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Commercial Herring Fisheries


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Commercially exploitable quantities of Pacific herring (Clupea pallasii) occur in Alaska from its southern boundary at Dixon Entrance (55° N) to Norton Sound (64° N) (herring populations graphic). Herring spawn in nearshore areas and deposit their adhesive eggs on intertidal and subtidal vegetation. Spawning begins as early as late March in southern Southeast Alaska and continues through mid July in the northern Bering Sea. Gulf of Alaska herring are genetically distinct from Bering Sea herring (Grant and Utter 1984) and are smaller and non-migratory, generally moving less than 100 miles among spawning, feeding, and wintering grounds. Bering Sea herring are much larger and longer lived. Most travel to offshore central Bering Sea wintering grounds, with some herring migrating over 1,000 miles annually (Funk 1990). Herring are planktivores and provide a key link in pelagic and nearshore food chains between primary production and upper-level piscivores.

Pacific Herring Information

Statewide Management

Harvest policies used for herring in Alaska set the maximum exploitation rate at 20% of the exploitable or mature biomass, consistent with other herring fisheries on the west coast of North America. The 20% exploitation rate is lower than commonly used biological reference points for species with similar life history characteristics (Funk 1991). In some areas, such as Southeast Alaska, a formal policy exists for reducing the exploitation rate as the biomass drops to low levels. In other areas, the exploitation rate is similarly reduced, without the formal policy. In addition to exploitation rate constraints, minimum threshold biomass levels are set for most Alaskan herring fisheries. If the spawning biomass is estimated to be below the threshold level, no commercial fishing is allowed. Threshold levels are generally set at 25% of the long-term average of unfished biomass (Funk and Rowell 1995).

Unlike most other Alaskan fisheries, fishery managers actively manage the sac roe fishery to obtain the highest-valued product possible. An intensive sampling program is used to monitor the condition of the ripening females, and fishery managers use this information to carefully time fishery openings down to days or even hours before the main spawning event.

Most herring fisheries in Alaska are regulated by management units or regulatory stocks (i.e., geographically distinct spawning aggregations defined by regulation). Those aggregations may occupy areas as small as several miles of beach or as large as all of Prince William Sound. Herring sac roe and spawn-on-kelp fisheries are always prosecuted on individual regulatory stocks. Management of food/bait herring fisheries can be more complicated because they are conducted in the late summer, fall, and winter when herring from several regulatory stocks may be mixed together on feeding grounds distant from the spawning areas. Where possible, the BOF avoids establishing bait fisheries that harvest herring from more than one spawning population. For historically-developed food/bait fisheries that harvest more than one regulatory stock, such as the Dutch Harbor or Kodiak fisheries, BOF regulations close the food/bait fishery if any of the component spawning populations are below threshold. Where there is more than one fishery on a spawning population, the BOF allocates specific percentages of the annual allowable harvest to each fishery.

For sac roe fisheries, openings are timed to occur when herring have produced the maximum amount of roe. The duration of openings is also set to achieve harvest quotas as closely as possible. Entry into most herring fisheries in Alaska has been limited under the authority of CFEC.

[Based on excerpts from the publication, Commercial Fisheries in Alaska, Woodby et al. Alaska Department of Fish and Game, Special Publication 05-09, June 2005 (PDF - 1,059K). Information or data on this web page may have been updated and may no longer match the original publication.]


Herring have supported some of Alaska’s oldest commercial fisheries, and subsistence fisheries for herring in Alaska predate recorded history. The spring harvest of herring eggs on kelp or hemlock boughs has always been an important subsistence resource in coastal communities throughout Alaska. Traditional dried herring remains a major staple of the diet in Bering Sea villages near Nelson Island (Pete 1990) where salmon are not readily available.

Alaska's commercial herring industry began in 1878 when 30,000 pounds were caught and prepared for human consumption. The early European settlers in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska caught herring and preserved them with salt in wooden barrels, as they had done with herring from the North Sea. Salted and pickled herring production for food peaked after World War I, when about 28 million lb (12,700 mt) were harvested annually (figure of historical herring sac roe harvests).

