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The state’s fastest fishing moneymaker is on two-hour opening notice beginning today as the Alaska Department of Fish & Game has announced that the Sitka Sound sac roe herring fishery is approaching harvest quality.
From the air the fishery looks ready.
“Things have progressed towards a fishery,” Nordic Air owner and pilot Doug Riemer said from his captain’s seat over the Sitka waters on Sunday. “We are seeing more fish coming up shallower. It looks closer to fishery time. You can see the herring really well depending on how deep in the water column they are or if they are churning up mud in the shallows. They look sparkly and blushing but Sitka waters in the shallows are not the greatest place to see them in the air. It is great to be a pilot right now though. We are seeing lots of mammals in closer to town and not in the outside waters… whales and sea lions… just gorgeous from up here.’
Aerial surveys show the distribution of herring and of spawn has been seen in the waters.
Test fisheries done by herring seiners sample the fish to learn the number of females and how mature their eggs are. Herring can’t be harvested until the samples reach at least 10-percent mature roe. The weight of the eggs must equal or exceed 10-percent of the overall weight of the fish in the sample.
“When we get to that point we are ready to draw lines on a map and have an opening,” ADF&G Sitka area management biologist Dave Gordon said. “We see a lot of predators now and our biologists will be taking some final samples.”
The department’s research vessel Kestrel does this work aided by three to five seine boats. Samples are taken by ADF&G biologists using 10-kilogram buckets, and the rest of the herring are released.
Reaching 10-percent mature roe content is a critical benchmark.
According to the ADF&G news release the latest three-boat test fishery on Friday resulted in these numbers:
• Karine Brit fishing in Jamestown Bay caught 100 tons of herring containing 4.5 percent mature roe, 7.2 percent immature roe, from 46 percent females with an average weight of 166 grams.
• Shadowfax fishing in Promisla Bay caught 100 tons yielding 9.5 percent mature roe, 3.3 percent immature roe, and 48 percent female with an average gram weight of 163.
• Pillar Bay fishing in North Crow Pass caught 100 tons with 8.3 percent mature roe, 2.9 percent immature roe and 42 percent female of 174 average gram weight.
Gordon stated that the ADG&G would have four skiffs surveying the seiner’s nets during openings, making an estimate of how much fish are in them. These skiffs relay those catches to the ADF&G’s command vessel the Kestrel by radio.
Openings usually last from a half-hour to two hours, just enough time for a seiner to round haul a nice catch or possibly make another set if they miss the herring the first try.
This year the ADF&G plans to hold five openings.
Aerial surveys initially showed little predator activity in the southern waters near Sitka but high concentrations of sea lions in the north: 17 at Lisianski Point, 18 at Crosswise Island, 25 in Siginaka Islands, and 110 in Salisbury Sound. Those numbers have now increased and spread and biologists who had observed six whales off of Halibut Point and six in St. John the Baptist Bay now have seen up to 10 in multiple areas.
On the water the fishery looks strong.
“We did a couple of different test sets,” Karine Brit skipper Chip Treinen said. “The first one a week ago saw lots of herring with good size and abundance but not ripe at all. Then Friday our test set was considerably more mature with saleable eggs. They are moving right along.”
Those test numbers were enough for Gordon to set the two-hour notice today and the Kestrel will begin bucket tests.
Viewers in the Sitka area could witness one of the most hotly contested, yet beautifully choreographed fisheries in the nation as herring seiners squeeze into areas and await the radio countdown for an opening.
Many of the openers will be along the roads and just off the beach.
Treinen has fished the Sitka herring for 16 seasons.
“I have put in some time there,” Treinen said. “The herring are an exciting fish to catch because they come in massive schools and they are fast and tricky. It takes a combination of luck, and skill, and teamwork to be able to get a big haul. And they are exciting in the net when you have them.”
The 50 permit holders looking to catch a record number of herring, more than 19,000 tons, by maneuvering in a dog-eat-dog battle around what they hope are deep balls of herring.
One miscue between captain and crew can result in a torn net, a busted or dented side rail, or being cut off from completing a round haul and hopeful crew shares of over $30,000 are reduced to hoping to pay the cost of fuel and groceries.
“Sometimes there are so many that they go over the corks and can even be dangerous in the fact that they can roll the boat over if they get too heavy,” Treinen said. “If you have a big set and it takes too long to pump the fish out you can get into trouble. They start to die and sink, and if you have hundreds of tons in your net that can add an awful lot more weight hanging over the side.”
Big, and little, sets last season in the Sitka sac roe fishery were paid $690 per ton and the fishery was valued at more than $12 million at the docks, a haul that is much higher than the lucrative black cod and halibut fisheries in the state.
“Another aspect of the Sitka herring fishery is it’s a sure sign of spring,” Treinen said. “It’s a gathering for many of us as seiners that signifies spring is coming and the other fishing seasons will not be far behind.”
On land, however, an uncertainty in the fishery is how much the devastation of the earthquake in Japan will affect the roe market.
Japan is largely the sole buyer of herring roe, buying the eggs when the fishery yields them in a translucent gold color and a maturity roe level of at least 8-9 percent. Japan is also the number one buyer of all of Alaska’s seafood; halibut, black cod, salmon and salmon roe, sea cucumber and crab. Japan imports more seafood than any other nation in the world.
• Contact Klas Stolpe at 523-2263 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.