SITKA, ALASKA Click here to see a slideshow of Friday's test set

It’s 9 a.m. in Jamestown Bay, three miles south of downtown Sitka. Herring sac roe fishery permit-holder Chip Trienen is rallying his seining crew to run a test set aboard the Karin Brit. Trienen pulls on his raingear as crewmember Justin Peeler revs up the seine skiff and drives a fast beeline off the back of boat dragging one end of a nearly 500-foot-long net through the water.

Peeler creates a perfect arc of yellow buoys that corrals a school of herring that Trienen estimates to be 300 tons.

Deckhand Mike McMahon calls out the last few feet of net still left on board and then the crew switches to pursing or tightening the seine net from below.

Thousands of trapped fish bubble to the surface and skitter along the edge of the net in waves. Seagulls and bald eagles plunge into the schools of confused fish hoping to snag a stray herring. Trienen, for one, is very pleased with what he sees.

“This is a big set, you can see birds are on one side of the net and the corks are down on the other,” he said excitedly. “You can see all the fish starting to hit the surface — see all these bubbles, that would also indicate there are fish down there!”

The Karin Brit’s set had a mature roe percentage of 4.4. That statistic, combined with a set north of Sitka that showed herring with mature roe at 9.5 percent helped the Alaska Department of Fish and Game announce that the fleet would go on two hour notice Monday at 8 a.m.

Last year, a statewide averaging of fish tickets showed an in-season ex-vessel price of $690 a ton for herring roe. So far this year, processors have been reluctant to reveal a price, but economists and industry specialists expect the price to be much lower than in previous years, despite a large potential harvest.

In Japan, herring roe or Kazunoko is a delicacy eaten at the New Year. After being fished up during the spring in waters off Alaska, British Columbia and California, it is usually processed and shelved till November and December when it is sold for as much as $12 a pound.

But after the earthquake and tsunami along Japan’s northern coast, the market for herring roe is in doubt.

“If you look at this year in particular, Japan has suffered a major trauma to its economy and to its society and to distribution facilities.”

Gunnar Knapp is a professor of economics at University of Alaska Anchorage’s Institute of social and economic research. He says that every year, the herring roe price is a hot topic plagued with rumors.

To fully understand the issue, Knapp said it is necessary to consider long and short term market trends as well as demand and supply issues. For one, Japanese interest in the traditional New Year’s delicacy has been on a decades-long decline. And the tsunami has further depressed markets.

“The economy will be severely disrupted and in general, in that kind of situation, higher priced products are going to suffer more of a decline in demand than staple products.”

Two of the nine Japanese members in a herring roe trade group with Canada suffered major problems to their logistical and storage facilities. Christina Burridge is the secretary and treasurer of the Canadian-Pacific Kazunoko Association.

She says the Canadian fleet did not fish its 16,000 tons of allowable catch this year. “We saw a massive increase in abundance this year and what we heard from Japan was that because they were unwilling to buy small fish from San Francisco,” she said. “They were equally unwilling to buy small fish from British Columbia.”

On a larger scale, Burridge sees herring roe markets headed for disaster if they stay limited to Japanese demand.

More immediately important for the Sitka herring fishing fleet, Department of fish and game regional management biologist Dave Gordon says is the age of the fish caught this year. Older fish produce a larger number and size of egg and this might be a consideration if the market was more limited and selective this year.

“What happens with herring sometimes is that the older fish come in sooner than the younger fish,” Gordon says. “So it will be important to take advantage of older fish when ready to spawn this year since the younger fish are less desirable to the market –though you might get good roe recovery, you don’t get the size for what the market demands.”

The Department forecasts an average weight of 151 grams a fish this year.
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