The Sitka herring fleet heads north to the season's first opener on Thursday. (Kevin Knox photo)

The Sitka herring fleet heads north to the season’s first opener on Thursday. (Kevin Knox photo)

UPDATED 5:30 p.m., Friday, March 21, 2014

There was no fishing today (Fri 3-21-14) in the Sitka Sound sac roe herring fishery, as processors worked through yesterday’s harvest. That harvest, it turns out, was larger than originally estimated: Fish & Game now reports that seiners landed 5,500 tons of herring during Thursday’s season opener. That’s more than a third of this year’s harvest limit of over 16-thousand tons.

And according to seiners, it was a good day for herring fishing.

“The quality yesterday, the fishery that we did prosecute yesterday, was  phenomenal quality,” said Jamie Ross, of Homer, who fishes from the Shadowfax. “The size were excellent and the roe percentage of the fish was exceptional.”

The roe percentage, or amount of mature eggs found in the fish, is the key indicator in Sitka’s herring fishery, which sells the roe to markets in Asia. The Department of Fish & Game’s threshold for a fishery is 10-percent mature roe. Samples in recent days have found roe percentages of 13-percent and higher.

At last year’s prices, Thursday’s haul would be worth more than $3.3 million to fishermen at the docks. But this year’s price remains uncertain. Processors usually offer fishermen an advance price, Ross said, based on estimated prices they get from the final buyers in Asia. So far this year, Asian markets have been weak, with an oversupply of product from last year, and Ross said that many of the seiners are fishing without any idea what kind of price they’ll get for their fish.

Raven Radio could not reach any of the processors by air time today.

Ross said the uncertainty about price remains a major concern.

“We’ve gone fishing  without advance prices [in the past], but the market conditions haven’t been this poor,” he said.

Department of Fish & Game biologist Dave Gordon updated the fleet via VHF radio at 11 AM this morning. Gordon was just back from the day’s aerial survey. He reported scattered schools of herring in the vicinity of Starrigavan and Katlian bays — where Thursday’s harvest occurred — as well as along the shore of Kruzof Island, the southeast side of Sitka’s airport runway, and even in Eliason Harbor, where most of the 48 permit holders and an armada of tenders are moored.

The largest concentration of herring predators that Gordon observed were in the confluence of Olga and Neva straits — around 60 or 70 sea lions. He counted around 25 sea lions in the southern part of Salisbury Sound, near Kane Island. The only whales he saw were in the far southern range of the fishery, near Whale Bay. Gordon reported seeing no active spawn on this morning’s flight.

Fish & Game will continue daily surveys, both by boat and by plane. As for the seiners, they’re “celebrating, licking wounds, or working on gear,” Ross said. “That’s kind of the day off: busy, busy, busy. We’re working on some gear ourselves trying to get ready for the next go-round.  “

That next opening will be announced by Fish & Game in the coming days.

Fish & Game is issuing updates over the radio at 11 AM and 4PM. There was no 4 PM announcement today. The next update is scheduled for 11 AM Saturday (3-22-14). Updates can be heard on VHF radio, on Channel 10.