Togiak herring: the Other Bristol Bay Fishery

Togiak herring: the Other Bristol Bay Fishery

If you read newspaper or magazine articles discussing commercial fishing in the Bristol Bay region of Alaska (or even watch the documentaries that are out there), all they ever cover is the sockeye salmon commercial fishery.  There’s a good reason for that.  The fishery provides 50% of the entire worldwide sockeye salmon supply. It brings in $1.5 billion in revenue a year and provides 12,000 jobs. But it’s not the only fishery, and not the first, either.

Well over a month before any fisherman puts his boat in the water to catch sockeye salmon, a small fleet of boats heads out from Naknek and Dillingham to the far western reaches of Bristol Bay to Kulukak Bay and the waters near the coastal village of Togiak.  Their goal: to capture herring as they are heading to their spawning grounds along the coast.  The herring are caught, frozen solid, and shipped primarily to Japan for harvesting of the herring roe.  The Togiak herring fishery is the second of three commercial herring fisheries in Alaska each year.  The first, and most well-known, is the Sitka fishery.  But as one Peter Pan employee I spoke to noted, the value of the Togiak herring fishery depends on the success of the Sitka herring fishery.  And this year it was not a good year for the Sitka fishery, opening up the possibility that the Togiak fishery, if successful, could be very profitable this year.

Commercial herring fishing is vastly different from commercial sockeye fishing, even though the exact same boat is often used in both fisheries.  The boat I was on, the F/V Megan Dee owned by Frank Woods of Dillingham, also operates during the sockeye fishery.  With sockeye fishing, the net is pulled up using a hydraulic “drum” and then the crew carefully picks salmon off the net and tosses it into the boat’s cargo hold. Quality and care of each individual fish is crucial for obtaining quality bonuses with the cannery.  With herring fishing, the main concern is volume, not quality. Rather than the crew picking the net of fish, a device called a “tumbler” that is attached to the front of the drum violently shakes the net as it is being pulled in in order to force the herring (and numerous bycatch species like yellowtail and flounder) out of the net and onto the deck.  The crew primarily ensure the net comes in straight and untangles any knots that may occur along the way, pushing the fish from the deck into the cargo hold using a wide metal broom-like device with a long handle.

Another difference between sockeye and herring fishing is the periods when fishing is allowed.  Commercial sockeye fishing is subject to periodic openings and closings, based on the amount of escapement (fish making it up the river) that the Alaska Department of Fish & Game monitors constantly.  Open periods are typically six hours long.  The length of time between openers can be hours, or days.  But with herring fishing, it is open until closed – a period that last several weeks. The only limits set during that time are those typically set by the processors, who start to lose the ability to keep up with the volume of herring being delivered.  With this year’s Togiak herring fishery, the processors started putting limits on daily catches as early as four days into the season.  One of the earlier limitations put in place was of only accepting 20 tons of delivery a day.

In the end, this year’s Togiak herring fishery turned out to be a profitable one for the commercial fishermen involved.  Both the seine and drift gillnet fleets harvested around 95% of their quota, for a total of approximately 29,000 tons of herring harvested.  By local media accounts, this was a near-record year.  Here is the full ADF&G summary for the season.


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