There's more to Alaska herring than roe and bait.
To prove the point, nearly 40 fine Seattle restaurants and retailers will celebrate Northwest Herring Week as a way to reintroduce the tasty fish to the dining scene.
"There's more herring eaten all over the world than you can imagine. Some years there's as much as 4 million tons harvested in the world. You can have a year when the herring fishery is as large as the whole Bering Sea pollock fishery," said Bruce Schactler of Kodiak, a longtime fisherman and director of the food aid program for the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute. He is helping coordinate the event as part of the ASMI's Alaska Herring Development Project.
Featured in the fine dining showcase will be 5,000 pounds of herring filets from this year's Togiak fishery, donated by North Pacific Seafoods at Naknek.
Herring disappeared from American menus long ago, even though the fish has a mild flavor, similar to trout, and is loaded with healthy omega-3s. Herring week will showcase recipes including smoked, pickled, pate and fancy-filet entrees.
Schactler said he was "shocked" when he tried the dishes at the first Herring Week last year, when only eight restaurants participated.
"I didn't know what to expect. You walk into one of these restaurants, and they set these beautiful dishes in front of you and by the time you're done eating, you're saying I'll have another," he said with a laugh.
Each year in Alaska, more than 40,000 tons of herring are harvested from Southeast to Norton Sound. Nearly all of it is valued for the roe-bearing females, with most male fish getting ground up and discarded. Some herring is used as bait.
"I think it's maybe the first time herring has been fileted for food for a commercial market in the state of Alaska," Schactler said. "I think it's a big step forward."
A McDowell Group study several years ago showed Norwegian fishermen fetch more than $1.40 a pound for herring. That compares to Alaska prices that averaged 18 cents a pound for bait fish and just 6 cents for roe herring last year. The study said if just Togiak and Kodiak expanded beyond those two products, the combined value of the two fisheries would be $15 million. This year's Togiak fishery yielded about 26,000 tons valued at $1.5 million.
"The market now is in Europe and when you've got several million tons being harvested year-round right on the doorstep of that primary market, it's pretty hard for us to ship it halfway around the world and compete," Schactler said.
Things could be changing, though. Deckhand Seafoods took top honors in the food service category for its canned smoked herring at this year's Alaska Symphony of Seafood, and Ocean Beauty Seafoods has produced canned herring for hunger-relief programs, said Tom Sunderland, vice president of marketing and communications.
Meanwhile, Schactler is hopeful that by next year, Northwest Herring Week might put out a call for even more Alaska herring as the program expands down the Pacific Coast.
"I can at least help set the table with this development program to where the opportunity is there if any of the Alaska businesses want to take advantage of it," he said.
Northwest Herring Week runs Monday through June 26.
Salmon prices on the upswing
As predicted, global market conditions are better than last year, and Alaska salmon prices are on the upswing. Unlike most years, many salmon fishermen will know how much they'll get paid before they set out their nets.
At Kodiak, a base price of 95 cents a pound for sockeyes is posted around town, with a nickel more for refrigerated fish. That compares to an average of 65 cents last year.
Icicle Seafoods, newly acquired by Canada's Cooke Aquaculture, has posted a base of $1.15 for sockeyes at its remote Larsen Bay plant on the west side of Kodiak Island.
At Bristol Bay, Copper River Seafoods has posted a base price of 75 cents a pound at its two plants in the bay for "excellent" sockeyes, with an extra 15 cents for chilled fish, 10 cents more if the fish is bled, and an additional 25 cents more for reds shipped out fresh. That compares to an average of 63 cents a pound in 2015.
Plant manager Vojtech Novak told KDLG radio in Dillingham the owner of Copper River Seafoods "was a fisherman and always dreamed of knowing the price before going fishing." He said the company plans to post salmon price information at both plants every Sunday. No word yet from other Bristol Bay processors.
Elsewhere, the price for Copper River reds dropped to $2.75 a pound depending on various incentives, down from a whopping $6.50 during the first opener in mid-May.
Skates make up a huge biomass in the North Pacific. While there have been targeted Alaska skate fisheries in the past, most are discarded as bycatch. Some skate species can live up to 50 years, and they have characteristics that make them vulnerable to fishing pressure. A new study aims to find out how many of them die when they are caught and released.
"Currently, management assumes 100 percent mortality, whether the skates are retained or discarded. We have anecdotal evidence that's an exaggeration and it's likely less," said Daniel Michrowski, a research assistant at the School of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.
Michrowski aims to get better numbers on how many skates die after being caught on longlines, which account for about 70 percent of skate bycatch in the Bering Sea. About 60 million pounds of skates are allowed to be taken incidentally in those waters.
"We've seen skates coming up with their mouths mangled but they obviously have healed, and you see scar tissue and regrowth in certain areas. So just as halibut can survive with possibly losing part of their jaws, we imagine skates can as well," he explained.
Michrowski said he learned aboard Bering Sea longliners that handling by the crew makes a difference. Now he plans to compare rough and careful handling outcomes, and monitor injury recoveries in the eastern Gulf of Alaska.
Already, he has compiled data on injuries caused by skates being gaffed, ripped off lines or from automatic hook removers called crucifiers.
"Now we are looking to get some skates that are handled more carefully, as you would with halibut," Michrowski explained. "We want to get both of those groups of skates into the lab to monitor their injury recovery. We are going to take video recordings of their eating attempts to see if there is any impairment – if it takes them longer to feed, if they're eating less, or if there is a time delay between after they are injured until they start feeding again. We hope to get a better picture of how those injuries correspond with mortality."
A commercial longliner is needed to capture live skates in Southeast Alaska waters in short stints throughout the summer. They'll be transported to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Auke Bay lab in Juneau and monitored for three months. Michrowski said fishery managers will incorporate the results of the skate mortality study into future stock assessments so that future estimates of catch and retention can be more accurate.
The skate study is funded by the Pollock Conservation Cooperative.
Laine Welch is a Kodiak-based commercial fishing columnist. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.