Sitka Sound roe herring fishery

Alaska’s first and most lucrative herring fishery at Sitka Sound is not likely to open for the second year in a row, and for only second time in the fishery’s nearly 45 year history.  Once again, small fish and a weak market are to blame.

The Sitka herring fishery usually gets underway in mid-March and fishery managers had anticipated heftier herring this spring, setting the harvest at nearly 25,824 tons (56.8m pounds), double from 2019.

But in a news release Friday the Alaska Dept. of Fish and Game said local buyers all indicated they did not plan to set up shop to  purchase and process herring, which is captured for its roe.

KCAW in Sitka reported that Silver Bay said the coronavirus also played into the decision, as large quantities of herring are sent to China for reprocessing before going to Japan, the single customer.

Chip Treinen, president of the Southeast Herring Conservation Alliance, told KCAW there were too many headwinds:

“We were not able to come to a decision as seiners ourselves but the processors looked at the market conditions and all of the circumstances that are surrounding us in this case. We have an added problem of the coronavirus at this point, and of course, the trade issues with China and the tariffs situation. So a whole lot of things that were stacked against us.”

Alaska’s largest roe herring fishery at Togiak in Bristol Bay has a huge quota at nearly 39,000 tons, or over 85 million pounds. That fishery typically opens in late April but many fishermen say they’re opting out due to low herring prices of less than $100 per ton.

Two decades ago, the Togiak herring tonnage would have fetched upwards of  $1,000 and twice that for Sitka fish.

But changing tastes in Japan have pulled the bottom out of the market and Alaska has not diversified.

Robert Heyano has fished at Togiak  for four decades. He told KDLG in Dillingham that  the industry has to start thinking about other ways to sell its herring — for example, 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.”

The average statewide price for Alaska roe herring in 2018 was 8 cents a pound.

Regardless of the reasons, Sitka’s Chip Treinan calls not fishing a loss for everyone.

“We’re all small businessmen and we need to make money in what we do.”