Sitka herring roe fishery closed over small fish, weak markets and coronavirus uncertainty

A bird’s eye view of Sitka Sac roe herring fishermen. (Heather Bauscher/KCAW photo)

The Sitka Sac Roe Herring Fishery likely won’t happen this year. That’s according to a statement released last week by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

Weak markets and smaller-than-average fish — two factors in the premature closure of last year’s fishery — are being blamed for the move, along with new uncertainty over the spread of coronavirus in China.

Fish and Game contacted “all processors with a known interest” in the sac roe fishery, and they have all indicated that they do not intend to purchase herring due to market conditions and the forecast run of small fish, according to the news release.

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KCAW confirmed with both Silver Bay and Sitka Sound Seafoods that they would not be buying herring this year due to the size and marketability of the available fish.

In an email, Silver Bay’s Richard Riggs said that the uncertainty with the coronavirus also played a part in his company’s decision to withdraw from the fishery this year. A significant quantity of Sitka herring is re-processed in China before going to Japan.

Processing fish is also an expensive endeavor.

Bill Grant at Sitka Sound Seafoods said the costs of relocating tenders to Sitka, setting up freezers, and flying up employees — all while being uncertain about whether the fleet would find fish that meet the market demands — weighed into the processor’s decision to not purchase herring this spring.

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Chip Treinen is a permit-holder for the fishery, and president of the Southeast Herring Conservation Alliance.

“We were not able to come to a decision as seiners ourselves but the processors looked at the market conditions and all of the circumstances that are surrounding us in this case,” he said. “We have an added problem of the coronavirus at this point and of course the trade issues with China and the tariffs situation. So a whole lot of things that were stacked against us.”

Fish need to be at around 110 grams or more, but this year’s forecast is projecting smaller 3- and 4-year-old fish, that will weigh around 92 grams. Last year, the seiners came to Sitka mid-March, as usual, and waited around for a few weeks. But they were unable to find fish that were big enough to get the price they wanted, so the fishery never opened.

Treinen said that not fishing will be financially challenging, especially for new permit holders who are still paying off their permits.

“It’s a bad situation for all of us,” he said. “None of us want to be standing down, but we also don’t want to waste money and hang out for an unlikely return. We’re all small businessmen and we need to make money in what we do.”

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And this all comes while Fish and Game is fighting a lawsuit with the Sitka Tribe of Alaska. Treinen’s organization, the Herring Alliance, is an intervenor in the suit that alleges the state has mismanaged the fishery and infringed on the rights of subsistence users.

The case is set to go to trial in July.

Even if processors and seiners are standing down, it’s still business as usual for state biologists. They will still conduct aerial surveys, map spawn and keep an eye on the herring activity. Fish and Game’s research vessel Kestrel will arrive mid-March. If conditions change — and they still could — the state could announce an opening of the fishery for anyone who is around to fish it