More participation expected for 2017 Togiak herring

Mar 28, 2017

Now with some funding for management, Fish and Game monitoring sea ice and surface temperatures, and predicting early May arrival of state's largest herring fishery. Some 19 seiners and 16 gillnetters expected to fish, with early market signals suggesting a price in the $100-$150 per ton range.

Togiak herring.
Credit ADF&G

KDLG: The Sitka Sound herring fleet is closing in on its quota for the season, with high quality catch reported by ADF&G.

For Togiak, the state's largest herring fishery, the wait to fish this spring may prove a little longer than last year. In 2016, a private pilot spotted a spawning herring biomass on April 14 and the fleet scrambled out to the grounds to catch up. The timing was record early but followed a pattern of environmental changes many attribute to the strong El Niño and its subsequent warm winters.

Sea Ice in the southeast Bering in mid-March.
Credit NASA / NWS

To predict Togiak herring timing, Bristol Bay managers are watching both the extent of sea ice and sea surface temperatures. Area management biologist Tim Sands prefers the sea surface temperature data collected in Unalaska.

“That model is projecting that we should see fish May 4, and first spawn May 5, so somewhere in that first week of May, maybe … late first week, early second week of May. That being said, that’s what the model projects, and what happens between now and then temperature-wise can shift that probably a week either way.”

Because funding was cut last year, the Department is forecasting 2017’s biomass based on the average over nearly four decades of data, minus 10 percent to be conservative. That suggests a total biomass of 131,000 tons, allowing for a harvest of 23,000 tons split 70/30 between the seiners and gillnetters, respectively. 

The program funding was cut this year too, but ADF&G has found $61,000 from other sources to manage this season. That will allow for in-season surveys and fish sampling, which is critical to developing future forecasts. While the fishery may still be a ways off, early market signals are already prompting more interest from fishermen.

“It looks like we’re going to have 19 seine boats and 16 gillnetters," Sands said. "Last year we only had three gillnetters. I’m hearing rumors of $100 to $150 per ton. So the price is back up and that’s bringing gillnetters back into the fishery, making it a viable option.”

The 16 gillnetters is an improvement over the less than a handful who fished the prior two seasons as prices fell well below $100 per ton. Based on the capacity that a gillnetter can put away per season, that had not proved profitable for most.

ADF&G reports four processors registered to buy this season. Once opened, fishing time is expected to be liberal and set primarily by the processor's capacity and preference on roe quality. Managers will begin flying surveys in late April or early May, and while ADF&G's models point to a May fishery, a word of caution was offered that those models have not performed well recently.

Reach the author at dave@kdlg.org or 907.842.5281.

Sea surface temperatures collected by the NWS Alaska Sea Ice program. Fish and Game models use sea surface temperatures in the Bering Sea to predict the timing of the Togiak herring spring run.
Credit NWS