Kazunoko, or salted herring roe    Credit: Just One Cookbook


It’s a big year for Alaska roe herring fisheries but lackluster interest by both harvesters and processors is an ongoing story.

The fishery at Sitka Sound will take off any day after a two year stall due to small fish and a weak market. The seine fleet has a harvest of 33,304 tons, or nearly 67 million pounds but managers predict low participation and limited processing capacity.

Ten or 15 boats could fish at Kodiak for one of its biggest fisheries for decades at 7,895 tons, or nearly 16 million pounds.

Togiak at Bristol Bay is Alaska’s largest roe herring fishery, this year with a whopping 42,639 ton harvest, or more than 85 million pounds. Last year only 3 boats and one buyer showed up there.

The reason?  The herring market has tanked over two decades by the single buyer – Japan where tastes and buying policies have changed.  In the 1990s, buyers there paid Alaska fishermen over $1,000 a ton, and while product from Sitka today might fetch a few hundred dollars a ton, at Togiak last year it was just $75.

Gunnar Knapp, a retired University of Alaska fisheries economist, made this comment to KDLG in Dillingham.

“Maybe the most extreme example I’m aware of, of how a major Alaska industry could be dependent on an extremely specialized foreign market.”   

Robert Heyano, who has fished at Togiak for over four decades  said the industry needs to find other ways to sell its herring, such as bait or food.

“If we’re going to try to increase the value of that fishery, gotta expand it from a single market to multiple markets, in a different product form.

Another issue is waste.

Herring is frozen and shipped to Japan where the roe is extracted. The male fish has almost no value and are mostly ground into fish meal, sold as bait or dumped. That’s also the fate of the female fish after their roe is taken. It’s estimated that only 12 percent of Pacific herring is used for human consumption.

A report by the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute estimates that if the dumped fish was instead turned into fillets, it would increase the first wholesale value by $11 million a year.

Alaska’s herring fisheries have been managed for sac roe since the 1970s but today it’s far more valuable as bait.   Forrest Bowers, deputy director of the state commercial fisheries division, agreed it could be time for a change.

“Those are regulations that the Board of Fish could modify. If a person came in and said we want to increase this opportunity or provide an additional opportunity for a person to obtain their own bait, that is something the board could take a look at.   And if we are in areas where the harvestable surplus isn’t being taken in the sac roe fishery, why not allow it in a different fishery.”