Oil spilled from the Exxon Valdez is eating into the fishermen's share of the herring catch in Prince William Sound.
Biologists don't know how much yet, and until they do plans for the herring fishery have been kept on hold. The herring are not waiting, however, and have begun moving toward spawning areas along beaches and shallows.
Area Fish and Game Biologist James Brady said he has not made a decision about if or when to open the herring fishery, which last year brought Sound fishermen about $12 million and is the traditional opener for the summer commercial season. About 400 people fish for herring in the Sound.
He said he may announce Monday whether the "pound fishery" for roe on kelp in special pens would be opened.
There are 112 pound fishermen who fly kelp from southeast Alaska to the Sound, where they set it out in pounds for herring to spawn on. The kelp coated with herring roe is then pulled up and sold as a delicacy in Japan.
Oil from the 10 million gallon spill has coated or is circulating around several of the most productive herring spawning areas in the Sound, Brady said Saturday. The Naked Island group, for instance, has been badly fouled by oil and is where nearly a quarter of the herring spawning took place last year.
Herring do not always return to the same place to spawn. However, the Fish and Game Department said today, sonar tracking of herring indicates a pattern similar to last year's is developing.
Biologists are trying to predict how many spawning adults that oil may weaken or kill and how many eggs will be poisoned.
That will be subtracted from the 20 percent of the adult herring and eggs alloted for annual harvest, Brady said.
"We're looking at something that could result in up to 20 percent," he said.
His call on the relatively small pound fishery could herald the decision on the larger, and for lucky fishermen lucrative, purse seine herring fishery, he said.
The seine season, which usually opens in midApril and often lasts just hours until the quota is filled, is a gamble that many fishermen take. It can provide cash at a time of year when fishermen and processors need it most, said Ray and Sandra Cesarini, coowners of Sea Hawk Seafoods in Valdez.
"Fishermen are nervous," Sandra Cesarini said. "Their income is at stake."
So is Sea Hawk's. "We've got to be ready for the season, whether it happens or not," Ray Cesarini said. Among other things, that includes buying 600 tons of cardboard packing boxes for herring roe.
After expanding their business during several years from the back of a boat to a 25,600 square foot processing plant, the Cesarinis were looking for a payoff this season. Instead, said Ray Cesarini, "I feel like 10 years have been taken away from me."
The spill has changed the rules and the players, said Sandra. "We can accept the risk of Mother Nature and Fish and Game, but not having all control ripped out of our hands" by the spill, she said.
As herring are moving into the Sound in dense schools, juvenile salmon in five hatcheries have moved out of incubating trays and into salt water rearing pens. Booms strung to keep oil out of four bays that hold hatcheries appear to be working, said Jack Lamb, a representative of the Cordova District Fishermen United.
The Prince William Sound Aquaculture Association's hatchery at Sawmill Bay in the southwest corner of the Sound faced the worst oil threat Saturday as slicks drifted past on their way out into the Gulf of Alaska.
Hatchery fish made up about 90 percent of the salmon catch in the Sound last year, Brady said, and on average account for about 55 percent.
The pink, chum and red salmon fry are usually fed and held in the pens until late April, but could be held as late as June, Brady said.
Meanwhile, wild salmon are beginning to emerge from gravel spawning beds in the roughly 900 salmon streams that drain into the Sound. Biologists said oil poses a twin threat: It can suffocate the small fish, or it can poison the plankton they depend upon for food.