Although it’s unlikely that there will be a commercial herring fishery in Sitka this season, the state’s 105-foot research ship Kestrel will arrive on March 19 to conduct biomass assessments. (KCAW photo/Robert Woolsey)

Among all the cancellations happening in Sitka lately is one special rite-of-Spring: The state’s annual herring meeting.

The Alaska Department of Fish & Game has cancelled the often enlightening — sometimes bellicose — gathering of fishing crews, biologists, law enforcement, and subsistence harvesters originally scheduled for Monday, March 16.

The reason for the cancellation is the arrival of the COVID-19 coronavirus in Alaska — but the fishery itself has been a no-go for several weeks now.

“It’s unlikely that there will be a commercial herring sac roe fishery this season, due to (lack of) processor interest,” said state management biologist Aaron Dupuis. “We surveyed all the major processors, and anyone who normally participates and there just wasn’t the interest. And most of that was based off the forecast size of the fish, and market conditions overseas.”

Nevertheless, the forecast  for total biomass for herring this year is substantial — over 200,000 tons. Dupuis says the Alaska Department of Fish & Game is going to closely monitor the return of herring to the Sound, as in past years.

“It’s going to be business as usual as far as the assessment, as far as the department is concerned, for Sitka herring,” Dupuis said. “Aerial surveys are scheduled to begin tomorrow (3-14-20) — weather permitting — and that will continue through the end of herring spawning activity.”

Traditionally, Sitka’s harbors are packed with seine boats this time of year, and everyone who’s got a VHF radio is tuned to channel 10 listening to state managers relay results from the day’s test fishing.

The airwaves are going to be a bit quieter this spring.

“We won’t be doing the VHF radio announcements that we’ve done in the past, and we won’t be doing test sets,” said Dupuis. “The only way that we’ll do a test set is if there is, by some chance, valid interest in actual mobilization of herring processors.”

Although the Asian herring market is not excited about the relatively small fish in this year’s biomass — which is dominated by four-year-olds — local predators are already showing interest. Dupuis and some colleagues took an informal cruise around Sitka’s shoreline on Friday, and found some activity on the herring grounds.

“And it looks like whales are starting to come in off of Biele Rocks,” said Dupuis. “We had about 20 whales working the deeper waters out there. So, it seems like it’s starting to happen!”

Dupuis says the Department will publish herring spawn maps for the public on a daily basis — both online and on paper, available at the Sitka ADF&G office. The department’s research vessel, Kestrel, is scheduled to arrive in town on March 19.