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Business/Economy

Upper Cook Inlet’s commercial herring, smelt fisheries pay big bucks to fishermen

  • Author: Laine Welch
  • Updated: April 22
  • Published April 22

Two commercial fisheries open each spring at Upper Cook Inlet that attract little notice and few participants, but each pays big bucks to fishermen.

The first is a food and bait herring fishery that runs from April 20 through the end of May. The 150-ton catch quota is small compared to most of Alaska's other herring fisheries, but the payout is far higher than all others.

"They get $1 to $1.50 a pound, or $2,000 to $3,000 for a short ton, and the herring goes primarily into the halibut commercial bait fishery or the sport bait fishery," said Pat Shields, regional manager for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in Soldotna.

In contrast, the statewide average price for roe herring at places like Sitka, Kodiak or Togiak is just 12 cents a pound, and fishermen make between $100 and $350 a ton.

The Cook Inlet herring fishery serves a small, local market provided by 10 to 20 fishermen. The fish is captured in gillnets by 10 to 20 salmon setnet fishermen who are trying to get some money to start the season, Shields said. The herring are frozen and sold throughout the year and the demand far exceeds the supply.

Shields speculates the price is so high because there are so few bait herring fisheries in the state — two in Southeast, one at Kodiak and Dutch Harbor.

Meanwhile, most Alaska fishermen buy pricey herring for bait from processors who usually purchase it from the East Coast or Canada.

Traditionally, herring management has been geared to sac roe fisheries, which years ago was in high demand by a single customer — Japan. But tastes there have changed.

"Now the sac roe is far less valuable and there is a lot of demand for herring as bait," said Forrest Bowers, deputy director of the state commercial fisheries division. "Management plans could be restructured so that more herring could be harvested as bait. Someone just needs to propose it to the Board of Fisheries. If there is a harvestable surplus that is not being taken, why not allow it in a different fishery."

The other fishery at Upper Cook Inlet from May 1 through June 30 is for smelt, also called hooligan, eulachon or candlefish. That also attracts up to 20 people who compete for a 200-ton quota using dipnets at the Susitna River. Shields said a 2016 study estimated that 53,000 tons of smelt went up the Susitna that one year.

"It's just a phenomenal biomass," he said, adding that fishermen have had to make their dipnets smaller to accommodate the catches.

"If you have a net that's a couple feet deep, you can't even lift it out of the water," Shields said, adding that it's a tough fishery.

"Logistically, it's kind of a nightmare to get drift boats through the mudflats of the Susitna River," he said. "They bring them back to the Kenai River where they are frozen, boxed up and shipped to the Lower 48. Most of it goes into one of three markets: the human food, sturgeon bait fishery on the Columbia River or the marine mammal food market."

Smelt fishermen also net a nice price, twice — $0.25 to $0.75 a pound for their harvest, and again after it goes to market.

"The market can vary widely," Shields said. "I've heard anywhere from $0.50 a pound to a couple dollars a pound."

Both fisheries are open to all comers who get a miscellaneous finfish permit from the Commercial Fisheries Entry Commission.

"While they require a permit, it is not a limited-entry permit," Shields said. "Anyone can get a permit to participate in the herring or the smelt fishery in Cook Inlet."

Salmon money

Resource developers are raising big money to block the push to strengthen Alaska's salmon habitat protection law.

Since early January, the group Stand for Alaska has raised more than $2 million to stop a ballot initiative that could go to voters this fall. That is 10 times more than the group Yes for Salmon has raised in support of modernizing permitting and habitat protection measures.

First-quarter filings (covering Jan. 8 to April 7) with the Alaska Public Offices Commission show where the financial backing for both groups comes from.

Mining operations that put in $200,000 each toward Stand for Alaska include Kinross Fort Knox and the Pebble Mine. Pogo Mine, Coeur Alaska and Hecla Mining of Idaho also contributed $200,000 as well as Donlin Gold and Doyon Ltd.

ConocoPhillips has donated $250,000 and BP has contributed $500,000 to Stand for Alaska.

Those companies, along with Teck Alaska and Tower Hill Mines, the Resource Development Council, Alaska Miners Association and the Alaska Oil & Gas Association also have contributed in-kind donations to cover staff time, office expenses, travel, etc.

Stand for Alaska so far has paid over $132,000 to Anchorage-based Bright Strategy & Communications; $41,000 to Public Opinion Strategies of Alexandria, Virginia; $23,000 to Blueprint Alaska of Anchorage; and $20,000 to Dittman Research of Anchorage. Stand for Alaska's first-quarter expenditures totaled about $608,000.

Through April 7, Yes for Salmon has collected about $207,000 in contributions. Of that, $100,000 came from John Childs of Florida, who also is a board member of the Wild Salmon Center based in Portland, Oregon.

The New Venture Fund Salmon State, backed by the Hewlett Foundation of Washington, D.C., has made in-kind contributions amounting to about $37,000.

The Alaska Center gave a monetary contribution of about $14,000, plus $15,000 in in-kind contributions, with Trout Unlimited, the Sitka Conservation Society and Cook Inletkeeper adding smaller in-kind contributions. Other monetary contributions listed ranged from $75 to $500 from 11 individual Alaskans.

Total expenditures by Yes for Salmon totaled $127,388.

The salmon protection push must still prove it is constitutional before it goes to voters. The Alaska Supreme Court will hear arguments April 26.

Fish prices

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game provides dock prices for nearly every fish species caught in the state with comparisons going back to 1984. It's called the Commercial Operator's Annual Report  and is compiled from annual inputs by processors.

Here's a sampler from 2016 (prices for 2017 will be available this summer):

The average price for cod was $0.28 per pound; lingcod averaged $1.51.

Those billions of pounds of pollock fetched $0.13 a pound for fishermen. Herring averaged $0.12.

Octopus was $0.46 a pound and sea cucumbers, $4.07.

Spot shrimp paid out at $8.96 per pound; coonstriped shrimp at $5.73 was up more than $2.

Out of 10 types of flounders, pesky arrowtooth was at $0.07; rex sole was the priciest at $0.34.

For 22 types of rockfish, yelloweye, or red snapper, topped the list at $1.29; rosethorn rockfish was the lowest at $0.06.

Wolf eels paid out at $0.84 a pound, geoduck clams at $6.59.

Longnose skates brought fishermen $0.44.

Halibut averaged $6.60 a pound; sablefish at $6.50.

The priciest of all was red king crab at $10.18 a pound; the lowest was for sculpin at just $0.03.

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