'Vanguard' of Togiak herring spotted off Hegemeister on Monday
Fish and Game is poised to open the state's largest herring fishery after documenting 35,000 tons, perhaps by the end of the week, but waiting for marketable roe quality could still be a few days behind that.
"It still looked cold over there," Alaska Department of Fish and Game area management biologist Tim Sands said after an aerial survey that spotted no herring Monday, the second flight of the season. With money back in the budget, Sands is spacing out his limited surveys but trying to prevent a repeat of last year when the herring showed up more than a week earlier than anyone would have guessed.
"There was still a lot of ice. We didn't see many seabirds, certainly more than we saw last week, but still no sea lions either," Sands said.
A spotter pilot for the industry did see fish later that same day, notifying Sands by phone. He reported a few thousand tons were visible off the tip of Hagemeister Island, which was further west than Fish and Game flew.
"I'm thinking it's the vanguard of fish starting to move in," said Sands Tuesday morning. "My expectation at this point is over the next couple of days the biomass will build up. I'm hoping we can go Thursday and document threshold biomass and open up the fishery."
Fish and Game produced a "conservative" forecast for the 2017 Togiak herring fishery, as they lacked age composition data from last season when the management budget was cut. The state estimates 130,852 tons of herring this year, and the fishery can be opened when 35,000 tons have been documented on the grounds.
It appeared to Sands that the outside industry was ready to fish Monday, with more than a dozen seiners on the grounds, plus several tenders and floating processors. Four companies are buying this year, with a much larger participation of gillnetters expected than over the past two years. None of the smaller boats were on the grounds yet, and none appear to have launched out of Dillingham's still icy harbor by Tuesday.
Even if the fishery opens by the end of this week, there will likely be a few days' wait till the spawning fish have ripened to the marketable quality industry is after.
"The fish have roe in them, but it's green," said Sands. "It has to ripen up to the point where they're almost ready to spawn," before the processors want to buy them.
Togiak herring fishermen have a quota of about 23,000 tons to fish this season, split 70/30 between the purse seine and gillnet fleets. Management of the fishing time is expected to be fairly liberal, driven mostly by the quality and the amount processors can handle daily.
The Sitka Sound herring fishery wrapped up in late March, with a total of 13,883 tons harvested.