Togiak herring gillnetter says the season was worth it, but not for the money

May 25, 2021

The Togiak herring fishery has wrapped up for the season and it came with a few surprises. One fisher talked about what stood out — and why participating was worth it — even without knowing how much he made.

The F/V Wave Ryder and Capt. Frank Woods during the 2019 Togiak sac roe gillnet fishery.
Credit KDLG file photo

The herring harvest this spring was about average for Gillnetter Frank Woods. But the season came with a few surprises:

“The fish came in ripe, and were spawning as they came in," he said. "And the age-class composition was mixed before they even hit the shore.”

Some fish usually spawn as they enter the district, but Woods said normally, many spawn only after they reach warmer waters closer to shore.

Seiners reported that mixed age classes made targeting bigger fish difficult. Woods started fishing about a week after the opener, and by then, the fish were smaller.

“We started out with three-inch gear, which was trying to target the 350 or 300 gram fish," he said. "We got a bunch, but after the fifth or sixth day it was pretty much over — all the fish had moved offshore.”

When the purse seine fleet stopped fishing in mid-May, state managers expanded the fishing area for the gillnet fleet, which didn’t stay out much longer.

“The gillnet fleet subsequently quit fishing, and so technically still open, but just nobody’s fishing anymore,” said Area Management Biologist Tim Sands.

The total allowable harvest this season was 47,300 tons. Sands said that Togiak herring are thriving.

“We feel really confident that we have a strong, healthy population of herring," he said. "Good spawn — I’ve seen pictures on Facebook of people getting spawn on kelp that looked really good. ”

By mid-May, the gear wasn’t catching smaller fish, which Sands said was expected.

“We have this really big cohort of five-year-olds, which are smaller," he explained. "So there’s so many of them — like literally a billion of them — that they’re driving the average size of all the fish down. There’s still big fish out there. But there’s just so many small fish that the big fish are kind of lost in the masses.”

This spring, two processors bought Togiak herring. Because of low fishery participation, the harvest information is confidential.

Togiak herring are still targeted for their roe, but in recent years, that market has declined. Selling herring as bait or food has potential, but that usually doesn't generate much profit.

Still, for Woods, fishing in the spring allows him to test his boat and crew ahead of the salmon season, and it's a way to keep the gillnet quota in Togiak.

“It’s a tough sell. I do it ‘cause I love it, but the economic value is way down,” he said. 

Woods said this year's price is uncertain. He thinks the Sitka herring fishery which opened this spring for the first time in two years flooded this year’s market.

Beyond the cash value of the fishery, Woods said it’s an opportunity for some fishers to practice subsistence.

“They’ll get clams, the herring roe, go seal hunting and add some herring to his family’s freezers," he said. "Salt a bunch of roe, freeze a bunch of roe. Do subsistence activities where opportunities like that are hard to actually get over there.”

Woods hopes that in the future, a market for herring will emerge that will benefit local fishermen.

Contact the author at izzy@kdlg.org or 907-842-2200.