Fish and Game takes conservative approach to 2017 Togiak herring forecast

Oct 5, 2016

Using an average across the data set, minus ten percent, ADF&G predicts 130,852 ton biomass, with 22,943 tons set aside for Togiak sac roe commercial fishery.

A 32' gillnetter, outfitted to seine herring, making a delivery in Togiak in 2015.
Credit Kai Raymond

The forecast is out for next spring’s Togiak herring fishery, the largest of its kind in the state. As KDLG’s Dave Bendinger reports, the Department of Fish and Game is taking a conservative approach to managing the fishery since its budget to do so was zeroed out. 

Audio transcript: Fish and Game estimates a return of roughly 131,000 tons of herring to the waters around Togiak next spring. They came to that number a little differently than usual, says area research biologist Greg Buck.

"Our forecast this year is based on the historical average for the entire data set, which goes back to the early 80's. And we took a ten percent cut off the top of that because we have divisional and departmental guidance to be conservative," he said.

Normally the Department uses an "age structured analysis" to produce its forecasts, but that requires two pieces of data that can be costly to collect during the prior year's fishery.

"One, an estimate of total biomass, which we do by the aerial surveys. And second, an age composition estimate of the harvest and the total biomass, which I and my crew get from sampling the harvest out of the plants. You plug in the total biomass and the age composition, turn the crank, and you get a forecast. As of this year, we no longer have money to collect that information."

Thus the historical average for the 2017 estimate. Buck says this method will work well enough in the short term. But after a few years, the estimate will be built on averages of averages, which is not good science. Buck said discussions are underway to decide what to do in the long term.

"In the absence of getting this money back, I don’t know that there’s much we can do other than put a hard quota on this fishery and cease managing it," he said. "If we don’t have the money to estimate the biomass, we can’t forecast the biomass."

The fishery is managed for 20 percent exploitation, which means a lot of herring is caught in Togiak every year, more than anywhere else in the state by far. Still, the "conservative" forecast and the reduced quota for the fishery isn't sitting well with some of the small fleet.

“Well obviously [it's] really disappointing," said Robert Heyano of Dillingham, who has been fishing Togiak herring since 1978. "I think it’s a kind of a hocus pocus approach to managing the fishery."

He believes the state has long chosen to lean cautious when estimating the size of the Togiak herring resource and setting a percentage available for harvest. He said industry has lived with that because there has been plenty of fish to go around, and the resource is healthy and sustainable.

"Since the beginning, it’s been the understanding that the Department always underestimated the biomass that was actually there," he said. "And the twenty percent exploitation rate, I was told that was a conservative number, and it could go as high as fifty. Especially if you look at the last few years, there’s a huge amount of resource still on the table."

It’s no surprise that fishermen might want a larger harvest quota than state managers choose to allow. But having those conversations will get tougher when there is no scientific data to base it on. Heyano thinks the state is wrongly overlooking management of Alaska's largest herring fishery while still funding it elsewhere.

“Sitka last year went, they prosecuted the sac roe fishery in Sitka," he said. "They prosecuted the pound fishery in Southeast. But yet no money for here? There’s got to be a better method or at least a little more equal distribution of those funds.”

Last year industry contributed $10,000 to Fish and Game to cover some in-season management expenses. That money covered the cost of three aerial surveys, which the Department scheduled conservatively, focusing on the fishery's normal run times. But the herring showed up a record two weeks early, catching everyone off guard. The fish were fortunately spotted by a private pilot, who quickly notified Fish and Game. The fleet was mostly still in port, and nearly missed the 2016 fishery altogether.

Reach the author at dave@kdlg.org or 907-842-5281.