A herring return forecast lower than the 1,000-ton threshold necessary to conduct a commercial fishery has caused the Alaska Department of Fish and Game to disallow commercial spawn-on-kelp pound fishery in Sitka’s Hoonah Sound for the 2014 season. The method of herring egg collection entails catching fish with seine gear, placing them in enclosures and harvesting their eggs from kelp fronds to be sold.
For the past few years, herring populations in Sitka’s Hoonah Sound have been dropping, said Eric Coonradt, Sitka assistant area management biologist for the department. However, the department can’t determine exactly what is causing dwindling schools.
“There’s a natural event happening out there that we can’t explain at this time,” Coonradt said.
This is only the second time since spawn-on-kelp pound fishery began in the sound in 1991 that commercial fishery has been called off, Coonradt said. The last time was 1996, when the population did not reach the 1,000-ton threshold. The forecast for 2014 is 833 tons.
“It is unusual,” he said.
In 2012, 73 commercial fishermen participated in spawn-on-kelp pound fishery in Hoonah Sound, Coonradt said. This brought in about $4 million, or $55,000 per permit holder, he said. That year, Alaska herring harvests brought in more than $30 million, down by about $10 million from the year before, according to the ADF&G website.
“The financial impact (of the 2014 closure) will vary greatly between permit holders, however many permit holders are involved in other fisheries and may be able to soften the financial loss by making additional money elsewhere,” Coonradt said. “The department does not consider financial impact when we cancel a fishery such as Hoonah Sound. Our obligation is to the resource and we are bound by regulation to close the fishery if the forecast is below the biological threshold.”
Tenakee Inlet, which has been closed to commercial fishing since 2010, might be able to support spawn-on-kelp fishery this year, he said. The inlet is primarily a bait fishery, but “if there’s enough left over for an SOK fishery, they’ll have one,” Coonradt said. Those who are permitted for Hoonah Sound can also fish at the inlet.
Coonradt said the department does know Hoonah Sound’s shortage is not related to over-fishing in the area. Due to a low forecast of 1,244 tons for 2013, the department did not allow commercial fishermen to use seine gear to harvest fish. Rather, permit holders were allowed only to collect herring eggs already laid on kelp in predetermined areas, known as open pound fishery.
“Nobody was able to get any product last year,” he said.
The population didn’t bounce back. ADF&G doesn’t know why, but past trends suggest herring could be spawning elsewhere, in a place the department isn’t monitoring, Coonradt said.
“(Hoonah Sound) was a very steady location for years and years, and for some reason took a downturn two years ago, and we haven’t seen the upswing yet,” he said. ”Even with no harvest last year, we’re still seeing the population go down. It’s something natural that’s occurring out there.”
• Contact reporter Katie Moritz at 523-2294 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @katecmoritz.