The largest herring fishery in Alaska waters is a few short weeks from getting underway. Two looming questions are whether the season will start earlier than predicted and what value the Togiak herring will fetch in the market.
The Alaska Department of Fish and Game tracks southeast Bering Sea surface temperatures and sea ice trends to predict when the maturing herring will head for their spawning grounds.
"Our model, which came out mid-March with the outlook, predicted a first harvest of May 10," said Matt Jones, an assistant area management biologist for the Nushagak and Togiak commercial fishing districts. Jones said there is always a lot of speculation as to whether the herring season will be early or late, and perhaps more speculation this year following the mild winter. "A lot of us believe the first harvest will be a little before May 10, but we're sticking with that model."
Earlier this year, seven companies planned to buy Togiak herring, but Ocean Beauty has taken its name off the list. The remaining buyers are Togiak Fisheries, Icicle, Trident, Yard Arm Knots, Leader Creek, and Silver Bay Seafoods. For Silver Bay, the Togiak herring season will offer a crucial first test of its operations ahead of its much-anticipated entry into the Bristol Bay salmon fishery.
As of April 15, Fish and Game estimates a daily processing capacity of a little under 3,000 tons of herring, but Jones said that could change. "Of the six buyers, a few seem to be downsizing their herring operations to some degree," he said.
The processors may be reacting to a glut in the Pacific herring market. Last year's Togiak catch was the biggest in 20 years, and this year's Sitka harvest actually exceeded the quota by almost a thousand tons. Industry guru John Sackton of the news site Seafoodnews.com wrote last week that the oversupply of herring in the market is depressing the price. "Japan reports still holding inventory from Bristol Bay from last year's large harvest. In Sitka advance herring prices were set at a level of around $150 per ton. The final price is expected to be below the $600 per ton price recorded last year." The grounds price estimate for Togiak herring in 2013, prior to postseason adjustments, was a disappointing $100 per ton.
But the fleet may have its hands full again this season. The forecasted biomass of the Togiak herring run in 2014 is 157,448 tons. That is 7 percent less than last year, according to Jones, but roughly 20 percent above the ten-year average. The management plan allows for a total allowable harvest of 31,490 tons, or 20 percent of the biomass.
The harvest quotas break down as follows: Togiak Spawn-on-Kelp Fishery (fixed): 1,500 tons; Dutch Harbor Food/Bait allocation: 2,099 tons; Purse Seine (70 percent allocation): 19,523 tons: Gill Net (30 percent allocation): 8,367 tons.
Both the purse seine and gill net gear groups hauled in nearly their entire quota last year. Should the fleet do the same this year, some of the spawn-on-kelp quota could come into play.
"That Togiak spawn-on-kelp fishery hasn't been executed for several years, and it doesn't look like there's any interest again this year," said Jones. Half of those 1,500 tons can be allocated to the fishery if the fleet hits its quota. "But that's a big 'if', considering how big the quota is already for the fleet," he said.
Currently, Fish and Game knows of 34 gill net vessels and 22 purse seine vessels registered to fish this season. "That's down two or three vessels for each gear group from last year," said Jones, though the fleet size could still change.
The fishery will open when aerial surveys have recorded a "threshold" biomass of 35,000 tons. "And it'll probably be wide open to the fleet at that point," said Jones. "The processing capacity looks to be so small that we'll let them process what they can, when they can." He estimates the season lasting between ten days and two weeks.
This story first appeared in The Bristol Bay Times/Dutch Harbor Fisherman and is republished here with permission.