Business/Economy

As demand for Alaska herring roe plummets, industry seeks markets for the wasted fish

The arrival of herring signals the start of Alaska’s spring fisheries, and this year’s catch levels from each of the three main areas are record breakers.

Combined harvests from three prime producing areas total 118,346 tons, or nearly 237 million pounds.

The numbers come from fisheries at Sitka Sound in late March, where the catch this year is set at over 45,164 tons (90 million pounds). That’s followed on April 1 at Kodiak, where 8,075 tons (16 million pounds) can be hauled in. Alaska’s largest roe herring fishery, at Togiak in Bristol Bay, kicks off in May with a whopping harvest this year set at 65,107 tons (130 million pounds).

But once again, the bulk of the available fish will go unharvested due to no buyers.

Since the 1970s the value of Alaska’s herring fishery has been driven by the roe-laden skeins in the female fish. When the huge schools arrive, managers monitor the condition of the ripening females over several days to obtain the highest-value product. Only then do they open the fishery to seiners and gillnetters.

In the 1990s, the roe herring could sell for well over $1,000 per ton to buyers in Japan, where the skeins are considered a delicacy. At that time, the fishery tallied over $60 million to fishermen. Since then, changing tastes and attitudes in Japan have driven the value below $5 million in 2020, with catches averaging just $.08 per pound.

And Japan is Alaska’s only roe herring customer.

“It’s maybe the most extreme example of how a major Alaska industry could be dependent on an extremely specialized foreign market. And it is a stark contrast to the diverse buyers of other Alaska species,” said Gunnar Knapp, a retired University of Alaska fisheries economist.

Most of the herring is frozen whole and shipped out in 15-pound bags to secondary processors in Seattle or Asia, and then sent to Japan. The herring are sorted by sex and the egg skeins are “popped” from the females. The males that are taken as bycatch and the female carcasses are ground up for meal for foreign fish farms, or simply discarded. A small portion is sold as bait.

The herring not destined for human consumption runs as high as 88% each year.

“It’s like hunting a herd of deer only to harvest the liver. Maybe it’s time to start calling the industry what it is — the fishmeal industry,” said K’asheetchlaa Louise Brady of the Southeast Herring Protectors in a March 2 opinion piece in the Juneau Empire.

“Herring is an unutilized resource. We are going to have a Togiak herring quota that will largely go unharvested because there is not a market. We’re working with the processing sector to try and find a market,” said Alaska Department of Fish and Game Commissioner Doug Vincent-Lang at ComFish in Kodiak.

Herring is a mainstay in countries around the world where it’s filleted, smoked, pickled, salted and pated. The fish are provided primarily by Norwegian fleets and can pay out at $1.40 a pound to fishermen.

In Alaska, only Togiak herring are large enough to develop into fillets. Togiak fish can weigh from 14 ounces to nearly one pound, compared to 4 to 5 ounces for other herring.

A report by the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute says that herring fillet production at Togiak could boost the first wholesale value to $14.5 million. That compares to an average value of $2.7 million between 2000 and 2019.

To reintroduce herring to American diners, ASMI in 2016 launched a wildly successful, weeklong Northwest Herring Week in Seattle with about 10 high-end chefs. The event was led by ASMI Food Aid Director Bruce Schactler of Kodiak, who obtained donations of Togiak herring fillets from North Pacific Seafoods. The next year nearly 60 chefs and restaurants participated.

The Alaska Legislature has expanded a product development tax to include herring. Marketers must have a ready customer before they can take advantage of the tax break.

Do I hear Seattle calling?

Askin’ for AlaSkins – Dogs are “Askin’ for AlaSkins” made from fish skins with a side of CBDs.

The treats, made from halibut, cod and salmon skins, are the creation of Sara Erickson of Soldotna, who began making and selling them in 2017.

Since then, AlaSkins won a 2021 Best New Business award in reader voting for the ADN Best of Alaska event. The small company also took home a second place at the 2022 Alaska Symphony of Seafood competition.

Erickson buys freeze-dried fish skins from local processors. At her small plant in North Kenai, the skins are made into rolls or laid flat on dehydrating racks and packaged. Her crew of four also scrapes off any extra meat that goes into a canned product for dogs and cats.

No other ingredients are added.

“AlaSkins are full of protein, Omega 3s, Vitamin A, Potassium, Vitamin D, and B12. They don’t need any other ingredients,” Erickson quickly points out.

One ingredient option is skins laced with CBD oil to reduce pain or stress.

AlaSkins partners with Homer-based Frontier CBDs to make treats from hemp isolate combined with wild salmon oil.

“We didn’t mess around with small amounts of CBD. We loaded each treat with 15mg,” Erickson said.

Erickson is currently building a larger facility to accommodate growing demand. She envisions it might be a licensed processing facility that can accommodate other entrepreneurs.

The state does not do food safety audits on pet food makers, she said, which has blocked AlaSkins from breaking into big markets like Costco. Erickson credited state Sen. Peter Micciche (R-Soldotna) for helping to find a solution to that deal breaker.

“Alaska really needs to start focusing on different revenue streams,” she said. “Instead of just selling our fish, sell the wastes. I want Alaska to start marketing this whole line that says Alaska seafood isn’t just for people, it’s also for pets.”

AlaSkins can be found in nearly 20 outlets from Southeast to Fairbanks and at Erickson’s retail store at 44109 Sterling Highway in Soldotna.

For a touch of “surf and turf,” also take home a moose antler dog chew.

Laine Welch | Fish Factor

Kodiak-based Laine Welch writes Fish Factor, a weekly roundup of news and opinion about Alaska's commercial fishing industry that appears in newspapers and websites around Alaska and nationally. Contact her at msfish@alaskan.com.

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