Fish Factor: Herring fishermen anticipate record catches, but shortage of buyers

Beginning of herring spawning at Knowles Bay. (March 31, 2019) Photo courtesy of Vanessa Lane-Miller/Alaska Department of Fish and Game

The arrival of herring signals the start of the spring fishery in Alaska and this year’s catch levels in each of the three major areas are breaking records.

Combined harvests from the three main production areas total 118,346 tonnes, or nearly 237 million pounds.

The figures come from Sitka Sound fisheries in late March, where this year’s catch is set at more than 45,164 tonnes (90 million pounds). This is followed on April 1 at Kodiak where a crop of 8,075 tonnes (16 million pounds) can be transported. Alaska’s largest roe herring fishery at Togiak in Bristol Bay kicks off in May with a huge harvest this year set at 65,107 tonnes (£130m).

But again, most of the available fish will not be harvested for lack of buyers.

Since the 1970s, the value of herring fishing in Alaska has been determined by egg-laden skeins in female fish. When the huge schools arrive, managers monitor the condition of the maturing females for several days to obtain the highest value product. Only then do they open the fishery to purse seiners and gillnetters.

In the 1990s, roe herring could sell for well over $1,000 a ton to buyers in Japan, where hanks are considered a delicacy. At that time, the fishery brought in more than $60 million to fishermen. Since then, changing tastes and attitudes in Japan have pushed the value below $5 million in 2020, with average catches of just $0.08 per pound.

And Japan is the only customer of roe herring from Alaska.

“This is perhaps the most extreme example of how a large Alaskan industry could be dependent on a highly specialized foreign market. And that’s a stark contrast to the various buyers of other Alaskan species,” said Gunnar Knapp, a retired University of Alaska fisheries economist.

Most herring is frozen whole and shipped in 15-pound bags to further processors in Seattle or Asia, then sent to Japan. The herrings are sorted by sex and the hanks of eggs are “popped” from the females. Males that are accidentally caught and carcasses of females are ground up for flour from foreign fish farms, or simply thrown away. A small part is sold as bait.

Herring not intended for human consumption reaches 88% every year.

“It’s like hunting a herd of deer just to harvest the liver. Maybe it’s time to start calling the industry what it is – the fishmeal industry,” said K’asheetchlaa Louise Brady of the Southeast Herring Protectors in a March 2 opinion piece. in the Juneau Empire.

“Herring is an unused resource. We are going to have a quota of Togiak herring that will largely not be harvested because there is no market. We are working with the processing industry to try to find a market,” said Alaska Department of Fish and Game Commissioner Doug Vincent-Lang of ComFish in Kodiak.

Herring is a mainstay in countries around the world where it is filleted, smoked, pickled, salted and patéed. The fish are supplied mainly by Norwegian fleets and can fetch anglers $1.40 a pound.

In Alaska, only Togiak herring are large enough to grow into fillets. Togiak fish can weigh between 14 ounces and almost a pound, compared to 4 to 5 ounces for other herring.

A report from the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute indicates that the production of herring fillets in Togiak could increase the first wholesale value to $14.5 million. This compares to an average value of $2.7 million between 2000 and 2019.

To reintroduce herring to American restaurants, in 2016 ASMI launched a week-long Northwest Herring Week in Seattle featuring a dozen high-end chefs. The event was led by ASMI Food Aid Director Bruce Schactler of Kodiak, who secured donations of Togiak herring fillets from North Pacific Seafoods. The following year, nearly 60 chefs and restaurants participated.

The Alaska legislature expanded a commodity development tax to include herring. Marketers must have a ready customer before they can take advantage of the tax break.

Do I hear Seattle calling?

Request AlaSkins

AlaSkins, made from halibut, cod and halibut skins, with a side of CBD, by Sara Erickson of Soldotna. Photo courtesy of Sara Erickson

Dogs are “Askin’ for AlaSkins” made from fish skins with a side of CBD.

The treats, made from the skins of halibut, cod and salmon, are the brainchild of Sara Erickson of Soldotna who started making and selling them in 2017.

Since then, AlaSkins has won the 2021 Best New Business award from the Anchorage Daily News. The small company also won a second place in the Alaska Symphony of Seafood 2022 competition.

Erickson buys freeze-dried fish skins from local processors. At its small factory in North Kenai, hides are rolled or laid flat on dehydrating racks and packaged. Its crew of four also scrapes off any extra meat that goes into a canned product for dogs and cats.

No other ingredients are added.

“AlaSkins is packed with protein, omega 3, vitamin A, potassium, vitamin D and B12. They don’t need any other ingredients,” Erickson quickly points out.

One ingredient option is peel mixed with CBD oil to reduce pain or stress.

AlaSkins partners with Homer-based CBD Frontier to make treats from hemp isolate combined with wild salmon oil.

“We didn’t play with small amounts of CBD. We loaded each treat with 15mg,” Erickson said.

Erickson is building a larger facility to meet growing demand. She envisions it could be a licensed processing facility that can accommodate other entrepreneurs.

The state does not perform food safety audits on pet food manufacturers, she said, which has prevented AlaSkins from entering large markets like Costco. Erickson thanked Sen. Peter Micciche, R-Soldotna, for helping find a solution to that deal-breaker.

“Alaska really needs to start focusing on different revenue streams,” she said. “Instead of just selling our fish, sell the waste. I want Alaska to start marketing this whole line that says Alaskan seafood isn’t just for people, it’s for pets too.

AlaSkins can be found at nearly 20 Southeast outlets in Fairbanks and at the Erickson retail store at 44109 Sterling Highway in Soldotna.

For a touch of “surf and turf,” also bring home a moose antler dog chew.

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