No commercial Togiak sac roe herring fishery this spring, after years of a shrinking market
There will be no commercial Togiak sac roe herring fishery this spring. Fish processors have indicated they will not buy Togiak herring this season, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s outlook released March 20. It’s the first time there hasn’t been a commercial fishery there in decades. That means that this spring, over 57,400 tons of herring will go unharvested.
Alaska’s herring fisheries primarily target spawning fish to harvest sac roe, which is the eggs in the skein of the females. Togiak’s herring fishery was a big business in the late 1980s and early 90s; Japan is Alaska’s main market for herring roe, and fishermen received over $1,000 a ton. But as the market has declined, so has the price for herring. Over the last decade, it’s fluctuated between $50 and $150 a ton, according to state data. And as the market for the roe has dwindled, the remote fishery has become financially unfeasible.
Fish and Game's manager for the fishery, Tim Sands, said they've seen an especially sharp decline in interest since the COVID-19 pandemic began three years ago, and only one processor bought herring.
"Then the last couple of years, we've only had two processors," Sands said. "Previously, we've had four, at least, each year. So the economics of it apparently aren't penciling out for the processors, and they're making that call not to participate. And this year is the same situation."
The size of the commercial fleet in Togiak has shrunk as well. It used to comprise hundreds of vessels. But last year no gill netters fished, and just eight purse seine vessels participated, hauling in less than a quarter of the available harvest.
Togiak herring, meanwhile, are doing just fine. This spring’s herring biomass is forecast to be 316,200 tons, which is far above average. The department says that that large forecast is mainly due to the survival of two age classes of herring. Most of the mature herring this year will be 6- and 7-year-old fish, with an average weight of 321 grams.
"They're on the smaller side for what we traditionally think of as marketable in Togiak," Sands said. "Typically, the processors would like 380 gram fish or larger. And so that's one of the things that makes the fish less desirable these last few years, is that these younger fish that have dominated the total population are just a little bit smaller, and don't have that additional value for the carcass that we'd see if they were 400 grams and up."
Water temperatures in the southeastern Bering Sea and at the spawning grounds near Togiak influence when the herring spawn, and department staff will still survey the biomass this spring. They use sea surface temperature models near Unalaska to predict the run timing and also track the Bering Sea’s ice coverage in February and March. This year, herring are expected to start spawning around Togiak on April 29.
The lack of a commercial sac roe fishery for the run doesn’t affect the Dutch Harbor food and bait fishery to the south, which is allocated about 4,000 tons.
Correction: Fishermen received over $1,000 a ton from processors at the peak of Togiak's herring fishery; processors didn't sell it to customers at that price as originally reported.
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