Sitka’s commercial herring season ended on Saturday, after fishermen caught over 17,000 tons of herring in just nine days. As it does every year, the fishery brought a fleet of seiners to town, and drew residents to the waterfront to watch the high speed derby unfold in front of them. And at the center of all this action was a team of biologists, whose job is to strike a balance between protecting the resource, and providing access for fishermen.
KCAW took a ride on the state research vessel, the Kestrel, to find out what herring season looks like when you’re standing in the middle of it all.
Each year, the Sitka Sound sac roe herring fishery starts and ends with this voice:
GORDON: This is the Alaska Department of Fish & Game. The fishery will occur in approximately one minute, one minute. Stand by for countdown.
That’s biologist Dave Gordon, with the Alaska Department of Fish & Game. Gordon and his team are responsible for managing Sitka’s commercial herring fishery – one of the most lucrative fisheries in Alaska, as fast-paced and volatile as it is controversial.
Each year, Gordon and his team predict the biomass, or the amount of herring they think will return to Sitka. They set the the harvest level, or the amount of fish that seiners will be allowed to catch. In the spring, they fly over the waters of Sitka Sound every day, watching for signs of herring, and announce when the season will open. It’s on their say-so that the boats converge on Sitka, coming from around Southeast, from Puget Sound or across the Gulf of Alaska. They decide when there will be an opening, and where.
And then Gordon counts it down.
GORDON: Six..five…four…three..two..one…open! The Sitka Sound sac roe fishery is now open. The Sitka Sound sac roe fishery is now open.
There is a lot riding on the decisions of this team. Over the last decade, the annual value of the commercial herring fishery, to fishermen, averaged a total of about $7-million dollars — though this year the fleet faced a weaker market. And then there’s intense scrutiny from those who worry that the herring harvest is unsustainable,and argue that there should be no commercial fishery at all.
Gordon has been doing this work for eighteen years. Asked if it ever keeps him up at night, he said:
GORDON: It kinda does. When you look at the machinery involved in this fishery – the tenders and the planes and the seiners…
That’s the forty-eight seiners doing the actual fishing, plus the tenders that deliver the fish to the processors, plus the spotter planes flying overhead to scout for herring, not the mention the test boats sampling the fish, and skiffs zooming around to deliver samples or count the catch.
GORDON: …and the amount of money that’s been invested in this fishery…
Which is a lot. The state estimates that the price of a permit — that’s the cost just to enter the fishery — is now about $430,000 dollars.
GORDON: You try not to dwell on it too much and think about it. But it definitely does keep you up at night sometimes.
It’s 11 a.m. on March 24th, the day after the second opening in the Sitka herring fishery. There is no fishing today, as processors work through the previous day’s catch. Gordon gets on the radio for his daily update to the fleet.
GORDON: Attention participants in the Sitka Sound sac roe fishery, this is Department of Fish & Game aboard the Kestrel…
Gordon is on the state research vessel, the Kestrel, which is doing its daily survey of Sitka Sound. He’s surrounded by half a dozen other Fish & Game biologists, some of whom have flown in from around Southeast to help out during herring season.
SKEEK: So we’re just doing a zigzag pattern here for Dave, to see where these little buggers are…
That’s the Kestrel’s captain, Lito Skeek.
SKEEK: You want me to go on the inside, Dave, or should I take the outside?
GORDON: Just go around, Lito!
SKEEK: Wherever we can find ‘em, huh?
Skeek is watching the boat’s sonar for the telltale red blotches that indicate the Kestrel is passing over a ball of herring. The Kestrel is mapping these schools and looking for predators like whales and sea lions that might indicate where else the herring are gathered.
It’s all so they can make a decision about where, and when, to hold the next opening. The time between openings can be stressful, Gordon says.
“You’re running around from here to there trying to find that opportunity,” he says. “And the day’s just going by quickly, and you know that every day that goes by that you don’t make progress, that you’re one day closer to the spawning happening.”
Timing is everything. Because Sitka’s herring fishery is a sac roe fishery, the herring must be caught while the eggs, or roe, are still inside the females, in that sliver of time after the eggs mature, but before the herring spawn.
Once Gordon and his team think they have a large enough volume of mature fish, they call an opening. Asked if he has ever called an opening, counted down — and then found no fish, Gordon said: “Yes. A number of times, actually. And those are probably some of the more painful moments, as far as openings go.”
“There’s no fish, there’s no nets in the water, everybody’s getting on the radio, unhappy with the situation. You have a whole fleet that’s mobilized, between the seiners and the tenders and the spotter planes, a lot of fuel being burned, a lot of people putting on their gear and getting ready to do something, and then there’s no fish,” he said. “And that’s just the way it is. That’s herring.”
Throughout an opening, Gordon keeps a running tally of the catch, as Fish & Game staff run skiffs from net to net, calling in estimates of how much each boat has caught. Once Gordon sees the fleet is approaching the target for that day, he closes the fishery — usually with just five minutes’ notice. And then, again, he counts it down.
GORDON: Five…four…three…two…one. The Sitka fishery is closed, the Sitka sac roe fishery is now closed. This is the Department of Fish & Game.
When the season ends, most of the seiners leave town. And the Kestrel leaves town, too. But she’ll be back. Later in April, Fish & Game will field a team of divers to survey this year’s herring spawn. Those surveys are used to estimate the herring biomass and build the model for next year. And then, they’ll do it all over again.