Japan is only buyer; male fish & de-egged females mostly ground into fish meal
Roe herring from Alaska’s three largest fisheries produced record catches this spring but little interest from the one buyer.
The combined harvests at Sitka, Kodiak and Togiak–should they be reached — add up to 118,346 short tons, or nearly 237 million pounds! However, except at Kodiak the catches fell far short of the quota.
The total tally for the three roe herring fisheries came in at 99 million pounds.
Sitka Sound’s fishery kicked off on March 26 and continued through April 10. The preliminary herring sac roe fishery harvest there was about 25,500 tons (51,000 pounds), or 56% of the projected 45,164 tons (90.3 million pounds), the largest quota ever.
A total of 28 of the 47 permit-holders participated in the Sitka roe herring fishery.
The herring fishery at Kodiak Island began on April 1 and wrapped up by around April 24 with the highest harvest ever at 9,000 tons (18 million pounds).
Alaska’s largest roe herring fishery at Togiak in Bristol Bay kicks began in May with a whopping harvest guideline set at 65,107 tons (130 million pounds).
Only eight seiners and two processors participated at Togiak this year. The total herring harvest was pegged at about 15,000 tons (30 million pounds), according to AK Dept. of Fish and Game area manager Tim Sands.
In recent years, the value of Alaska’s roe herring fisheries at first wholesale (the price the processors get for the fish) was about $8.3 million, down from the record of $51.3 million in 1988. The prices to fishermen now have averaged about $.08 per pound. At Togiak, the herring tonnage has paid out at around $100/ton; in 2021 at Kodiak, the price was $165/ton.
Most of AK’s herring ends up as fish feed
In other parts of the world, herring are processed into many product forms, such as whole kippered (smoked), fillets, pickled and served fried, broiled, grilled and steamed. But in Alaska the fishery targets female herring only for their eggs.
The males that are taken as bycatch and the female carcasses are both ground up for meal for foreign fish farms, or simply discarded. A small portion is sold as bait.
The Alaska herring not destined for human consumption runs as high as 88% each year.
Changing tastes and attitudes in Japan over several decades have toppled interest in the market, and Alaska has not broadened its base to other customers.
“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.
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.
The Alaska legislature this session extended a product development tax for herring that it first passed in 2014. Little, if any, progress was made in terms of new products from that initial effort.
Mark Palmer, chief executive of OBI Seafoods which operates 10 processing plants in Alaska, told Alaska senators that financial incentives to buy new equipment will give processors a chance to compete.
“The opportunity is there for us to invest in equipment for full utilization for nutraceuticals, pharmaceuticals, other value-added food grade products,” Palmer said.
Herring marketers must have a ready customer before they can take advantage of the tax break.