Reduction fisheries which “reduce” herring to meal and oil began initially in Southeast Alaska, where a plant at Killisnoo in Chatham Strait was producing 30,000 gallons of herring oil annually by 1882. During the 1920s herring became increasingly valued for oil and meal. Herring reduction plants sprang up along the Gulf of Alaska from Craig to Kodiak near locations where concentrations of herring could be found. Harvests during the 1920s and 1930s, as high as 250 million lb (113,400 mt) per year, were probably too high and may have caused the stocks and fisheries to decline. During the 1950s, lower-cost Peruvian anchoveta reduction fisheries severely impacted the oil and meal markets. Alaskan herring reduction fisheries quickly declined, and the last Alaska herring reduction plant closed in 1966.

A Japanese and Russian trawl fishery for herring began in the Bering Sea in the late 1950s, reaching a peak harvest of 320 million lb (146,000 mt) in 1970. These high harvests were likely not sustainable and the foreign fishery declined until it was finally phased out following the passage of the Magnuson Fishery Conservation and Management Act in 1976.

Substantial catches of herring for sac roe began in the 1970s as market demand increased in Japan, where local herring harvests had declined dramatically. Presently, herring are harvested primarily for sac roe, still destined for Japanese markets.

The commercial catch of herring for bait in Alaska began around 1900 and remained relatively stable, typically 4–6 million lb (1,800–2,700 mt) per year, in spite of very large fluctuations in the herring catch for the reduction, foreign, and sac roe fisheries. The development of extensive crab fisheries in the 1970s greatly increased the demand for herring bait.

[Based on excerpts from the publication, Commercial Fisheries in Alaska, Woodby et al. Alaska Department of Fish and Game, Special Publication 05-09, June 2005 (PDF - 1,059K). Information or data on this web page may have been updated and may no longer match the original publication.]

Herring Gear Type

Purse seines and gillnets are the primary gears used to catch whole herring. Purse seine gear is used almost exclusively in herring food/bait fisheries, while both purse seines and gillnets are used in sac roe fisheries. Trawl gear is no longer legal for fishing herring in Alaska with three exceptions. Trawl gear is legal, but very rarely used, for fishing food/bait herring in Prince William Sound. The type of trawl used in Prince William Sound has been a pair trawl, similar to a purse seine net, towed between two purse seine vessels. At Kodiak, trawl gear has typically been used to catch a small amount of herring for food/bait.

In Gulf of Alaska areas, herring bait fisheries usually occur during the fall and winter, using purse seine gear. When used for bait on hook and line gear, fall- and winter-caught herring are retained longer on the hooks than those caught in spring and summer. Herring fat content is high during the summer, and summer-caught herring do not preserve as well. However, high oil content is desirable for some methods of preserving herring for food. Production of herring food products has been minimal in recent years.

In addition to fisheries for whole herring, a number of “spawn-on-kelp” fisheries harvest herring eggs after they are deposited on kelp fronds. Pound spawn-on-kelp fisheries harvest kelp fronds deliberately placed in the water to collect herring spawn. Wild spawn-on-kelp fisheries harvest naturally-occurring kelp fronds on which herring have spawned. A “closed-pound” fishery involves releasing captured sexually mature herring into a net impoundment in which kelp is suspended. The herring are released from the pound after they spawn on the kelp, and the suspended kelp with eggs is then harvested and sold. An “open-pound” fishery involves suspending kelp from a floating frame structure in an area where naturally-occurring herring are expected to spawn.

Herring pound spawn-on-kelp fisheries are allowed by regulation at Craig-Klawock, Ernest Sound, Tenakee Inlet, and Hoonah Sound in Southeast Alaska, in Prince William Sound, and in Norton Sound. Naturally occurring herring spawn on kelp (sometimes called “wild” spawn on kelp) is also allowed by regulation to be harvested by SCUBA divers in Prince William Sound and to be hand picked at low tide in the intertidal zone in the Togiak district of Bristol Bay.