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Togiak herring harvested after surprisingly early opener

Dept. of Fish and Game

First 15 tons hauled in by one seiner Tuesday, with roe yield sampled at 15 percent. That was good news for a fleet and industry caught flatfooted by the herring's record early arrival.

KDLG, Wednesday 4/20 update:  The first commercial harvest of Togiak herring this season was reported Tuesday. The season started much sooner than expected, and the processors and the fleet have been struggling to get on the grounds since commercial effort was opened Sunday evening.

"One company did manage to buy some fish," said area management biologist Tim Sands Wednesday morning. "We're still getting reports that it's too windy in most places to fish, and turbid enough that it's hard to even see fish. I think other companies are there, and ready to go."

When two companies or less are buying, the Dept. of Fish and Game keeps the details of the harvest confidential. Unofficially, word from the grounds is that the herring caught were big, and the roe yield surprisingly high, perhaps 15 percent. Sands said he had heard the same.

"Well they're taking the fish, so the roe percentage is good on the fish they took yesterday," he said. "And the size of the fish, we still don't have a good handle on that. The reported average was 414 grams, but it's a small sample size at this point."

Trident and Silver Bay were the first two companies ready to buy fish. Icicle and North Pacific are expected to be ready soon, and none have indicated they won't buy this season. Getting seiners, gillnetters and tenders to the grounds was hampered by the strong southeast winds this week. But after the rapid, rocky start, news of a good initial harvest was welcomed, including at Fish and Game.

"Absolutely, I'm glad that people got there and were able to take fish," said Sands. "It remains to be seen how much fish we'll be able to take and how it's going to play out. And what that does to the value of it. That's another big questions that we won't have an answer to for quite I while, I think."

Last year’s base grounds price was $50 per ton. Fishermen say they are hoping for double that this year.

This year’s first harvest was six days earlier than the previous record of April 25 set back in 2003. The average date of the first commercial harvest of Togiak herring, over the past 40 years, is May 10.

dave@kdlg.org or 907.842.5281

Original story from Monday, April 18:

The Togiak herring fishery opened Sunday, the earliest date on record. The herring showed up unexpectedly last week and have already begun to spawn all over Bristol Bay's northern coast. As KDLG's Dave Bendinger reports, Fish and Game, the processors, and the fleet got caught flatfooted and are hustling out to try and make a season.

Credit KDLG
The F/V Lady Mindy was waiting on high tide Sunday at the Dillingham harbor. Skipper Robert Heyano may have been the first to head for the Togiak herring grounds after an unexpectedly quick start.

Audio transcript: No matter which aspect of this herring fishery’s timing you look at, 2016 sets a new record: first date the biomass was spotted coming into the district? Used to be April 19. First date spawn was observed? Was April 23. Earliest commercial effort got underway? In 1980 and 2003, harvests were recorded on April 25. Last week private pilots flew in with the news that not only were the herring here, but they were spawning, all over the place. That was officially recorded as April 14. Fish and Game area management biologist Tim Sands flew a survey Sunday, documented 37 miles of spawn, and opened the seiners and gill netters by the evening.

"It’s a real head-scratcher for us, as much spawn has been reported being seen, and where the spawn’s happening," he said Sunday afternoon. "But there’s clearly enough fish around to spawn all those places, so we opened it up. I know there’s a bit of storm coming so that may delay things further, but it’s open now so people can go when they’re ready, and we’ll see what happens."

The problem neither the fleet nor their buyers are on the grounds yet. Gill netters like Frank Woods were hoping to leave Dillingham by the end of this week and get over there several days ahead of time.

“Frustration, frustration, frustration, that’s all I gotta say. Everybody’s trying to play catch up right now, and yeah, it’s interesting for sure," Woods said Monday.

Sea surface temperature and sea ice play important roles in the timing of the Togiak herring spring migration to spawning grounds along the coast. A month ago, the Department of Fish and Game cautioned stakeholders that the warm sea surface temperatures and low sea ice levels were so far from normal that predicting the run timing would be impossible. Purse seine skipper Robert Heyano said the herring are fickle but no one was expecting this.

"They say they’re pretty sensitive to water temperature, so I’d have to think that had a large part to do with it," he said Sunday morning. "You know last year was fairly warm, but it wasn’t really that early. I think we fished on the 29.”

Heyano has fished Togiak herring since 1978. By and large, this is a month of May fishery. He was hustling his crew for a Sunday afternoon departure from Dillingham for the daylong trip to the grounds, hopeful that his processor would get there quickly too.

Heyano was a little upset by circumstances he thinks could’ve been prevented.

"I think the big thing that’s disappointing is, from what I understand, there’s very little or no money that the state has budgeted for this fishery. The largest herring fishery in the state of Alaska? That’s very disappointing," he said. "Then you listen to what they’re doing down in Juneau, and they’re talking about buying an office building and reluctance to reduce tax credits and things like that, but they can’t put a few dollars in the herring fishery.”

The Dept. of Fish and Game did cut all funding for Togiak herring management this year, down from about $30,000 last year, which was way down from a heyday more than a decade ago. A private industry donation of $10,000 will allow area manager Tim Sands a couple of survey flights. Would he have flown to spot for herring sooner had the funding been there?

"You know, based on the sea surface temperature and everything like that, we probably would’ve considered flying," he said. "Especially after we heard some reports of seals with fish in their bellies, and stuff like that. I guess the short answer is certainly budgetary constraints are a factor in what we’re doing.”

There aren’t many participants in the Togiak herring fishery these days: just 21 seiners and three gill netters signed up, expecting a price of around $50 a ton this year. Whether they and their buyers get to the grounds in time find some mature fish with good roe percentages will get sorted out this week. Most say they’ll try.

"When the going gets weird, the weird get going," said F/V Skagerrak skipper Paul Friis-Mikkelsen.

dave@kdlg.org or 907.842.5281