Emily Kwong, KCAW Photo

Emily Kwong, KCAW Photo

Despite a poor season last spring, the forecast for the 2019 Sitka Sound Sac Roe Herring Fishery is up. Biologists with the Alaska Department of Fish & Game expect a spawning biomass of just over 64,000 tons of herring in Sitka Sound next March, about 9,000 tons greater than was forecast for this year.

That means the state will allow more herring to be taken next year.

In light of this news, the Sitka Tribe of Alaska announced they would take “drastic action” to protect the herring population from their fear of overfishing.

In a press release published Thursday, Dec. 6, Tribal Council Chairman KathyHope Erickson expressed disappointment at the increased harvest levels “despite the fact that the herring, and the future of all fish and other animals that rely on herring as a forage fish, are in a dire situation.”

Sitka Tribe of Alaska did not specify what their action would be or provide additional comment to KCAW.

Fish & Game assistant area management biologist Aaron Dupuis said department dive surveys turned up far more spawn than first thought. Aerial surveys measured only 33 miles of spawn along the shoreline — about half of the  average year. But there was an upside.

“The spawn that we got, the eggs were quite a bit more dense than what we’ve seen in previous years,” Dupis said. “So, while the total mileage was down — and that’s kind of the visible thing that everybody can see is the mileage — the density of the eggs was higher, and the total area offshore, especially on Kruzof Island, was higher than normal.”

The state allows no more than 20-percent of the biomass to be harvested making the 2019 GHL — or “Guideline Harvest Level” — just under 13,000 tons. But the 50-plus permit holders didn’t come anywhere close to their GHL last March, landing less than 3,000 tons in a co-op fishery that never kicked into high gear.

Emily Kwong, KCAW Photo

Emily Kwong, KCAW Photo

Seiners located plenty of fish, but they just weren’t big enough. Often a bit of a rodeo, the 2018 Herring Fishery just petered out, Dupuis said.

“A lot of that was due to market conditions,” Dupis said. “The herring that were available to harvest didn’t meet the market conditions. Rather than scrape up a bunch of fish that people didn’t want to buy, we left them in the water.”

Last March, herring seiners were looking for schools of herring containing mature fish weighing an average of at least 125 grams or, in other words, fish which are roughly 6 years old. The 2019 forecast indicates that fish of that weight or larger comprise less than a quarter of the projected biomass.

So, could 2019 also be another relatively slow year for the Sitka Sound Sac Roe Herring Fishery? That depends on the processors and on the size of the fish, Dupis said.

“If it’s like last year and it’s outside the range that they want, I would expect this year to go about the same last year,” he said.

The state typically begins aerial surveys of herring in Sitka Sound in early March. Like last year, the forecast will not be updated with data from winter test fishing.