The herring spawn-on-kelp fishery in Hoonah Sound will remain closed in the 2015 season — for the second year in a row.

The Alaska Department of Fish & Game announced the closure this week (12-2-14) after forecasts for the area predicted herring numbers far below the threshold required for commercial harvest.

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Herring roe-on-kelp is called Kazunoko Kombu in sushi restaurants. (Flickr photo/Vincent Ma)

Herring roe-on-kelp is called Kazunoko Kombu in sushi restaurants. (Flickr photo/Vincent Ma)

The Hoonah Sound spawn-on-kelp fishery is a different animal than its cousin 50 miles to the south — the Sitka Sound Sac Roe Herring fishery.

The main difference is that the fish survive in Hoonah, and only their eggs are harvested. Nevertheless, assistant management biologist Eric Coonradt says there just aren’t enough herring to risk it.

“You know, we saw eggs on the beach in 2012, and the fish didn’t materialize for 2013. So it’s hard to say. There’s something that’s killing fish or not allowing them to come back.”

The forecast calls for 721 tons of herring to return to Hoonah Sound — about 280 tons below the threshold needed to allow the harvest of eggs. And it’s a fraction of the fish that have been known to come back to the area. Coonradt says ADF&G has recorded returns as high as 20,000 tons.

As a biologist, Coonradt is reluctant to guess what’s causing the low returns. But he’s pretty sure it’s natural — possibly a disease event associated with the huge returns of just a few years ago.

“Usually these disease events hit one end of the age group or another. In this case it seemed to hit all age groups equally. So that kind of puts a question mark into what happened: Whether they’re spawning elsewhere, or if it was a significant die-off.”

There are 109 permit holders in the Hoonah Sound Spawn-on-Kelp fishery. The economic impact of the closure is hard to pin down since it’s a niche product. The same permit covers Tenakee Inlet, which remained open last year, though volumes of herring there are typically smaller than in Hoonah.

Still, it’s going to sting. According to Commercial Fisheries Entry Commission data, spawn-on-kelp permits have nearly doubled in value over the last 8 years, and now go for around $35,000. There’s even been a slight uptick in permit value over last year — when the fishery was first shut down.

Coonradt says that under the right conditions herring can rebound quickly.

“If we have good ocean survival of larvae and juveniles, in one year you can see a huge increase in the biomass. That used to be the case for Sitka Sound. You’d have one big age class that would kind of carry it for a couple of years. And we very well could see that with Hoonah Sound. We’ve seen steady recruitment, but one good survival event of juveniles could bring this fishery back.”

The Hoonah Sound and Sitka Sound herring stocks are genetically related, but Coonradt says they’re treated as separate populations — swings in biomass in one area may not necessarily be reflected in the other. Still, ADF&G is forecasting one of the lowest herring returns in years in Sitka, too, and there’s been political pressure from the Sitka Tribe and others to dramatically curb sac roe fishing.

Hoonah is the less controversial fishery. And Coonradt is hoping the closure does its job.

“I think it’s concerning. Our limitations are to prevent any further harvest on the resource, and we’ve done that. We’ve closed the fishery. Fishing won’t reopen until the population reaches threshold. I think we are where we are, and there’s not much we can do about it.”