Caught by surprise by an early spawn, harvesters in the Togiak herring fishery delivered a harvest exceeding 15,000 tons in 14 days, with a roe percentage that exceeded expectations of processors. “The roe percentage was perhaps the best Icicle has ever seen for the seine fishery,” said Warner Lew, fleet manager for Western Alaska for Icicle Seafoods.
“I think everyone was surprised at the percentage of the roe,” Lew said in an interview May 3. “The roe percentage was extremely high for a seine fishery. It rivaled that of a typical gillnet fishery.”
The fishery got off to its earliest start on record on April 17, after management with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game flew a survey of the state’s largest herring fishery, and observed 37 miles of spawn. Neither fishermen nor harvesters were prepared for what is by and large a May fishery, and then as they got to the grounds, harvesting was hampered by high winds that made it difficult to locate the herring, slowed fishing vessels and made it difficult to set gear.
Tim Sands, the ADF&G management biologist at Dillingham, said as of May 2 that the preliminary seine harvest was estimated at 15,171 tons, which was below the 20-year average of 16,000 tons. That total was expected to rise once final deliveries were added in. The gillnet harvest was kept confidential because of the limited number of participating vessels.
State budget cuts last year included a decision to zero out the Togiak herring budget, and it was only thanks to a donation of several thousand dollars from private industry that survey flights were able to document the spawn, which had been noted earlier by private pilots.
Sands said that the decision to end the fishery on April 30 was necessary to err on the side of conservation. “Normally we sample about 6,000 fish throughout the course of the fishery and we didn’t have the budget to do it,” he said.
Processors running the catch through processing plants do their own sampling.
“We catch all ages, but 8, 9, and 10 year olds, and 10-plus are probably the biggest drivers in the fishery,” he said.
A year ago, it wasn’t until April 27 that 63,382 tons of herring was documented, exceeding the threshold biomass of 35,000 tons, and prompting the opener.
Managing the fishery is more challenging this year because of across the board state budget cuts that resulted in the budget for Togiak herring being zeroed out.
ADF&G estimated that 20 to 25 seine vessels and three gillnet vessels would participate in this year’s fishery, delivering to Icicle Seafoods, Trident Seafoods, North Pacific Seafoods and Silver Bay Seafoods.
The Sitka Sound herring fishery, which opened March 17, and ended on March 23, also had the earliest spawn since monitoring began in the 1960s, said Dave Gordon, a state fisheries biologist at Sitka.
The final harvest of 9,758 tons included overall mature roe recovery of 10.7 percent, based on fish ticket information. This year’s allowed quota was 14,741 tons.