Herring bubble at the surface of a pound in the spawn-on-kelp fishery near Craig. 2014 photo/ADF&G

It’s looking like it could be a good year for herring near Craig. About 16 miles of herring spawn was observed in the area this week. But that doesn’t mean it’s a good year for commercial fishermen in the spawn-on-kelp pound fishery. KFSK’s Angela Denning has more:

Sixteen miles of spawn is considered pretty good for the Craig area. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game has been tracking the spawn for decades. And although this year is looking about average for the last thirty years, it’s better than recent years.

Scott Walker is the Area Management Biologist for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in Ketchikan.

“With 15 miles of spawn, active spawn on one day was probably the biggest day of spawn we had in many, many years,” Walker said. “We’re above average and it looks like it’s going to be, might be the best in 10 years.”

Walker has been helping manage the spawn-on-kelp fishery since it began in 1992.The fishery allows fishermen to catch herring and put them into structures to spawn and then release them later.

Because of the spawn being observed this year, Walker announced liberalized fishing regulations.

“We have opened fishing to evening hours,” Walker said. “And we have expanded the fishing area to include all of the area where spawn has occurred.”

Leading up to the fishery…things didn’t looks so good. All signs pointed to a less-than-great year. Walker says the biomass that was forecast—or the amount of herring predicted to be in the area–is about half of what they are actually seeing.

“And so we went into this fishery with a very conservative approach,” Walker said. “And in fact we had to.”

The commercial quota was set at 349 tons of herring, which is far less than recent years. Fish and Game put restrictions on the pound fishery to limit pressure on the fish. For the first time, fishermen were required to share a pen with at least five other permit holders. The state also limited the fishery to 20 pounds. Last year 46 structures were fished, the year before it was 76.

But filling those pounds with fish is proving to be difficult. Even though there are a lot of herring spawning in the Craig area, they are spawning in unusual areas.

“Most of these pounds are not going to get fish it looks to me like,” Walker said. “The fish spawned in non-traditional areas and so I could tell it was going to be a real struggle for these guys to fill their pounds.”

The pounds are not easy to move around and fishermen can’t travel too far with their live catch. So, Walker opened up fishing at night.

“It’s never over till it’s over and I’m hoping that this expanded area will help a few guys,” Walker said.

Walker says managing the fishery by miles of spawn can be deceptive. Just measuring the area of spawn doesn’t give you the full picture.

“That just tells you that a particular stretch of shoreline has spawn on it,” Walker said. “It doesn’t say how dense it is.”

The spawn can be far reaching but not have as many eggs as a smaller, more concentrated region.

But currently, things are looking good and the state is allowing continuous fishing to provide more opportunity to harvest herring.

The state department has been monitoring the spawn activity from airplanes and boat and divers will be doing assessments during the next week to document the spawn activity from under water.