Alaska herring quota up, but year class size may not make the grade

Togiak, Alaska’s herring biomass remains healthy and ready for harvest this year. Meanwhile, the plight in Sitka will be whether the fleet can find fish of a size that the Japanese markets favor.

In mid-December the Alaska Department of Fish and Game announced the 2019 season quota for Togiak at 26,930 short tons, up sharply from the 16,829 tons of 2018.

The lower quota in last year’s fishery stems from weather conditions that stymied efforts to conduct aerial surveys of the spawn in 2017 and 2018.

In-season age class samplings during last year’s harvest indicated burgeoning recruitment of very strong age classes of 4-, 5- and 6-year-olds into the fishery this year. By Fish & Game estimates, 50 percent of the 2019 harvest could be comprised of ages 4 to 6.

The significance in terms of market value is that end markets in Japan prefer the egg skeins of smaller fish. Older (up to 8-year-olds) and much larger fish have dominated size and age compositions in recent years.

Togiak’s big-fish woes are the exact opposite of conditions in Sitka, where the fleet harvested only 2,900 short tons of a quota of 11,169 tons in the 2018 season. It wasn’t that the fish weren’t there, but the brunt of the biomass was made up of 4- and 5-year-olds, which put them shy of the 120-gram minimum threshold, and buyers weren’t interested.

“The age structure last year meant most of the fish would be below that size,” said Aaron Dupuis, an assistant area management biologist with Fish & Game. The fleet and managers “looked around a lot, and we found them on two days. But then a big spawning event went off on Kruzof Island.”

That left the fleet standing by in hopes that larger fish might arrive, but they never materialized. The markets favor fish from 160 to 200 grams, which puts the egg skeins at the optimum size for year-end gift packs.

The guideline harvest quota for the 2019 Sitka sac roe seine fishery, meanwhile, has been set at 12,869 short tons. That’s up from last year, but slightly down from 2016 and 2017.

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Charlie Ess is the North Pacific Bureau Chief for National Fisherman.

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