No buyers for 2024 Togiak herring means no commercial fishery, again

Processors have indicated they do not intend to buy Togiak herring again in 2024.

by | March 7, 2024

It’s the second year in a row that buyers have opted out despite high herring quota

Togiak, Alaska is part of Bristol Bay

“Processors have indicated that they do not intend to harvest herring in Togiak in 2024 and it is unlikely that a commercial fishery will occur. The department does not expect this will change.”

That’s the take-away message from the AK Dept. of Fish and Game in its March 6 announcement about Alaska’s largest herring fishery at Togiak in Bristol Bay which typically begins in early May.

Based on a mature herring biomass forecast of 216,037 short tons (over 432 million pounds) and a 20% exploitation rate, the 2024 combined harvest by all users is 43,207 tons (86.4 million pounds).

For the herring sac roe fishery at Togiak the harvest is 38,787 tons (nearly 78 million pounds).

ADF&G said that although the forecast is down significantly from 2023, it is still the fifth highest forecast since 1993. “The large forecast is due primarily to the highest estimated recruitment of age-4 fish on record in 2021 (about 1.5 times the large recruitments seen in the early 1980s) and one of the largest recruitments on record in 2020. These cohorts are expected to make up an even higher portion of the population in 2024 due to increasing maturity.”

The lack of interest for the Togiak herring sac roe fishery does not affect the Dutch Harbor Food and Bait fishery.

AK has not broadened its herring customer base beyond Japan for over 50 years

“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.

Skeins of herring roe

Since the 1970s the value of Alaska’s herring fishery has been driven by the roe-laden skeins in the female fish. 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 Alaska fishermen. Since then, changing tastes and attitudes in Japan have driven the value  steadily down with recent catches averaging just $.10 per pound.

And Japan is Alaska’s only roe herring customer.

Most AK herring is considered “bycatch” and ground up for fish meal, along w/female carcasses

Most of Alaska’s roe 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.

Read about other countries’ uses of herring HERE

On the left, male herring with milt, female with skein of eggs on the right

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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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