Kodiak's roe herring fishery began April 15 with little notice and rumors of fire sale prices. The fleet of 22 seiners was down a bit; they are competing for a harvest of 5,800 short tons, similar to the past five years. No gillnetters had signed up for the herring fishery.
Test fishing from the east side of the island showed nice roe counts, said James Jackson, herring manager at ADF&G in Kodiak.
"We are fishing a predominantly older age class of mostly 9-year-olds, and it looks like we are hitting those fish right now. They are about 250- to 300-gram fish with 12.5 percent roe counts, so it looks pretty good," he said.
The female herring are valued in Japan for the amount of roe (eggs) they contain as a percent of body weight. As much as 90 percent of the males and female carcasses are mostly just ground up and dumped.
Talk of an advance price of $150 to $200 was the word on the Kodiak docks, down by half from last year. Virtually all of Alaska's herring roe goes to a single market, Japan, where hefty supplies reportedly remain in warehouse freezers.
Meanwhile, Alaska's largest herring fishery at Togiak was poised to take off any day with a harvest of nearly 28,000 tons. With the market in a slump and prices in the pits, some were calling for the fishery to remain closed.
"It's not worth going over there," said Robin Samuelson of Dillingham, chair of the Bristol Bay Economic Development Association and a lifelong fisherman. "A lot of fishermen are saying we need to hold our spot in case the price comes up. I personally feel the fish are more important to the ecosystem at $50 to $65 a ton than catching them. We need to look at how we can capitalize on that market."
The base price for roe herring last month at Sitka Sound was $150 compared with $600 in 2013. The price last year at Togiak was about $100 per ton.
But things are looking up. A bill just passed by Alaska lawmakers expands the Salmon Product Development Tax Credits to include herring. Senate Bill 71, sponsored by Sen. Peter Micciche (R-Soldotna), will enable processors to purchase equipment and make investments in more valuable herring products such as canned, powdered, pickled and smoked.
"There have been positive trends since this bill was originally enacted (for salmon) in 2003, including product diversity, increased state revenues from the fisheries business tax and increased permit prices," Micciche said in a press release. The bill also was expanded to include new product development from fishery byproducts.
For the first time since 1990, the Kodiak Chamber of Commerce has called off its famous fisheries debate due to nonparticipation by candidates.
Dan Sullivan's campaign claims a military commitment, and Joe Miller has not responded at all. All candidates received letters of invitation in mid-January to the May 23 debate, which this year coincides with the annual Kodiak Crab Festival. Mead Treadwell was the first to confirm, followed quickly by Sen. Begich.
"It is unfortunate that some of the candidates weren't able to work this debate into their schedules," said Trevor Brown, Kodiak Chamber executive director. "I can imagine they are extremely busy and must have some considerable obligations to pass up an opportunity to talk about issues that affect such a large portion of our state's population. It is a true loss to all the fishing communities in the state."
The two-hour debate, which is limited to topics relevant to Alaska's seafood industry, is broadcast live to every Alaska community via the Alaska Public Radio Network.
Another fisheries debate featuring candidates for Alaska governor is set for Aug. 28 in Kodiak. All gubernatorial candidates have already confirmed their participation.
Ocean Beauty Seafoods has been awarded the 2014 Supplier of the Year award by Whole Foods Markets for consistently providing the grocer with Alaska salmon and halibut. Whole Foods said Ocean Beauty's fish products meet its strict specifications and that it "admires Ocean Beauty's partnering with port buyers to ensure fishermen are recognized and treated with respect."
Laine Welch is a Kodiak-based fisheries journalist. Contact her at email@example.com.