Spawn observed during aerial surveys on Wednesday (Photo/Jess Coltharp)

The Sitka sac roe herring fishery remains on two-hour notice, but many seiners and tenders have already left Sitka. If the Alaska Department of Fish & Game doesn’t find enough mature herring to allow fishing to occur, it would be only the second time in the 43-year history of the Sitka fishery that a commercial harvest has not been held.

With the latest data showing small fish with immature roe content, too low to be marketable, many seiners decided last week to stop doing test fishing..

ADF&G biologist Eric Coonradt said the state’s research vessel Kestrel departed Sitka Sound today.

“With very little test setting going on, I felt like it was a waste of time to have the Kestrel here for minimal test setting,” he said.

The state was only able to collect one test sample on March 27, after fishermen decided to stand down from test fishing until they saw bigger fish and a better price from processors — a move seiners say is not a strike. The single sample yielded fish with an average size of 91 grams and less than 11 percent mature roe.

Coonradt says the seine crew that volunteered for the test set got pushback from the rest of the fleet.

“The boats that came out, or at least one of the boats, got some phone calls giving them a little grief about doing it,” he says. “That just kind of added to the decision to have the Kestrel go home.”

Coonradt says the Kestrel will return to do spawn deposition surveys in the weeks following the main spawning event. While there’s been quite a bit of attrition, Coonradt says a handful of processors and seiners are still keeping an ear to the ground in case something changes.

“Several processors have completely quit and then there are a couple that are holding on. There’s still some boats out there, some tenders out there, kind of waiting to see what happens.”

And he says they’re not doing it in vain either.

“I feel like there’s still time left,” he says. “We still have the ability to find fish, if the fish kind of split up, larger versus smaller fish. But some years they don’t do that. So it’s just kind of a wait and see game.”

But spawning has begun, which usually signals the beginning of the end for commercial fishermen. According to the press release from ADF&G, 1.6 nautical miles of spawn have been observed to date.

The last time there was no commercial herring fishery in Sitka Sound was in 1977, the second year that the fishery had been managed under the current model. The latest a commercial herring fishery has been opened was in 2002, when a second biomass of fish entered Sitka Sound and was targeted between April 12 and April 15.