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Hankering for herring.

Pursued in Alaska since 700 B.C., herring today is harvested in some of Alaska's most hurried fisheries.

Imagine trying to make a living in a business that can break you or make you rich in the time it takes to read this article. Last year, 97 seine fishermen rode the Prince William Sound herring rodeo for 20 minutes and netted an average of $54,700 apiece.

Herring is a crazy fishery. You can gear up for a month ahead of time, mending nets and throwing money into your boat, scanning Fish and Game bulletins for stock projections and the horizon for early fish and good weather. And then you can blow it all or make a bundle in a herring opening that can last two months or be over faster than a bad haircut, depending on what area you're fishing.

Success or failure in the herring fishery can depend on many things outside a fisherman's control: quantity of roe in the females, accuracy of biologists' predictions about when the roe is ripe, and in the long run, how much of the precious herring roe 122 million people across the Pacific feel like giving each other at holidays. (Almost all of Alaska's herring is exported to Japan for reprocessing and sale as Kozunoko, the valued herring roe.)

The herring fishery has several personalities in Alaska. For about 7,000 people who work seiners and gillnetters, the spring herring runs make a great opportunity to gear up and get the boat running before salmon season. In Hoonah, Prince William Sound and Bristol Bay, some harvesters go after Macrocystis kelp after herring have spawned on it. Japanese consumers eat roe on kelp (called Kosunoko konbu) the way we eat cream cheese on a cracker - except they pay $25 a pound for it. There's a 6,800-ton food-and-bait fishery that starts in August in Dutch Harbor and ends up in Southeast in January. And in Western Alaska, particularly Nelson and Nunivak islands, herring is a major subsistence resource, making up about 40 percent of the local population's diet.

These four major fisheries - the roe sac fishery, roe-on kelp, food and bait, and subsistence - make up a rowdy set of siblings under the cool management hand of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADFG). But to understand the fisheries, you have to get to know herring a little bit first.

Herring Habitat. The rainbow-backed Pacific herring inhabit shallow waters from San Diego, Calif., to the ice packs of the North Pacific and range as far west as the coast of Korea. Like sardines and anchovies, herring move in that magical way schooling fish do, dipping and turning in unison as though each fish was a silvery scale on a single giant organism.

Herring live out along the continental shelf and feed on plankton, fish larvae and invertebrates on the surface of the water. In turn, their oily flesh makes good eating for salmon, cod, seals, marine mammals and sea birds.

As the ice pack retreats from the North Pacific in the early spring, herring follow the upwelling of nutrients and move northward toward shore. By the time they get to the shallow waters of Alaska's bays and estuaries, the females are fat with eggs (roe) and the males haven't much interest in anything besides squirting clouds of milt into which the females can release their eggs. Each female releases 20,000 to 60,000 eggs, which coat the kelp, sea grasses, rocks or muddy bottom of the bay in layers so thick 1,000 eggs per square inch - that from the air the mass looks like spilled milk.

Surviving eggs become larvae after two or three weeks and grow to two-inch juveniles by eight weeks. These juveniles form a huge kindergarten offshore, comprised of millions of fish, which more or less hang out together through the school year to mature and grow fat before spawning.

Typically, herring start spawning at about the age of three or four. They live to be nearly 20 and can grow as big as 18 inches.

The Pacific herring you might see flipping clear out of the water on a spring day in Prince William Sound or Tongass Narrows is not too different from the herring of the Cretaceous period of 110 million years ago. In design and purpose, herring have pretty much found a good thing and stuck with it. So have their most loyal customers, which include the Yup'ik Indians of Western Alaska, whose interest in herring takes us back to 700 B.C.

From Sea to Table. About the time the Romans got the idea to start an empire, the Yup'ik peoples along the eastern Pacific sat down to their first herring dinners. Grooved stone sinkers that date back as far as 700 B.C. and that were used to weigh down fishing nets have been collected off the coast of Western Alaska.

Native Alaskans traditionally fished herring by kayak, using sinew nets; these days they go out into the ice-laden waters in 22-foot open skiffs. Ashore, the herring are gutted and strung on braided strands of grass, then hung on drying racks.

"The residents of Nelson and Nunivak islands consume roughly 350 pounds of herring per person per year, so you can see that it's a pretty important resource for them," says Jon Zuck of the Bering Sea Fishermen's Association (BSFA).

The subsistence need for herring takes precedence over commercial fisheries in the Nelson/Nunivak islands area of the Bering Sea and in other areas where locals depend on the fish for food more than for money. The subsistence fishermen may take all the herring they need, and commercial openings are called only if the herring stocks are high enough to provide for both.

Last year there was no commercial fishery in the Nelson/Nunivak islands area. This year Fish and Game might call a small commercial opening if there are enough fish.

Herring stocks in Bristol Bay and the entire Bering Sea region are in a natural state of decline. Fishery biologists describe this state as "recruitment failure," meaning that not many juvenile fish are making it to spawning age (between four and seven years), while older fish keep dying off at the regular rate.

