Herring catches could set records – if there were enough buyers


March 29, 2022

Bruce Marifern’s Freedom wraps a 230-ton set in Hayward Sound, with Alaskan Girl pumping, on day two of the Sitka sac roe herring fishery, March 27. Photo by Brannon Finney

The arrival of herring marks the start of the spring fishery in Alaska, and this year’s catch levels in each of the three major areas are breaking records.

Combined harvests from the three main production areas total 118,346 tonnes, or nearly 237 million pounds.

The figures come from Sitka Sound fisheries in late March, where catches this year are set at more than 45,164 tonnes (90 million pounds). This is followed on April 1 at Kodiak, where a crop of 8,075 tonnes (16 million pounds) can be transported. The largest Alaskan roe herring fishery at Togiak in Bristol Bay kicks off in May with a huge limit set at 65,107 tonnes (130 million pounds). ).

But again, most of the available fish will not be caught due to limited buying capacity (although up from last year).

Since the 1970s, the value of the Alaskan herring fishery has been driven by roe-laden skeins in female fish. When the huge schools arrive, managers monitor the condition of the maturing females for several days to obtain the highest value product. Only then do they open the fishery to purse seiners and gillnetters.

In the 1990s, roe herring could sell for well over $1,000 a ton to buyers in Japan, where hanks are considered a delicacy. At that time, the fishery brought in more than $60 million to fishermen. Since then, changing tastes and attitudes in Japan have driven the value below $5 million in 2020 with average catches of just 8 cents per pound.

And Japan is the only customer of roe herring from Alaska.

“This is perhaps the most extreme example of how a large Alaskan industry could be dependent on a highly specialized foreign market. And that’s a stark contrast to the various buyers of other Alaskan species,” said Gunnar Knapp, a retired University of Alaska fisheries economist.

Most herring is frozen whole and shipped in 15-pound bags to further processors in Seattle or Asia, then sent to Japan. The herrings are sorted by sex and the hanks of eggs are “popped” from the females. Males that are accidentally caught and carcasses of females are ground up for flour from foreign fish farms, or simply thrown away. A small part is sold as bait.

Herring not intended for human consumption reaches 88% every year.

“It’s like hunting a herd of deer just to harvest the liver. Maybe it’s time to start calling the industry what it is – the fishmeal industry,” K’asheetchlaa Louise Brady of the Southeast Herring Protectors said in a March 2 statement. opinion piece in Empire Juneau.

“Herring is a [underutilized] resource,” said Alaska Department of Fish and Game Commissioner Doug Vincent-Lang of ComFish in Kodiak. “We are going to have a quota of Togiak herring that will largely not be harvested because there is no market. We are working with the processing sector to try to find a market.

Herring is a mainstay in countries around the world where it is filleted, smoked, pickled, salted and patéed. The fish are supplied mainly by Norwegian fleets and can fetch anglers $1.40 a pound.

In Alaska, only Togiak herring are large enough to grow into fillets. Togiak fish can weigh between 14 ounces and a pound, compared to 4 to 5 ounces for other herrings.

A report from the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute indicates that the production of herring fillets in Togiak could increase first wholesale value at $14.5 million. It compares to a average value of $2.7 million between 2000 and 2019.

To reintroduce herring to American restaurants, ASMI launched a Northwest Herring Week in Seattle in 2016 with a dozen high-end chefs. The event was led by ASMI Food Aid Director Bruce Schactler of Kodiak, who secured donations of Togiak herring fillets from North Pacific Seafoods. the next year nearly 60 chefs and restaurants participated.

The Alaska legislature expanded a commodity development tax to include herring. Marketers must have a ready customer before they can take advantage of the tax break.

Do I hear Seattle calling?


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