State predicts commercial herring harvest will fall short of annual limit

The herring fishery didn’t happen in 2020, but the state continued to survey and map herring spawn. (ADF&G photo)

In an unusual move, the Alaska Department of Fish & Game has set a large guideline harvest level for the commercial herring fishing in Sitka this spring, on the understanding that the fleet is not likely to hit that mark.

In a news release Monday, ADF&G announced a guideline harvest level — or GHL — of just over 33,000 tons for the upcoming Sitka sac roe herring fishery.

But that much probably won’t be harvested. In the same news release, Fish and Game predicts that the commercial harvest will likely not exceed 20,000 tons. Area Management Biologist Aaron Dupuis says the state arrived at that number after speaking to processors about the potential market demands.

“Just from our conversations, like what the individual markets want in terms of herring,” he said. “Part of the reason why we put that in the announcement was, I guess just to temper people’s’ expectations for what will likely get harvested in the fishery. “

Dupuis says 33,000 is already a conservative estimate. The GHL is reduced by 20% of what the state would typically allow from the forecasted population of fish, a mature biomass of 210,453 tons. Even so, he says the state is gearing up as usual for a fishery this year.

“We’re gonna be getting ready for a fishery like we normally do,” he said. “It’s been two years since we’ve had a successful fishery, but we plan on managing it like we normally do.”

But in recent years the fishery has been far from usual. The annual fishery didn’t happen at all in 2019 and 2020. Most of the herring were young and too small to meet international market demands. And the coronavirus added some additional challenges in 2020. Dupuis says he doesn’t expect the pandemic to get in the way of the fishery happening this year.

“Everybody had all of last year to kind of figure out what works on the processing side with the salmon season and with other species, so I think they’ll be able to come up with something,” he said. “For the state, we have standard COVID protocols, especially with the state vessels that were in place last year for the dive surveys. We’ll be able to adequately manage the fishery given those COVID guidelines.”

This year, herring managers believe that most of the available herring stock consists of 5-year-olds (around 86%), which are closer to marketable size than in recent years. Nevertheless, the five-year-olds will be just on the cusp of being large enough to sell. Last year, the marketable size was estimated at around 110 grams. The state estimates age-five fish to weigh in at around 109, with an average weight of the entire herring population estimated to be around 112.

The fishery has continued to see pushback from subsistence harvesters who argue the management of the commercial fishery has harmed the fish population over the last few decades. Herring eggs are highly valued as a traditional food and resource among Indigenous communities in Southeast.

The Sitka Tribe of Alaska brought a suit against the state in 2018, challenging its management of the commercial fishery. The fight continues, with a superior court judge hearing oral arguments this Thursday on whether the state has upheld its constitutional obligation to meet reasonable subsistence needs.

Read next