Herring roe-deo kicks off in Sitka

In 2008, sac roe boats caught 10,000 tons in half-hour opener

Posted: Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Schools of silvery herring arrived this week in Sitka.

"It's really quite a lovely day," said fisherman Scott McAllister. "I'm enjoying my last few minutes of peace and quiet before we do battle."

Tuesday's opener was the second so far for this year's Sitka Sound herring sac roe fishery, Alaska's quickest and one of its most intense fisheries.

From now until the season is closed, perhaps the end of the week, the 50 purse seiners are on two-hour notice for the derby-style openers.

Fish processors' limited capacity keeps the openers spaced out by a couple days. Last year the sac roe boats caught more than 10,000 tons - which is about 20 million pounds - in the first half-hour opener, about two-thirds of the whole harvest. Processors were overloaded. If the catch sits around, its quality degrades.

Last Sunday's 2,700-ton opener was more manageable, said Silver Bay Seafoods plant manager, Wayne Unger.

How much fish to expect this time?

"That's a hard question to answer," Unger said.

Herring's predators, sea lions and whales, help the Alaska Department of Fish and Game decide when to announce the opener; biologists spot them from the air. The department conducts tests to check the roe's maturity.

When the herring comes, it comes quickly.

This year's guideline harvest level of about 15,000 tons is similar to past years. That's despite calls Alaska Native subsistence roe harvesters, herring biologists and others to halt or severely curtail the fishery.

They say that herring stocks in Southeast are under pressure from increased predation, and that their future is questionable with the continued fishery. Alaska Natives say their subsistence harvest has drastically dropped off.

Fish and Game agrees that some of the herring's movements have changed, but says the stocks are healthy. So do herring fishermen, including McAllister.

"There's lots of fish, as good a quality as we've ever had," said McAllister. "Maybe the best."

Last year's Sitka sac roe catch was worth about $8.9 million, an average per permit of about $190,000, according to Fish and Game estimates.

At Silver Bay, about 80 people work the herring season. It's exciting, Unger said.

"Nobody's really minding the long hours and the no sleep," said Unger. "But by the time you really get things in a groove, and dialed in to where you can relax, the season's over."

• Contact reporter Kate Goldenat 523-2276 or e-mail kate.golden@juneauempire.com.

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