Fishermen participating in Alaska’s largest herring fishery have a huge quota to fill next year. But the primary customer isn't buying.
There are plenty of herring around in the fishery in Togiak, on the northwest side of Bristol Bay. This year’s quota is roughly 80 million pounds.
But herring fishermen, who come to Togiak from all over the state, still have a problem. They target herring for their tiny eggs, which once commanded steep prices in Japan. But not any more.
"I’m a recovering herring fisherman,” joked Bruce Schactler.
Schactler, who lives in Kodiak, has been fishing in Togiak off and on since 1985. But he won’t be returning this summer.
“The market is so bad that Trident will not be buying fish this year, so we’re not going. Every ton that is frozen and shipped off to Japan is a loser. There’s no money being made,” he said.
Trident is one of four companies that buy herring roe and sell it to Japan, the only customer. In the 1990s, that roe could sell for $1,000 a ton. But in 2019, that price was at $75. Fishermen’s total earnings last year were about $1.5 million, down from a high of more than $20 million in 1995. Fishermen like Schactler say that even at that low price, processors are still losing money on herring.
Sitka, the state’s other major herring fishery, has been struggling as well. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game said this season that the fish were too small to be commercially viable.
One reason for the decline of the herring fishery is that roe has become less popular in Japan. There’s also the country’s buying power: after the profitable 1980s, the Japanese economy crashed and in the nineties underwent a long recession, becoming the so-called “lost decade.”
One other event that jolted Japan’s roe market was a corporate gift-giving scandal, when bureaucrats were rebuked for accepting favors and expensive items from businesses. The Japanese Cabinet approved a set of ethics rules for public servants, which said, among other things, that they had to decline traditional bi-annual gifts. Once-popular gift packs of high-end herring roe had far fewer buyers.
“Maybe the most extreme example I’m aware of, of how a major Alaska industry could be dependent on an extremely specialized foreign market,” said Gunnar Knapp, a retired University of Alaska professor and an expert on fisheries economics. He pointed out that the narrow market for herring is a stark contrast to the diverse buyers of other Alaska species.
“Lots of other places you could take that, where they’d be happy to buy our salmon, or halibut, or cod," he said. "But this was a market that was overwhelmingly dependent on just one buyer for one particular kind of product, and so it was very sensitive to a change in that.”
Togiak seiners still hauled in a record 23,000 tons last spring. Robert Heyano has fished there for four decades. And he says the industry has to start thinking about other ways to sell its herring — for example, as bait or food.
“If we’re going to try to increase the value of that fishery, gotta expand it from a single market to multiple markets, in a different product form,” he said.
Prices for bait can be much higher than for roe, but it costs a lot to transport the fish out of Bristol Bay.
Togiak’s spawning herring also have lower oil content, so they’re less appealing as food or bait. But the market for roe is saturated, according to Heyano and Frank Woods, another Dillingham herring fisherman.
“The market can’t bear that much product on the market. It couldn’t bear the last two or three years of excess fish on the market,” he said.
Part of the reason the 2020 quota is so large is because the Alaska Department of Fish and Game bumped it up to 20% of the spawning herring. That’s the norm, but heading into the previous year, the department didn’t have much confidence in their estimation of the number of fish, so they took the precaution of lowering the quota to 14% for a year.
To keep the fishery viable, Woods thinks that fishermen need to start exploring a different approach. But for now, he still plans to fish for roe in the spring.
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