Sitka herring fishery ups the ante for 2010

Posted: Friday, December 18, 2009

One thing fishermen love almost as much as a high market price for fish is having more fish to catch.

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Klas Stolpe/ Juneau Empire
Klas Stolpe/ Juneau Empire

The Alaska Department of Fish & Game recently announced an 18,866-ton preliminary harvest limit for Sitka Sound Sac Roe Herring fishery when the season begins in March, a 4-ton increase from last season.

Commercial fishermen are now ready to say "I do" to what is considered one of the fastest and most lucrative fish wage earners in the state.

"After our assessment last year, the biomass that returned was actually consistent with what we forecast to come back this year," ADF&G biologist Dave Gordon said. "We had forecast 72,251 tons to return last year ... and we harvested just slightly over that guideline harvest level."

The harvest level is based on a 20 percent harvest rate of the forecast biomass. Last season the fishery had five openings from March 22 to April 2, the shortest was 15 minutes and the longest two hours and 30 minutes, for a total of seven hours of fishing and a total catch of 14,776 tons of herring. Roughly 79,862 tons of herring spawned in the Sitka Sound area last spring, and the total return is projected to be 94,638 tons.

"We've been seeing a pretty steady increase ... since 1994," Gordon said. "Environmental conditions have been very favorable for reproductive success and survival of herring. We certainly have noticed an increase in survival rates since 1998."

Documented ocean temperature changes have been noted worldwide but how much it affects Alaska's fisheries is still being researched. Sitka Sound area fisheries such as herring and pink salmon returns have been improving since the mid to late 1990s.

"It is fairly complex when you really think about how things can go wrong or right in the fishery," Gordon said. "As far as when herring hatch, where the currents carry them to, and that sort of thing. There is something a lot more complex than just talking about ocean temperatures. It is pretty well known that when we get warmer ocean temperatures in Alaska, we tend to see higher production of salmon and herring."

An age-structure-analysis (ASA) model is used to estimate abundance, survival and maturation rates needed to forecast the biomass or mature herring returning for the spawning season. The model uses yearly harvest tonnage; age, weight and length from commercial fisheries; ADF&G surveys; and spawn deposition.

Aerial surveys show where the herring "melt" along the shore. Then dive surveys are done a couple of weeks after spawning has ended to measure the number of eggs, ADF&G herring biometrician Sherri Dressel said.

"The model helps us to estimate how many fish there are in the population," she said.

In the hit-or-miss fishery, any one of the roughly 50 permit holders and their crews can become instantly wealthy or go bust. In 2008, two boats caught more than 10,000 tons of the 14,386-ton quota in one opening. At $550 per ton, it was worth more than $5.5 million. Ten boats had 500 or more tons of Pacific herring in the first 30-minute span. The weight of such hauls, equivalent to several large Alaska Airlines jets, requires that the seiners have large tenders nearby ready to pump out their nets.

"It's just a real competitive, high adrenaline fishery," Petersburg fisherman Bill Menish said. Menish has fished for herring in Alaska since the 1970s. "It's kind of like Las Vegas, you roll the dice and you might get lucky or you might not. It's not for everybody. You do sit around a lot and you could go out and just bomb. But it is still fun. I guess that is why I like to do it."

The Sitka Sac Roe fishery usually is the first southeast Alaska herring fishery to open. Craig Herring Stock is generally next, then West Behm Canal, Ernest Sound, Hobart Bay/Port Houghton, Seymour Canal, Hoonah Sound, Tenekee Inlet and Lynn Canal.

"It's a challenging fishery for sure," Gordon said. "Trying to maximize the quality of the harvest becomes a balancing act of harvesting at a rate that is appropriate for processing capacities and identifying bodies of fish that are at the appropriate volume and quality to conduct a fishery, and to be able to manage the fishery so you harvest close to what you want to see for an opening.

"And, of course, herring do what they do and what haunts you throughout the fishery is that once they start to spawn, it becomes increasingly difficult to find good quality herring with roe content."

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