A week into a challenging Togiak herring fishery, some fishermen are ready for halibut season.
Herring opened April 17 this year, a record early start for the fishery. But it’s been a tough go of it - by April 25, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game said 7,741 tons of herring had been harvested by the seine fleet, well below their quota of about 20,000 tons.
This year, 17 seiners are selling to four companies, and two gillnetters have also participated. Daily hauls seemed to have declined already, with seiners taking 252 tons April 25, almost 450 tons of April 24 and 1,500 tons on April 23.
Although the numbers have shown something off a drop-off in catches, Fish and Game Area Management Biologist Tim Sands said it’s too early to say that the fishery is definitely winding down because stormy weather has had such an impact on fishing activity.
“It confounds the presence or absence of quality fish,” he told KDLG News on April 26. “We’ll see today with better weather if they can find fish and bring the catch back up to 1500, 2000 tons kind of deal. And then we’ll what size and quality of fish that they’re catching. That’s our other thing, we don’t want to hammer the new recruits to the fishery, so we’ll be looking at fish size.”
The fishery often ends in about 10 days to two weeks, and before the season began, Fish and Game’s pre-season forecast expected the quota in less than two weeks. But so far this year, the herring fishery has stretched out for almost two weeks with less than half the seine harvest taken, and as of April 26, it was unclear when it would end.
Sands said that last year the fishery ended in about 13 days when the quota was reached, but that fishermen were still bringing in good quality harvest, so it wasn’t that the herring season was actually over.
This year, he said, the length of the fishery will also depend on whether processors want enough sac roe to keep processing lines going continually, which the weather has made difficult, and whether fishermen are going out to harvest herring for other products.
While offloading some herring in Dillingham on April 25, Manokotak drifter Dan Pauk said he might go out for one more round of bait, but he wasn’t sure yet.
“These are…to bait the halibut,” he said. “…The season starts on May 1.”
Sitting in a new truck that had just arrived on the first barge of the season, Pauk said the stormy weather had made it difficult to make the trip back from Togiak on April 25.
“It was pretty good, we only set maybe a couple times,” he said. “We might get more bait, I don’t know, we’ll see.”
Pauk said he’s fished halibut for 20 years, and ships his catch fresh to Anchorage. He’s expecting a good price this year, and said it has a better pay-off than other Bristol Bay fisheries. This year, he’s one of more than a dozen fishermen expected to participate in the local halibut fishery, which is orchestrated by the Bristol Bay Economic Development Corp., or BBEDC.
Fisheries quota manager Anne Vanderhoeven said earlier this spring that the quota for the near-shore fishery this year will be about 115,000 pounds, almost 40,000 pounds more than it started with last year. That’s harvested by small boat fishermen like Pauk, who get apply for their commercial permits through BBEDC. The organization also has some ability to transfer quota from the larger boat fishery, which opened in March and occurs farther from shore. That’s how local halibut fishermen were able to catch more than expected last spring.