Homer Alaska - Seawatch

Story last updated at 3:15 PM on Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Sitka Sound herring fishery over; only half of quota caught

The Sitka Sound sac roe herring fishery came and went in the blink of an eye, leaving more than half of the record-setting 28,829 ton quota in the water and fishermen and managers scratching their heads.

In herring, timing is everything, and this year the fish came in quickly and spawned before fishermen were able to capture the quota.

Herring are only valuable to the markets when the eggs are still in the fish, but are mature, or close to being released onto rocks and kelp. This year that window of opportunity was very short, and processors could only do so much within that time frame.

The first 2012 opening took place March 31, the same date as the 2011 fishery. The 2011 fishery closed April 11 after slightly exceeding the 19,490 ton quota.

The 2012 fishery closed after three openings, the last one on April 7, after catching only 13,534 tons. By the time the processors had cleared the decks for more product, allowing for another opening, it was all over but the shouting.

Fishermen had been kept on standby from April 7 until April 12, waiting for word that the processors were ready for more and that there were harvestable numbers of mature but not spawned out herring to be found. A number of boats left town before the Alaska Department of Fish and Game officially announced the closure.

It is unclear yet whether the biomass was smaller than the record expectation, or whether the herring all just spawned at once. ADF&G is still doing aerial and dive surveys, monitoring the amount of spawn.

One bright side for the 2012 fishery is that at least there were no vessel collisions, near-capsizings or rammings that ended up on YouTube or in court, unlike the exciting 2010 and 2011 fisheries.

The controversial West Behm Canal herring fishery outside of Ketchikan also was canceled again this year.

Fishing in that district has been a possibility since a 2003 Board of Fisheries decision to re-open the area, but only one fishery has occurred there since 1967. That was last year, and the effort and the harvest was so small that the amount could not be released due to confidentiality constraints.

West Behm Canal has had fluctuating stocks throughout its history, with some disagreement as to the cause, or even whether the stocks are fluctuating or merely moving around.

West Behm stock is part of three related stocks labeled as the Revilla stock, although the stocks are semi-autonomous, sometimes merging, sometimes not. The West Behm portion of that stock for many years was at fairly low levels, coming in at around 2,000 tons for a good part of its history.

Then, in the early 1990s, it started growing, reaching a high of around 15,000 tons in 1996, the largest on record.

Following that upswing, it fluctuated, mostly downward, but came back up in 2000 to the 6,000 ton threshold necessary for a fishery, which led to the fish board's decision in 2003 to re-open the fishery for the 2004 season. However, the fish did not cooperate. Less than 1,000 tons came in to spawn that year.

At the time, biologists maintained that the fish did not disappear, they simply spawned elsewhere, noting that the amount of spawn in the general area in 2003 almost exactly matched the spawn in 2004, they just were not in West Behm Canal. The fish were spread out around Annette Island, which is managed separately by the federal government and the local Native organization, out of state jurisdiction.

In a 2011 interview, ADF&G area management biologist Scott Walker explained the flurry of opposition to the fishery.

"There were agenda change requests (asking the BOF to take up the matter out of cycle), there was an emergency petition, there were calls to the governor, there were calls to legislators," he said. "The fishery died kind of on its own, but as things have built up again, there has been more and more opposition locally. It has gone back in front of the (BOF) four times, and has been re-established, or at least has not been denied, so here we are."

Now someone needs to tell the herring.

Because of the uncertainty of the fishery, few boats participate, Walker said this year.

"We opened last year, and nobody actually fished for almost 24 hours, and by the time they realized there were fish, and the fish were of quality, then it was pretty much over. There was a day and a half of potential to fish, and the first day of that no one was ready."

This year, there were about 8,000 tons of herring expected to return, with a harvestable surplus of 840 tons, about a tenth of which was reserved for the herring pound bait fishery. However, most of the fish went to areas off-limits to the fleet.

It was estimated that 7.3 nautical miles of spawn occurred in the area, but the majority of the herring spawned in the closed waters of Tongass Narrows and Clover Pass. At no time during the spawning event in West Behm Canal was there ever a large buildup of mature herring in the area open for commercial fishing.

Walker said another problem that impacts effort is the size of the fish.

"Even this year," he said, "the fish are very small," between 59 and 82 grams. "The market really wants 100-plus grams, 120 grams."

The herring and smelt fisheries in Cook Inlet are set to start, herring on April 20 and smelt on May 1.

The herring fishery runs through May 31, with one fishing period per week, from 6 a.m. Monday until 6 p.m. Friday, and is fished with gillnets with a mesh size restriction of between 2 and 2.5 inches.

The guideline harvest ranges are between 20 and 50 tons, depending upon the area.

The smelt, or hooligan, fishery runs through June 30, in the area between the Chuit River and the Susitna River, and is done with dipnets in salt water only. The guideline harvest level is not to exceed 100 tons, and any salmon caught are to be released immediately, unharmed.

For a full list of regulations contact the Soldotna office of ADF&G at 262-9368 or visit the ADF&G commercial fisheries website at www.adfg.alaska.gov/index.cfm?adfg=fishingcommercial.main.

Cristy Fry has commercial fished out of Homer and King Cove since 1978. She can be reached at realist468@gmail.com.