I call Togiak the fishery that time forgot. In the 1980’s, the West Coast and Alaskan herring fisheries were the hottest things going. Fortunes were made as fishermen hauled in load after load of herring, which the Japanese coveted for the roe (kazunoko). In its heyday, over three hundred seiners and well over four hundred gillnetters would converge in Togiak each spring as the sea ice receded, the onshore waters warmed up (to 4’C) and the herring arrived to spawn. When I was a Togiak deckhand in 1983, fishermen earned $1,400 per ton; last year, fishermen were lucky to see $100 per ton. Vast schools of herring continue to swarm to the Togiak shoreline each spring, but the hot kazunoko market evaporated long ago when the Japanese economy collapsed, eating habits changed, etc. Today, the number of seiners, gillnetters and processors has dwindled to a skeleton fleet.
Togiak herring remain high in abundance; in 2018, the Alaska Department of Fish & Game estimated the Togiak herring biomass to be nearly 137,000 tons, of which 20% is allocated for a commercial harvest. The remaining 80% is kept to sustain the herring population plus feed the rest of the predators (whales, sea lions, etc.). The 2018 commercial harvest quota is forty eight million pounds, but the gillnet portion of the quota will largely go unharvested because gillnetters earn so little. Demand has withered over the years to the point that the fishery is marginally profitable for fishermen and processors, and hardly anyone participates these days. In 2018, there was only one gillnetter (an Icicle fisherman) and fewer than twenty seiners (I work with two of them).
This fishery is dying, but not through overfishing or lack of herring. It’s all because there is little demand; few people, certainly no Americans, eat Alaskan herring. However, now that more people are concerned with eating on the lower end of the food chain, eating small, oily fish that are rich in Omega-3 oils, eating fish that are sustainably harvested, the time for enjoying Togiak herring has come.