March 30, 2008
Herring Fishermen Strike Mother Lode Off Alaska
ANCHORAGE, Alaska -- How about a job grossing half a million bucks in 60 minutes?
That's what some commercial seine fishermen in Sitka, Alaska, scooped out of the water on Wednesday -- in the form of fatty, silvery Pacific herring.
The Sitka sac roe herring fishery is already legendary for netting megabucks in minutes, but that day's catch was still a shocker -- for fishermen, regulators and seafood processors.
Expecting healthy numbers of spawning fish, state biologists are allowing seiners to harvest a record-breaking amount of herring in Southeast Alaska's Sitka Sound this year -- 14,723 tons.
But in just two stunning hauls on Wednesday afternoon, the fishermen netted more than 10,000 tons of fish -- most of their quota.
At a price of $550 per ton of herring, that was at least a $5.5 million day.
Some eight to 10 boats each bulged their nets with 500 or more tons of Pacific herring in the first 30-minute opening, said Chip Treinen of Anchorage, Alaska, a seine fisherman who participated in the fishery.
That's like hauling up several blue whales or fully loaded 747s. Ordinary seine boats can't carry that much weight. The fish have to be pumped out of the nets while they are still in the water, he said.
The commercially-caught herring, which are also highly valued by Southeast Natives for their eggs, are exported to Japan for their roe.
About 50 permit holders jockeyed for a sweet spot on the water near Kruzof Island on Wednesday, fishermen and biologists said Friday.
But as usual, the big hauls were made by a few lucky boats. Treinen said he was one of the lucky ones but declined to reveal his total catch.
"For those of us who were in the area ... we were like kids in a candy store," he said.
The huge hauls were mainly due to the unique spot the herring chose to spawn, said Treinen, who has been involved in the Sitka herring fishery for about a dozen years.
Very dense schools of herring appeared in very shallow water next to Kruzof Island right before the fishery opened at 2:25 p.m., he said. Some of the crowded fish seemed to be dying -- they turned belly up in the water before the fishery opened, he said.
Because the fish were in shallow water, about three fathoms deep, they couldn't dive to try to escape the nets. "We could contain bigger sets than we've ever been able to contain before," Treinen said.
The state Department of Fish and Game wouldn't have allowed two fishery openings if managers realized how many fish were getting caught, according to Eric Coonradt, the department's assistant area manager for commercial fisheries in Sitka.
As it turns out, the concern wasn't about violating harvest levels. The main concern was the ability of processors to handle so much fresh herring, Coonradt said.
The massive amount of herring required extra work and coordination among seafood processors over the past few days, but everything worked out OK, said Jon Hickman, general manager for Sitka Sound Seafoods.
Some herring had to be sent to Canada for processing, he said.