herring fishery at Togiak in Bristol Bay. The action typically begins in May and the region has an allowable harvest of 57,419 tons (nearly 115 million pounds), topping last year’s record forecast of 65,107 tons (over 130 million pounds). Only about 15,000 tons (30 million pounds) of that were taken in 2022 by eight seiners who fetched $100 per ton.
If all of the 2023 herring quotas were taken in the fisheries at Sitka, Kodiak and Togiak- which is unlikely – it would total nearly 192.4 million pounds.
Alaska’s herring still goes to a single buyer
Alaska’s herring fisheries are managed primarily for the skeins of female eggs, which the Japanese call kazunoko. In the late 1980s the value topped $55 million to fishermen. But in recent years, the statewide dockside value has plummeted to under $10 million.
The reason? Changing tastes over the years by a single buyer – Japan.
“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
Males, de-egged female herring considered ‘bycatch’
In other parts of the world, herring are processed into many products, such as kippered (smoked), fillets, pickled and served fried, broiled, grilled and steamed.
But in Alaska, where the fishery targets females, the males that are taken as “bycatch” and the de-egged female carcasses are ground up for oil or meal and sold to foreign fish farms, or simply discarded. A small portion is sold as bait.
Alaska herring not destined for human consumption runs as high as 88% each year. For a potential 2023 harvest of nearly 192.4 million pounds that adds up to only about 23 million pounds for the ‘edible’ market.
Alaska previously had a tax credit for processors to invest in equipment to produce other herring products besides the eggs but it resulted in little change. The credit expired in 2020 but Alaska legislators are hoping to reinstate it this year.