Alaska News

Abundance of humpback activity slows Dutch Harbor herring fishery

The herring fishing is a little slow, but the humpback whale watching was awesome, according to the state biologist managing the commercial bait harvest in the eastern Aleutian Islands.

"I've never seen that many whales concentrated in one area. It looked like a couple of hundred whales," said Charles Russell of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. He reported "world class whale viewing" as he flew over the small purse seine herring fleet between Akun and Akutan islands in the eastern Aleutians.

"There's just humpbacks everywhere," leading to "scratchy" herring fishing, Russell said. "They don't like to set in front of a group of whales," he said of the herring fleet, which stays off to the side of the whale crowd, to avoid harming the huge cetaceans and damaging fishing gear.

Russell saw the whales in an eight-hour flight in a vintage Cessna Bird Dog float plane, flying with the spotter pilot who directs the seiners to the herring schools on July 15, the fishery's opening day.

"It was pretty cool," Russell said.

Humpbacks eat the small fish, that weigh around 1 pound each.

On Monday, Russell reported about 1,200 tons harvested from a quota of 1,878 tons. Normally, fishing would be done by now, he said, but for two problems: The whales, and the "huge biomass" of herring swimming too deep. Fishermen ideally want to catch the fish on the surface, but can round them up to a maximum of 10 fathoms, or 60 feet, he said.

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"Nice long ribbons" of underwater herring were seen on fishing boat electronic monitors. "They can see the fish, but they won't come up," Russell said. "The fish seem to be pretty scattered between Akutan and Unimak Pass."

The Dutch Harbor food and bait herring fishery opened with just three boats registered, a figure "pretty similar to last year," said Fish and Game area biologist Matthew Keyse in Sand Point.

The allocation of 1,878 tons for purse seiners is down from last year's quota of 2,099 tons, Keyse said, noting that last year's quota was not completely harvested. The three small boats rounded up 1,600 tons in seine nets in about four days, he said.

The fish are "pretty large" for herring, weighing between 300 and 600 grams (500 grams is a little more than a pound), Russell said. The Dutch Harbor herring are part of the larger Togiak population.

Fishing opened last week for the Unalaska and Akutan districts. Russell reported no activity in the Unalaska area. When the herring were harvested near the road system in Unalaska, the fishery was often a spectator event.

The purse seine fleet is much smaller since a cooperative system was adopted. Around 15 years ago, the fleet would have around 20 boats, and a small air force of spotter planes circling overhead. The co-op system was prompted by frequent overharvests.

This year's gillnet quota is 306 tons, but once again it is unlikely to be harvested, as no boats have pursued herring with gillnets for the past several years, he said. On July 25, the unused gillnet quota rolls over to the seiners, but by that time they have usually already left town, he said. The seiners travel to Unalaska from Sand Point, Chignik, and King Cove, he said.

The last gillnet harvest was in 2009, with less than three vessels participating in a fishery that has never gained much traction since its creation at the urging of the Unalaska Native Fisherman's Association about 15 years ago, to create opportunities for local small boat fishermen. The late Bobby Storrs of UNFA championed the gillnet cause, lobbying the state fisheries board. Part of the small boat harbor was renamed in his honor, and a memorial metal bench was installed near his hilltop grave at Unalaska Memorial Park.

The gillnet fishery's best year was in 2004, with seven boats catching 31 tons out of a 216 ton allocation, Keyse said.

Despite the fishery's name, the Dutch Harbor herring are not sold for food, but as bait for crabbers and longliners, Keyse said. The amounts caught are dictated by the needs of the seafood processors, he said. This year's buyers are Westward, Peter Pan, and Trident, he said.

While he didn't know this year's price, Keyse said typically it has been around $300 per ton paid to fishermen, though one year it rose to $550.

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