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Togiak Herring

By John Locke - Posted on 03 June 1996

Friday, May 10, 1996.

The cannery is quiet, empty. The 1996 Togiak Herring fishery is over, and everyone has gone home. Except for the four of us. We still have 3,000 fish to go. And they're getting old.

It was exciting here, for a while. The small room at the end of the hall, upstairs here in the bunkhouse, was the command center for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, where Tom Brookover, the biologist in charge of the fishery, controlled the entire fleet of over 400 seiners and over 200 gillnetters by emergency order. More than 2,000 people scheduled their meals, their sleep, their very lives around Tom's announcements. It began only one week ago, and already it's over.
Friday, May 3, 1996, 12:00 pm.
Tom picks up two radio microphones, one for single-side band (shortwave), and the other for a marine VHF. Keying them both, he makes his announcement:

"This is the Alaska Department of Fish & Game Togiak, with a scheduled 12 o'clock announcement. There will be a two hour opening for gillnetters this afternoon beginning at four o'clock. Gillnetters are advised to stand by at three o'clock for a possible two hour extension.

"For purse seine, test fishing this morning in the Hagermeister district had an average roe content of six percent. . . Seiners are advised to stand by at 6:30 pm for a possible opening tonight as early as 9:30. The area under consideration includes waters between Anchor Point and Oosik Spit, excluding waters north of Loran line 32654 in Togiak Bay. This area may be further restricted, depending on the results of our aerial survey this afternoon and further test fishing. Vessels willing to test fish this afternoon can call in after this announcement. The next scheduled update is 6:30 pm."

I arrived in the cannery across the river from Togiak village Monday April 29 with another eight people from Fish & Game. The herring arrived in the Togiak district Tuesday, and Tuesday afternoon, we had samples from a couple of seiners test-fishing for us.

My job is to take a length, weight, sexual maturity and scale from each herring we sample. Four of us work in a Weatherport (a cylindrical tent), and we got a hundred to 500 fish from each area being fished, every day until the fishery closed, May 8. Our last load of fish arrived by helicopter this morning.

We work 8 to 5, give or take, 7 days a week. Plucking herring scales. I'm going cross-eyed from staring at them, trying to find a readable one to place on the slide. Hundreds a day. For a while we were able to keep up, but suddenly we are buried in fish--6 totes, each full of perhaps a thousand fish, sit in front of our work tent. Today, with relatively few distractions, we processed 700, the most in any one day so far. Cathy Rowell, in Anchorage, will use the data we collect to forecast next year's return. So we're still in the middle of our jobs.

The others were here to manage the fishery. By flying around in helicopters, they estimated that about 180,000 tons of herring returned to the district this year, below their forecast of 225,000 tons. Out of that much herring, the "allowable harvest" for purse seiners was 18,000 tons, and for gillnetters, 6,000 tons.

But it's not as simple as just going out and catching the quota of fish, and then calling it quits. The problem is, the fish themselves are almost worthless. It's their eggs. . . Herring roe fetches a high price, with or without the fish. But the eggs must be ripe to have any value--immature roe, "green" roe, isn't worth much, and when the fish have spawned out, nobody wants them at all. The difference is hours.

Roe content is expressed as the percentage of a given weight of fish that is mature eggs. The processors won't buy herring from the fishermen if the roe content is below 8 percent. The ideal is 13%. The remaining 87% of the fish are ground up into fish oil.

"This is the Alaska Department of Fish & Game, Togiak. The time remaining before four o'clock is 30 seconds. . . 25 . . . 20 . . . 15 . . . ten, nine, eight, seven, six, five, four, three, two, one, mark. The gillnet fishery is now open."

Gillnetters seem to be pretty effective in selecting fish with high roe content. By using different mesh sizes, the fisherman can choose what size of fish he catches. The net drifts through a school of fish. Bigger fish than the mesh get pushed away; smaller fish swim through. Those near the size of the mesh get their heads caught in the neck, up to their gills. They can't get out, and the net injures their gills, so most do not survive very long.

But compared to a purse seine, gillnetters are small potatoes. A seine, rather than filtering through a school of fish, circles the whole school and catches every single fish. A seine boat requires a second boat, a large skiff, to fish. The skiff motors one direction, and the seiner goes the other, drawing a circle in the water, usually guided by an observer in a small airplane. When the boats come together, the skiff goes under the net, drawing it closed.

The net hangs in the water about 60 feet deep, and by pulling on a rope (the purse line) the bottom closes up like pulling the drawstring on a stuff sack. The net is "pursed", and the fish are corralled, unable to escape.

One 30-ton boat caught 220 tons of herring in one set. That amount of fish must be handled gingerly; if they decided to all swim in one direction at once, they could easily capsize the boat. More commonly, the herring swim down along one side of the net. With so much mass, they pull the top of the net down below the water, and all the fish escape. But with a skilled captain, the boat just sits there, keeping the fish off the rocks and as placid as possible, until a tender comes and pumps them directly into its tanks.

One big advantage of a purse seine is that it doesn't kill the fish; it just holds them. If the roe percentage turns out to be too low, they can open the net and the fish escape, stressed but unharmed. Some fishermen even hold them on purpose, hoping that more fish will ripen in the net before the tender comes to buy them. They are allowed to hold them for up to 36 hours.

There is no question that seiners are more efficient getting fish. That is why there were over 400 of them clustering around fish last Friday, waiting for an opening. But Tom had to be careful--that many seiners fishing in good conditions could easily take the whole 18,000 tons they were allowed to take, in 15 minutes.

Several years, that was all the fishery was open: 15 minutes, out of the whole year. But that does nobody good--the processors can only handle about 4,000 tons a day--and the longer the fish sits, the poorer the quality and the lower the price. It is much better to have several small openings, than one big one.

6:10 pm.
The whole fleet holds its breath, waiting for word from Tom. But he has not yet made his decision, which he must announce in 20 minutes.

Tom looks at the Fish & Wildlife Trooper, who is responsible for enforcing the rules that Tom makes. "If we fish this whole section, but not closer than a mile from Hagemeister Island, can you enforce that?"

"I suppose we could fly out from the island for a mile, and figure out their position by GPS," answered the trooper. "You make the rules..."

The VHF radio chatters in the background, nervous banter from fishermen: "Fish & Game, have you made the announcement yet?" "Fishermen who call in early will be disqualified from tonight's opening." . . .

Cindy hands Tom a sheet fresh from the laser printer showing roe content from the test fisheries taken at 5 pm. Tom goes into a huddle with Dennis. "Six percent. That hardly seems worth opening. And here, west of Tongue Point, eight percent--but Jeff said from the helicopter that we have a large biomass there, and a big concentration of boats. Opening tonight might be premature."

"I agree. Let's stand down until morning."

And so, at 6:20, a decision was finally made. No seining tonight. . .

In the end, there were five openings for seiners, starting Sunday morning. By Wednesday evening, it was all over. They came within 26 tons of the allowable harvest.

Many fishermen went home empty handed. Perhaps a third of the fleet caught nothing, because there was too much competition, or an area with fish in it didn't end up opening--because Tom thought too much would be caught. Roe content overall was lower than last year's, most catches around 9 or 10 percent. But the word is, this year may set a new record for the money it may bring in, because the price is up.

For the fisherman, this place must be like Las Vegas. You are going to spend a lot getting here, and you may go home with nothing--or you may make $50,000 in 10 minutes. It is the job of Tom Brookover, with our help, to make sure nobody breaks the house.