All fish born in the same year form a year-class, and biologists say 197778 year-classes were very strong, yielding commercial harvests between 40,000 and 50,000 tons in the mid-80s. This year, the 1984 year-class will join the fisheries. But the 1984 year-class is not as strong; most of the fish harvested probably will be the older fish.

This is good for commercial fishermen, because older fish usually are bigger and carry lots more roe, hence bringing better prices. But an aging resource also means there probably will be fewer fish to harvest this year and in the years to come.

"Basically, the cause of the decline in herring is recruitment failure, and we don't know what oceanographic conditions result in that," says ADFG biologist Fritz Funk. "It's not that unusual. It happens from time to time in the Bering Sea."

The subsistence herring fisheries have no doubt seen recruitment failure come and go over the millennia. Under the current management system, there's no provision for setting subsistence harvest limits for herring if the resource drops below sustainable levels.

"At the moment we're working on criteria for how we (ADFG) would respond if stocks went down so low that even subsistence takes would threaten stocks," Funk says. "We're not there yet, but we're anticipating how we'd react to that situation. At Nelson Island, we were in that situation in the early 1970s, and the village elders voluntarily reduced their harvest. So it could again be a self-regulating situation."

Funk says subsistence herring may have to be curtailed if stocks in the Nelson/Nunivak islands area drop below 1,000 tons. This year, the stock was estimated at 1,897 tons.

Western Alaska fishermen point to two activities that they feel exacerbate the declining herring stocks in the Bering Sea. A food-and-bait fishery for herring out of Dutch Harbor, conducted in the fall, took 820 tons last year.

Subsistence fishermen are fighting to keep that harvest from increasing. They believe the Dutch Harbor fishery takes herring from the Nelson/ Nunivak islands stocks. But the biggest problem Western Alaska subsistence fishermen have is the more than 3,000 tons of herring taken as bycatch by high-seas trawlers.

"We're not exactly sure yet how much herring is taken as bycatch," Punk says. "National Marine Fisheries Service hasn't released final estimates. It could be as high as 5,000 tons. We're pretty certain it's not enough to cause overexploitation of the stock, but it probably is enough to affect the stocks."

What nobody knows is how much herring the trawlers take while fishing around for pollock in the unregulated waters of the international zone, called the Donut Hole.

"We had a little concern in January this year, when there was lots of foreign effort in the northeast corner of the Donut Hole. That's the only place where waters are shallow enough that herring might be there, and it's fairly close to the herring wintering area. Those boats might be a little off the edge of the continental shelf, but they're close enough to cause concern," Funk says.

Last year, villagers from Nelson/ Nunivak, Tooksook Bay, Tununak, Chefornak, Mekoryuk, Nightmute and Newtok pooled community bingo funds to send representatives to the Board of Fish and the North Pacific Fishery Management Council meetings to plead for protection for the subsistence fishery against the increasing pressure from commercial fishing activities. They got the Board of Fish to seriously consider setting the Dutch Harbor commercial catch according to the rise and fall of Nelson/Nunivak islands stocks and to lean harder on the high-seas trawl fleet to eliminate the bycatch problem.

Many subsistence fishermen also fish herring commercially; some earn half to 90 percent of their annual income fishing herring. For them, protecting the stocks for both subsistence and commercial fishing takes on heightened importance.

Commercial Catches. In each of 18 herring areas between Kah Shakes (south of Ketchikan) and Port Clarence (75 miles northwest of Nome), herring fishermen face a plethora of varying regulations, harvest limits, area restrictions and - in some areas - limited entry programs. Here's the news in distilled form: Projected commercial harvests for 1991 will be 43,356 tons of herring, plus 602 tons of herring roe on kelp. This is just under last year's harvest of 44,823 tons of herring, but a jump in the roe-on-kelp fishery from last year's 438 tons.

In 1990, herring harvests statewide were valued at $27 million. Prices are set by fish buyers according to size of fish, percentage of females in the catch, and percentage of total weight made up by roe. Variation of roe weight by 1 percent could nudge the price up or down as much as 10 percent.

Last year, herring from Security Cove, in the Kuskokwim area, brought the lowest prices, at $400 per ton. Prices ranged generally from $500 to $700 per ton throughout the state. They were highest - $1,000 per ton - in Kodiak.

Aside from a small food-and-bait fishery in Southeast that opens New Year's Day, the year's first herring season is in early April off Sitka. Seiners take most of the commercial herring, and gillnetters about 50 percent less. Last year, Southeast fishermen harvested 3,800 tons, less than 30 percent of the 1989 harvest, but at a far better price.

In Prince William Sound, where the Exxon Valdez oil spill shut down herring fisheries in 1989, last year's season (if you can call a 20-minute opening a 'season") netted a bountiful 8,300 tons by seine, an additional 505 tons by gillnet. The sound is the only area in which herring stocks are increasing; seiners and gillnetters will harvest a total of 11,960 tons this year.

