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At $12-million and counting, herring tops Sitka's fisheries

SITKA, ALASKA
Gordon let the numbers do most of the talking. Between 2000 and 2009, the average herring harvest in Sitka was under 12,000 tons. The trend in harvest was generally upward, but then in 2010 it took a big jump.

“Last year’s fishery we harvested nearly 18,000 tons at a base price of $550 per ton. That’s the price that fishermen get for 10-percent roe. That gets adjusted on the percentage points above that. Last year the overall roe percentage was 12.5, which was absolutely off the charts for this fishery. That adjusted the price to $690 per ton for a total price of $12.3 million.”

$12.3 million dollars: That’s $5-million more than Sitka’s halibut harvest, $4-million more than the local sablefish catch, and over twice the value of local salmon trolling. Just the seven individual sac roe herring permit holders alone in Sitka grossed nearly $2-million.

In other words, what began in the late 60’s and 70’s as a marginal commercial opportunity now constitutes roughly forty-percent of the ex-vessel value of fishing in Sitka.

Gordon estimated that 590 people traveled to Sitka to participate in the fishery. The 50 permit holders and crew members, spotter planes and pilots, Japanese buyers, and additional ADF&G staff biologists and divers.

Gordon said he spends part of just about every day between now and the end of April airborne.

“Certainly this time of year we’re not going to see any herring. But where you see sea lions, whales, and birds you’re going to likely find some herring there.”

The aerial survey helps Gordon determine the distribution of herring. The next step is to sample the fish themselves to learn the number of females and how mature their eggs are. The herring can’t be harvested until the samples reach at least 10-percent mature roe. That is, the weight of the eggs must equal or exceed 10-percent of the overall weight of the fish in the sample. The department’s research vessel Kestrel does this work, along with between three and five seine boats. Samples are taken by ADF&G biologists in 10-kilogram buckets, and the rest of the herring are released.

Reaching 10-percent mature roe content is a critical benchmark.

“You know once we get to that point we’re ready to draw lines on a map and have an opening. Other factors to consider are, of course, the subsistence roe-on-branch fishery, and distributing the fishery geographically through time and area.”

When Gordon puts permit holders on two-hour notice, the sac roe fishery becomes a spectator sport. Many of the openers are within view of the road system, sometimes just off the beach. Although it’s exciting for the audience, Gordon prefers to manage at a less-frenzied pace. Rather than setting a thirty-minute time limit, he’ll leave things open-ended, and try to get harvest amounts on the fly.

“We have four skiffs deployed, running around the fishery looking into nets, making an estimate of how much fish is in them, fifty tons, a hundred tons – it’s not real fine tuned, but it works. They’re relaying that to the Kestrel by radio. Each boat is assigned a number to maintain confidentiality. They call in a boat number and tons, and that’s put into a spreadsheet on the Kestrel. That’s where I am as the manager, pacing around watching the spreadsheet.”

Once the guideline harvest level is reached, usually over ten days or so of fishing, biologists transition from harvest management to stock assessment. That means mapping the miles of shoreline that show visible spawn, and then sending divers to sample the concentration of eggs. In 2010, Gordon mapped 88-miles of herring spawn on the shoreline of Sitka Sound, the second-highest since the Department began keeping records. In the 1970s, spawning was often seen on less than 15 miles of shoreline, and the total biomass of herring was thought to be around 20,000 tons – a number which the harvest level is now approaching.

Gordon said the distribution of spawn is one of the most misunderstood facets of the fishery for the public.

“They see spawn in a place for a couple of years and then it disappears, and they think things are going bad, and that sort of thing. There is a natural change of spawn distribution and they don’t often spawn in the same places. Certainly Halibut Point Road and Kasiana and Middle islands are generally focal points for the spawn, but there’s a lot of movement with these fish. Ultimately where they choose to spawn and why they drift around like that and spawn in different locations… You’ll have to ask the herring!”

Gordon said that the commercial fishery likely did affect the distribution of spawn to some degree, but there were also areas like Salisbury Sound, where no fishery has occurred recently, that showed dramatic changes in spawn from year to year.

The first test fishing of the season took place the evening before Gordon’s chamber presentation. Mature roe was at .1-percent. Gordon told the audience, “We have a way to go.” This year’s guideline harvest level for the Sitka sac roe fishery is a record 19,490 tons.
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