Commercial seiners in Sitka Sound take roughly 20-percent of the available biomass of herring during the Sac Roe fishery, so a large biomass forecast usually results in a large Guideline Harvest Level (GHL). The exception to that rule comes when state managers want to “buffer against uncertainty” in certain age classes of herring. That’s why the harvest guideline was lower in 2021, even though the biomass was larger than that predicted for 2022. Nevertheless, the market for herring roe has been on the decline over the last decade or more. (KCAW/Rachel Waldholz)

The Alaska Department of Fish & Game on Friday (1-14-21) announced the largest-ever harvest guideline for the Sitka Sac Roe Herring fishery this spring – over 45,000 tons – but it’s unlikely that the market can accommodate  that many fish.

Aaron Dupuis is the state management biologist for herring in Sitka. Seiners landed only 16,000 tons of herring last year, which was just under half of the harvest guideline. In 2020 and 2019, there were no fisheries at all. Dupuis says that market requirements – as much as biology – have shaped the sac roe fishery in recent years.

“The reason why there wasn’t a fishery in ’19 and ’20, there wasn’t a biomass issue, it was the size of the fish,” Dupuis said. “The size of the fish wasn’t marketable for what they wanted in Japan.”

The total biomass of herring in Sitka Sound (225,820 tons) is actually a little smaller than last year. The high harvest target (45,164 tons, or 20-percent) is the result of a favorable age distribution of fish: Almost 60-percent of this spring’s biomass is expected to be 6-year olds, weighing in at 136 grams – near the sweet spot for herring buyers in Asia.

Still, Dupuis doesn’t see permit holders, processors, and buyers ramping up to harvest the available supply. 

“It’s gonna be attractive,” Dupuis said, “but by the same token, the markets can only handle so much, so it wouldn’t be physically possible for industry to harvest the entire GHL (Guideline Harvest Level) with the infrastructure in place right now.”

The most recent high-water marks for the Sitka Sac Roe fishery were in 2009 and 2010, when the roughly 50 permit holders landed between 15,000 and 18,000 tons of herring, which sold for over $12 million each year. Since then, seiners have had some much bigger harvests, which have sold for far less. In 2018, seiners landed about 3,000 tons (under a GHL of 11,128 tons), which sold for about $1 million.

See ADF&G’s record of Sitka Sac Roe Herring harvests.

Dupuis would say that 2022’s biomass forecast is a peak – were it not for the large number of 3-year olds observed in the Sound last year – the sixth largest “class” of 3-year olds in the department’s history. Those fish are now 4-year-olds, and – at over one-quarter of the overall biomass – they are right behind the 6-year-olds.

“I’m feeling pretty comfortable with what we’re seeing coming in the back to backfill this huge age class,” Dupuis said. “So it’s not going to be a precipitous drop at least from what I’m looking at right now.”

Dupuis says this year’s sac roe fishery will occur at about the same time as the state Board of Fisheries’ Southeast Finfish & Shellfish meeting – originally scheduled for Ketchikan in January, but since postponed until March in  Anchorage. Although there are numerous herring proposals on the board’s agenda, Dupuis doesn’t expect that any regulatory decisions would alter the course of this year’s fishery.

Note: This article was updated on 1-21-22 to correct the size of the 2018 harvest.