A purse seine boat works the spawn-on-kelp fishery near Craig. (Photo courtesy of Scott Walker, ADF&G)

A herring spawn-on-kelp fishery in southern Southeast Alaska looks like it could be going off right on schedule again this year.

Fishing opened March 17th near Craig and Klawock on Prince of Wales Island.

Fishermen put floating net pens, called pounds, in the water and place kelp fronds in those pounds. Purse seine boats catch herring and deposit them in the pounds. The herring then lay eggs on the kelp. Both the eggs and kelp are harvested and sold together.

“We have a really strong bunch of fish out there right now and the spawn was really good last year, very dense.,” said Scott Walker, area management biologist in Ketchikan for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. “And so, the stock, it’s a growing stock right now which is really good because we had a weak year or so, so things are looking really good out there.”

Two years ago, the fleet had restrictions, forcing permit holders to pair up on floating pounds and limiting the number of structures in the water. But Walker explained the herring have rebounded since then.

This year the guideline harvest level is 2898 tons of herring. That includes 1336 tons not caught in a winter bait fishery. That’s well above last year’s GHL of around 1600 tons. Walker explained that, based on a couple measures, last year was the most successful fishery in its 27-year history.

“If you compare to just amount of product that came out of the fishery, it’s been the most successful fishery since it started in 1992,” Walker said. “We had about 205 tons of product and that’s the most we’ve ever had.”

That 205 tons of eggs and kelp was valued at over 3.2 million dollars at the docks, also a record for the fishery. Walker thinks the timing of the spawn for this year looks to be normal. He reports seeing sea lions and whales in an aerial survey and says overall the area looks a little more “fishy” than usual.

“You know this batch of clear weather that we had, it seems to me, observing from the air, that the kelp beds are a little further advanced,” Walker said. “Saw a lot of kelp. It looks kind of bushy, looks kind of full from the air and so I’m guess that this big long spell we’ve had with a lot of sun, even though it was a bit colder, started the growth a little sooner.”

Walker expects around 60-80 pounds deployed on the grounds this year. Last year 66 permit holders made landings. Fishery managers were headed to Prince of Wales on Wednesday, March 20th. Typically the herring have spawned and the fishery is over by mid-April. Other areas that have had spawn-on-kelp fisheries in the past remain closed this year because of low populations.