Sitka herring fishery opens for first time in 2 years

Two seiner boats pull up nets in front of a rainforest town
The seiner Infinite Grace pursing up during the third opening in the Sitka Sound sac roe herring fishery, on Wednesday, March 26, 2014. (Rachel Waldholz/KCAW)

After a week on two-hour notice, the Sitka Sound sac roe herring fishery opened twice over the weekend.

According to a release from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, the fishery opened for 8 hours on Saturday. It re-opened Sunday morning at 10:45 and closed at 6 p.m.

Area management biologist Aaron Dupuis said seiners caught around 2,300 tons on Saturday, but he didn’t yet have data from Sunday’s harvest. He said the fleet is smaller this year: Around 20 seiners and four processors are participating.

“It’s been pretty relaxed,” he said. “Just the size of the fleet. Everything is really tightly controlled. So it’s not the usual bumper boats, wild, shoot-out fishery a lot of people are accustomed to. It’s pretty relaxed out there.”

State biologists predict 210,000 tons of herring will return to Sitka Sound this spring, the highest forecasted return since ADF&G started collecting data in the 1970s. The guideline harvest level for the fishery is 33,000 tons, but the state predicts the fleet is unlikely to hit that mark.

Historically, the fishery has been fast and competitive. But due to a smaller fleet and a limited number of processors, Dupuis thinks daily harvests will be lower than usual, and it will take the fleet longer to reach its quota.

Even with a more relaxed fishery, there was one accident on the water over the weekend when a seine boat capsized during Saturday’s opener.

“We looked over and saw that fishing vessel rolled over pretty hard and he was starting to take on water,” Dupuis said. “Good Samaritan vessels were able to get over there and keep the boat from going down. It doesn’t sound like any diesel fuel or any other pollutants got released from that boat.”

Dupuis said good Samaritan vessels helped bring the boat back to town. He was not aware of any injuries associated with the accident.

It’s the first time the fishery has opened in two years, and its return has been met with some resistance. A group of local activists known as the Herring Protectors have gathered outside of ADF&G offices to protest the fishery several times since the fishery went on two-hour notice.

In 2018, the Sitka Tribe of Alaska sued the state over management of the commercial fishery. The case is still being litigated.