Story last updated at 4/30/2014 - 7:07 pm
Kodiak's roe herring fishery began on April 15 with little notice and rumors of fire sale prices. The fleet of 22 seiners was smaller than normal; they are competing for a harvest of 5,800 short tons, similar to the past five years. No gillnetters had signed up for the herring fishery.
Test fisheries on the east side of the island were showing nice roe counts, said James Jackson, herring manager for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in Kodiak.
"We are fishing a predominantly older age class of mostly nine-year-olds, and it looks like we are hitting those fish right now. They are about 250 to 300 gram fish with 12.5 percent roe counts, so it looks pretty good," he said.
The female herring are valued in Japan for the amount of roe (eggs) they contain as a percent of body weight. As much as 90 percent of the males and female carcasses are mostly just ground up and dumped.
Talk of an advance price of $150 to $200 dollars was the word on the Kodiak docks, down by half from last year. Virtually all of Alaska's herring roe goes to a single market, Japan, where hefty supplies reportedly remain in warehouse freezers.
Meanwhile, Alaska's largest herring fishery at Togiak was poised to take off any day with a harvest of nearly 28,000 tons. With the market in a slump and prices in the pits, some were calling for the fishery to remain closed.
"It's not worth going over there," said Robin Samuelson of Dillingham, chair of the Bristol Bay Economic Development Association and a lifelong fisherman. "A lot of fishermen are saying we need to hold our spot in case the price comes up. I personally feel them fish are more important to the ecosystem at $50-$65 a ton than catching them. We need to look at how we can capitalize on that market."
The base price for roe herring last month at Sitka Sound was $150 compared to $600 in 2013. The price last year at Togiak was about $100/ton.
Things may looking up despite the low prics. A bill just passed by Alaska law makers expands the Salmon Product Development Tax Credits to include herring. Senate Bill 71, sponsored by Senator Peter Micciche (R-Soldotna), will enable processors to purchase equipment and make investments in more valuable herring products, such as canned, powdered, pickled and smoked.
"There have been positive trends since this bill was originally enacted (for salmon) in 2003, including product diversity, increased state revenues from the fisheries business tax and increased permit prices," Micciche said in a press release. The bill also was expanded to include new product development from fishery byproducts.
Alaska's seafood industry will soon enter a 10-step program. It's not a program designed to change bad habits; rather, it will help improve good behaviors by Alaska's seafood processing workers as they turn fish into food.
For the first time, Alaska seafood companies will have a 10-step training tool to help them standardize procedures for quality controllers.
"This is such a critical point for the industry. You have no quality, you have no control," said Brian Himelbloom, a microbiologist at the Kodiak Seafood and Marine Science Center, a part of the University of Alaska Fairbanks. "There is a lot of turnover in the seafood industry, and this is something that's been talked about for a long time."
Armed with a $40,000 grant from Icicle Seafoods, Himelbloom and his colleagues will create 10 modules to guide a quality control training program. Icicle CEO Amy Humphreys said, "the training will ensure more Alaskans are qualified for quality control jobs, and help others advance their careers."
The modules will include onboard handling and quality of the catch, principles of HAACP (Hazard Analysis of Critical Control Points), practical seafood sanitation, seafood processing and preservation, adding value to seafood products, seafood safety and quality, sensory analysis of seafood products, quality control programs for both whitefish and salmon, and seafood byproducts utilization and management of processing wastes.
The final module covers interfacing with regulatory agencies and recordkeeping in the seafood industry.
"We need to reinvigorate that because there is a new federal mandate called the Food Safety and Modernization Act, which is huge on paperwork. It's HAACP squared," Himelbloom said.
The 10-step QC program will be available later this year in print manuals and online. A matching technical vocational education grant may carry the program even further with a series of training videos.
For the first time since 1990, the Kodiak Chamber of Commerce has called off its famous fisheries Senate debate due to non-participation by candidates.
Dan Sullivan's campaign claims a military commitment, and Joe Miller has not responded. All candidates received letters of invitation in mid-January to the May 23 debate, which this year coincides with the annual Kodiak Crab Festival. Mead Treadwell was the first to confirm, followed quickly by Senator Begich.
"It is unfortunate that some of the candidates weren't able to work this debate into their schedules," said Trevor Brown, Kodiak Chamber executive director. "I can imagine they are extremely busy and must have some considerable obligations to pass up an opportunity to talk about issues that affect such a large portion of our state's population. It is a true loss to all the fishing communities in the state."
The two-hour debate, which is limited to topics relevant to Alaska's seafood industry, is broadcast live to every Alaska community via the Alaska Public Radio Network.
Another fisheries debate featuring candidates for Alaska governor is set for August 28 in Kodiak. All gubernatorial candidates have already confirmed their participation.
Ocean Beauty Seafoods has been named the 2014 Supplier of the Year by Whole Foods Markets for consistently providing the grocer with Alaska salmon and halibut. Whole Foods said Ocean Beauty's fish products meet its strict specifications, and that it "admires Ocean Beauty's partnering with port buyers to ensure fishermen are recognized and treated with respect."