It’s a big year for Alaska roe herring fisheries, but lackluster interest by both harvesters and processors is an ongoing story.

The fishery at Sitka Sound opened on March 27 after a stall last year and limited fishery in 2019, resulting from small fish and a weak market. The seine fleet this year has a harvest of 33,304 tons (nearly 67 million pounds), but managers predict low participation and limited processing capacity.

Ten or 15 boats could fish starting April 1 at Kodiak for one of its biggest fisheries in decades at 7,895 tons (16 million pounds).

Togiak at Bristol Bay is Alaska’s largest roe herring fishery, this year with a whopping 42,639 ton harvest (more than 85 million pounds). Last year only three boats and one buyer showed up there during the May fishery.

The herring market has tanked over two decades by disinterest from the single buyer, Japan, where tastes and buying policies have changed.

In the 1990s, Alaska fishermen fetched $1,000 a ton or more, and while product from Sitka today might pay out at a few hundred dollars a ton, at Togiak the price has been $50-$75 for several years. Alaska’s herring catch in 2020 was so low that all data remain confidential.

“It is maybe the most extreme example I’m aware of how a major Alaska industry could be dependent on an extremely specialized foreign market,” Gunnar Knapp, a retired University of Alaska fisheries economist told KDLG in Dillingham.

Robert Heyano, an NF Highliner who has fished at Togiak for more than four decades, added that “the industry needs to find other ways to sell its herring, such as bait or food.”

Waste is another issue.

Herring is frozen and usually shipped to Japan, where the roe is extracted. The male fish have almost no value and are mostly turned into fish meal, sold as bait, or ground up and dumped. That’s also the fate of the female carcasses after their roe is taken.

It’s estimated that only 12 percent of Pacific herring is used for human consumption. A report by the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute claims that if the discarded herring was instead turned into fillets, it would increase the first wholesale value by $11 million a year.

Alaska’s herring fisheries have been managed for sac roe since the 1970s, but today the fish is far more valuable as bait. At Dutch Harbor, for example, bait herring pays out at over $500 per ton; at Cook Inlet it brings at least $1 per pound for fishermen. Ironically, many Alaska fishermen purchase herring from the East Coast for use as bait.

Forrest Bowers, deputy director of the state commercial fisheries division, agreed that it could be time for a change.

“Those are regulations that the Board of Fish could modify,” he said. “If a person said we want to increase this opportunity or provide an additional opportunity to obtain their own bait, that is something the board could take a look at. And if we are in areas where the harvestable surplus isn’t being taken in the sac roe fishery, why not allow it in a different fishery.”

Have you listened to this article via the audio player above?

If so, send us your feedback around what we can do to improve this feature or further develop it. If not, check it out and let us know what you think via email or on social media.

Laine Welch has covered the Alaska fish beat for print and radio since 1988. She has also worked “behind the counter” at retail and wholesale seafood companies in Kodiak and Cape Cod. Click here to send her an email.

Join the Conversation