All through the 1980s and ‘90s, in April hundreds of seiners, crab boats, floating processors, and other support vessels made the long trek across the Bering Sea to convene in the northwest reaches of Bristol Bay near the village of Togiak.
Coming from Homer, Kodiak, Cordova, or even ports in Southeast, our main engines droned on for days just to get to False Pass, the first possible crossing from the Gulf of Alaska into the Bering Sea. That was when the weather didn’t force us to hide out for a few days in anchorages among the Shumagin Islands, or, if we were lucky, Sand Point, where we could tie up in a transient slip and order a pizza.
Eventually, we came to the final leg of the trip, went for the roller coaster ride through the breakers at the Bering Sea entrance of the Pass, and chugged another two or three days north toward Togiak.
Year after year, we did it, and we did it with zeal, all for the crazy, crapshoot, high-stakes herring fishery at Togiak.
In 1987, the Japanese Yen overshadowed the value of the US Dollar by about 40 percent going into the herring season. With that much purchasing power, the economic ripples caused a significant ex-vessel price spike. More than 30 processing companies had vessels on the grounds with a fleet of drab green Japanese trampers anchored nearby. Another pivotal factor was that herring roe, kazunoko, continued to be the food of choice during Oseibo, the Japanese Christmas season.
With ex-vessel prices running north of $1,000 a ton and guideline harvest levels (GHL) set between 12,000 and 30,000 short tons, there was always that chance for a million-dollar set. But there wasn’t much time to get it. During the heyday, around 300 seiners and 500 gillnetters participated in the fishery. That meant purse seiners could catch upwards of 25,000 tons in less than a half-hour. We saw single openings of 20 minutes and even 15 minutes.
In some years the fishing fleet and its tenders, floating processors, fuel barges, and vessels in the peripheral industries created a yellow smog, visible from nearly 50 miles out and spawned the joke that in May Togiak becomes Alaska’s largest city, albeit a floating one.
Though we never saw a million-dollar set in the Togiak seine fishery, several sets in 1987 and 1988 came in at about half that. It wouldn’t be until 2008 when the Infinite Glory, a seiner in the Sitka fishery, circled and pursed on 1,500 tons for a grand haul of around $1 million.
When we returned to Togiak in 1989, the ex-vessel prices had fallen to $500 a ton, and thus began the downward spiral for the fleets not only in Togiak but in Sitka, Kodiak, and elsewhere. In recent years, ex-vessel prices at Togiak have ranged from $50 to $125 per ton, with Sitka running between $200 and $300.
The statewide ex-vessel herring revenues, meanwhile, have fallen from a record $55 million in 1988 to $5 million in recent years, and the fishery at Sitka contributes the lion’s share of that value.
Last week saw the Togiak fishery winding down, with two processors, their tenders, and eight seiners working the grounds. Given the number of participants, harvest and value will be confidential, according to Tim Sands, the area management biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in Dillingham.
With a record purse seine GHL of 52,000 tons and only a mosquito fleet to chase them, the harvest will likely tally up to fewer than 15,000 tons, according to Sands.
And those 20-minute openings?
“With that huge GHL and a small fleet there’s no concern about the biology; so we just opened it,” says Sands.
Longtime friend and seiner Tom Hoblet, of False Pass, has seen the thick and thin of Togiak since the 1980s. He and his crew were among the fleet there this year.
“We love it,” he says of the new regime. “We just like to catch fish. The weather was good, and we fished 10 days straight.” Hoblet adds that he does a lot of test fishing to determine that the sets they sell contain a high percentage (10 percent or above) of ripe females.
Another strike against Togiak through the years has been that a predominance of older, larger fish dominate the catch. With some fish weighing in at more than 300 grams, the egg skein size in the females has been a hard sell in end markets in Japan. The eggs from the 300-gram fish wind up as a different product form that pales in value compared to fish around 125 grams.
That’s where the Sitka fishery comes into play. Herring population surveys and samples from the fishery last year came up with an average of 110 gram fish, but those fish were expected to hit the magic 120 to 125 grams this year. In 2019 and 2020 the predominant age classes tested out at 100 grams or less, and the lack of interest among buyers warranted no fishing in those years.
This year’s harvest at Sitka hit more than 25,000 tons, which is about half of the record-high GHL of 45,000 short tons. The harvest was the largest in its history and more than triple the harvest when the biomass supported setting a huge GHL increase from around 5,000 tons to 8,500 tons in 1985.
Unlike Togiak, the Sitka sac roe fishery requires a limited entry permit. This year, 28 of the 47 active permit holders participated. The average roe recovery hit 11.9 percent, and with the huge GHL and small fleet, the has also evolved from the short shotgun openers to more fishing time. The fishery ran for 15 days, from March 26 through April 10, and closed when test fishing revealed a high percentage of spawn-outs had mixed in with ripe females.
The herring fishery got underway at Kodiak on April 1, and the fleet put in a record-breaking harvest, with preliminary estimates of 9,000 tons. The previous record of 5,701 tons had been set in 2010.
As of April 24, most harvest areas around the island had closed. This year the gill net and seine fleets worked on a GHL of 8,075 short tons. Gillnetters fished on even-numbered days with the seine fleet fishing on the odd-numbered days.