Lower Cook Inlet produced 2,264 tons of herring last year and can look forward to 1,353 tons this year. Herring are declining or moderately stable there and in the Shelikof Straits off Kodiak.

Farther west, the Togiak herring fishery netted 12,300 tons for seiners and gillnetters in a three-hour opening last year, but will yield only 8,600 tons in 1991. In the Kuskokwim area, where open-skiff gillnetters deliver herring over-the-side to tenders and processors, the 1989 harvest of 830 tons will shrink to about 690 tons this year. In Norton Sound, last year's harvest of 6,379 pounds will drop to 5,075 pounds this year.

"In Nelson and Nunivak islands, Cape Romanzov and Cape Ivanof, herring is their only commercial fishery," says Zuck of the Bering Sea Fishermen's Association. "They have a small halibut fishery, but it hardly compares to the herring, which could bring half of their annual income, depending on whether or not they have a shore job the rest of the year.

For many of them, it's their entire commercial fishing income anyway, and it could be as much as 80 to 90 percent of their income. And these communities have the lowest income per household in the state."

Zuck points out that the area's dependence on herring increases concern about the incidental harvest of herring by high-seas trawlers. "There's a big question mark about how much bycatch is affecting those fisheries. It certainly can't be doing them any good," he adds.

In Togiak and Prince William Sound, herring stocks are solid enough that fishery biologists set harvest rates at 20 percent of the estimated stock. Elsewhere, harvests are set at a more conservative 6 to 15 percent. Commercial catches are set most conservatively in areas where subsistence fishing takes priority.

'One thing about herring fishing in Norton Sound is that there's always great weather," notes Henry Mitchell, BSFA's executive director and a former herring fisherman himself. 'It can be blowing and storming, but it seems like as soon as Fish and Game announces an opening, the sun comes out."

Under a spring Bering Sea sun, the silver-pink brilliance of the herring flashes brightly as they come out of the water. The colors fade as the fish get closer to the floating processor, where the herring are pumped aboard, weighed, sampled for roe percentages and ripeness, and toted up.

Processing of herring harvested for its sac roe typically consists of freezing the fish in blocks. Most often frozen blocks are transferred on the fishing grounds to a Japanese steamer, which carries the herring to their destinies in the Kazunoko market.

Market prices for Alaska herring take their cue from Canadian sac roe prices, though prices for Alaska product usually trail Canada's. Prices were good last year, but the Japanese market crashed at year-end when Osaka shoppers declined the opportunity to pay big bucks (U.S. $20.20 per pound) for gift packs of herring roe. The unsold Canadian roe was dumped on other markets, pushing the value of Alaska's roe down between $10 and $13 a pound. What this means for 1991 prices nobody knows, but most of the processors will be buying this year.

Pound Raising. One herring product Japanese love to sink their teeth into is roe on kelp. The market for this high-priced delicacy takes advantage of herrings' habit of seeking out and spawning in beds of broad-leafed Macrocystis kelp - seaweed that resembles a giant rhododendron plant with elephant-ear leaves.

For many years, kelp has been harvested by divers who bring roe-covered kelp to the surface for trimming. Trimmed roe-on kelp goes for a pretty penny; at $25 per pound in Japan, it's Alaska's most valuable fishery.

The right kind of kelp grows plentifully in Southeast, but not much of it is available in Prince William Sound or farther west. In the late 70s, someone got the idea to harvest kelp in Southeast, bring it north, string it from seine net hung from a log-and-foam frame in the water, and create a kelp bed for herring to spawn on. These are called pounds.

Kelp pounds are now a limited-entry fishery, and in Prince William Sound last year they yielded about 221 tons. Kelp divers harvested only 119 tons of roe-on kelp in the sound last year, and 206 tons in Togiak.

Kelp pounds are simple in concept and complex in execution. The kelp lives only about 10 days after harvest, so the timing has to be right. Once strung up in the sound, the herring had better sweep through on their spawning run at the right time, or owners start pounding something besides kelp. When the herring come in, they're harvested by seine and transferred into the pound, where it's hoped nature will take its course. After the spawn, the kelp leaves are recovered, trimmed and sold.

Many Credits. In the 1980s, fish processors rendered herring oil and sold it to Hawaiian pineapple growers as fertilizer, creating the first fish byproducts industry in Alaska. Throughout this century, herring have performed a valuable service as top-notch bait for the crab fisheries, which have made Alaskan fishermen a buck or two.

Left to their own inclinations, herring provide a beneficial link in the food chain between plankton and groundfish in what oceanographer John Crompton once termed "converting sunlight into food." Herring also has been a source of sustenance for some 2,700 years.

Cumulatively, the Alaska herring business could bring $25 million or $30 million to fishermen, divers and pound owners this year. In some areas herring might be a 20-minute fishery, but in many ways it's much, much more than that.
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Title Annotation:Alaska's commercial and subsistence herring fisheries
Author:Holmes, Krys
Publication:Alaska Business Monthly
Date:May 1, 1991
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