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 quota is small compared to most of Alaska’s other herring fisheries, but the payout is far higher than all others.
“They get $1.00 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 to $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 explained. 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 pricy 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 dip nets 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 dip nets 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 fetch a nice price, twice – $.25 to $.75 cents a pound for their harvest, and again after it goes to market.
“The market can vary widely,” Shields said. “I’ve heard anywhere from $.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 explained. “Anyone can get a permit to participate in the herring or the smelt fishery in Cook Inlet.”