Thirty percent of the Togiak sac roe herring quota is allocated to the gillnet fleet. This year, the F/V Wave Ryder was the fishery’s gillnet fleet of one.
Seagulls wheeled under gray skies, and low clouds spit rain as the F/V Wave Ryder motored back into Dillingham after nearly four weeks on the water near Togiak.
The purse seine fleet took its quota by May 2, leaving Frank Woods and his crew on their own to fish for the 7,212 tons of herring allocated to gillnetters. On Thursday, he ended his season.
The mood on the 32-foot aluminum drift boat was celebratory as it was hauled out and put up in the Peter Pan Seafoods boat yard.
“It was a phenomenal year. On a good average day, we’d catch 100 tons a day when we were able to fish with good weather, said Woods.
He sat in his wheel house, which was cramped with sleeping berths for himself and his three crew members and a diner-style booth table by the window. Translucent, shimmering herring scales stuck to his baseball cap like sequins.
“The first two weeks was hell for weather. Then it kind of cleared up a little bit. But still, those southerly winds. I’ve never seen the water so murky. There’s been southerly storm after storm after storm for a month. And the temperature, it didn’t get above 38 degrees for two weeks, blizzarding every other day.” Woods chuckled, “Got to just love to be miserable I guess.”
Woods grew up in Bristol Bay and has been fishing for Togiak herring his whole life. He has watched the fishery change dramatically over the years.
“At one time, I think there was a peak of close to 600 gillnetters plus 300 or 400 seiners close to 1000 boats on a regular, average basis. I don’t know, the market just started going down. They Americanized the fleet. Herring became less of a commodity in Japan, and we haven’t found much of another market for them other than bait and food fish,” said Woods.
At the peak of sac roe herring fisheries in Alaska in the late 1980s, herring could bring in more than $1000 per ton. In the past eight years, Togiak herring have brought between $50 and $170 a ton. Based on early market indicators, prices are expected to settle in the $50 to $100 this year.
Woods said that the price is high enough to keep him going, but barely.
“The margins are way off, and the profitability is hard to recover. I know what the expense is to operate over there, not only market-wise, but production-wise and tender-wise and crew-wise and all that stuff is really, really costly when the price of herring is almost breakeven or at-loss margins,” Woods explained.
Still, Woods hopes more gillnetters will chose to participate in the fishery. His processor hopes so too.
“The one fishermen in our gillnet fleet, I want to support year after year,” said Warner Lew, Icicle Seafoods’ fleet manager. “We had a couple more [gillnetters] have events come up that couldn’t attend. We’ll maintain this gillnet fleet because I want to see that portion of the quota remain with the gillnetters.”
What will it take to get more gillnetters fishing? Woods and Lew stressed that there are not easy answers, but they both talked about the importance of diversifying the market for herring. Lew has even started a side business, Deckhand Daughter Seafoods, to sell smoked herring.
Despite the tough market and bone-chilling weather, Woods plans to be back out in the turquoise waters around Togiak next year hauling in herring.
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