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Seiners worried by weak herring market

Fishermen and processors listened to an update on the herring fishery from the ADF&G on Wednesday, March 19.

Fishermen and processors listened to an update on the herring fishery from the ADF&G on Wednesday, March 19. (KCAW photo/Rachel Waldholz)

Sitka’s lucrative herring fishery goes on two-hour notice as of 8 a.m. Thursday (3-20-14). That means fishing could start as soon as Thursday morning, depending on whether test samples taken by the Alaska Department of Fish & Game find a high enough percentage of mature roe, or eggs, in the fish.

But some fishermen are apprehensive.

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Seiners say this year’s quota, at over 16,000 tons, is high. The quality of the fish, in test samples, is good. What worries them is the market.

“The clear thing is, is it’s a very, very, very poor, if not the poorest market situation I’ve ever seen,” said Jamie Ross, of Homer, who has been fishing herring in Sitka since 1993. “It’s an extremely poor market situation.”

By the the time the fishery is about to open, Ross said, the fleet usually has an advance price from processors. In recent years, that’s been about $400 to $500 per ton. That price is then sometimes adjusted up — last year, fishermen ended with a final price around $600 per ton. In 1996, seiners saw their highest price ever, at over $1700 per ton.

But this year, Ross said, fishermen haven’t received any advance price. And that has him worried.

“You know, I’m not willing to come out of this fishery with no price,” he said. “I mean I can’t, I can’t afford that. I think that it’s an incredibly scary situation for all of us. And the processors are a really tough position…So we have to move forward while these fish are ripening up, which could be tomorrow, and you know, oh my gosh, what do we do? So we’re trying to come up with some ideas that maybe we could help reduce the processors’ risk.”

At a meeting among permit-holders on Wednesday afternoon, one of the ideas discussed was to fish as a cooperative – an unusual step for the famously competitive herring fishery. That, however, would require the participation of all of the fishery’s 48 seiners. As of Wednesday night, it wasn’t clear whether that would be possible — or even necessary.

Processors, for instance, said they were not as concerned. KCAW spoke with one processor who said the situation this year is not atypical, though markets in Asia, where the sac roe is sold, are weak, and there is an oversupply of product left over from last year. That’s due in part to the big Togiak herring harvest: in 2013, fishermen in Togiak, Alaska hauled in nearly 29,000 tons of herring.

Meanwhile, the Department of Fish & Game announced that an aerial survey of Sitka Sound conducted Wednesday located a group of 180 sea lions in the vicinity of Bielei Rocks, north of Middle Island.

A Fish & Game news release says that a large biomass of herring is in the same area.

The department’s research vessel Kestrel also identified a number of smaller schools of herring from Starrigavan Bay to Dog Point.

Test samples of herring caught in the area showed a  roe percentage of 9.7 percent. The department looks for 10-percent mature roe before opening the seine fishery.

Starting Thursday (3-20-14) the Department of Fish & Game will issue informational updates over the radio at 11 AM and 4 PM, though they may occur at any time as necessary. Those updates can be heard on VHF radio, on Channel 10. 

 

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