As we continue our tour through the more and less sustainable human uses of herring, we inevitably find ourselves moving from the good (traditional roe on branch harvests) to the bad: the sac roe fishery.
Sac roe, or unlaid herring eggs still in their skein (egg sack), is a delicacy in Japan known as kazunoko. The golden, pear-slice shaped egg skeins are beautiful additions to any sushi plate and have become a relatively high-status gift item for people to eat on New Years or other special occasions. Kazunoko used to be harvested locally, but the Hokkaido/Sakhalin stock collapsed in 1958. Now, most of those eggs come from Sitka. Only certain herring produce high quality kazunoko. As it turns out, Sitka Sound herring have perfect, golden egg skeins with no obvious veins. As we always suspected, we are the best!
We'll admit it - kazunoko is a tantalizingly appetizing product. But is it worth it?
So far this all sounds like just another standard fishery, but with the bonus of people eating the egg sacs too. That would be ideal. Unfortunately, it turns out that the sac roe fishery is astonishingly wasteful and is both directly and indirectly harmful to our salmon populations and fisheries.
But people eat salmon roe too. What makes this so different?
The primary difference between the salmon roe market and the sac roe market is that almost 100% of salmon meat goes to human consumption. “But people eat herring meat all the time!” you may protest. That’s true, but it’s a fraction of the total caught. As discussed, most Sitka Sound herring goes to Japan to supply kazunoko. The Japanese also eat herring meat, but prefer larger fish according to Dr. Shingo Hamada’s recent talk at UAS. Those larger fish come from Togiak, from the North Atlantic, or from the Barents Sea near Norway.
Fair enough. But what exactly makes you label this fishery as “bad” on your sustainability scale?
First, though we mentioned that exports are nothing new to Southeast Alaska, they’re a lot better for our local economies if we can do some of the processing within the region. Much like exporting old-growth trees in the round provides very few jobs beyond local lumberjacks, the way we export herring does not provide many economic opportunities for anyone beyond the fishermen themselves. Kazunoko is a labor intensive and expensive product to extract, so we ship frozen whole fish to Japan to be sorted by sex and dissected. The cost of additional processing here may be too high for the market to bear, but that’s certainly nothing to celebrate here in Sitka.
Industrial sac roe production (left) vs. roe extraction done by local middle school students at this year's Herring Camp. Next year, we'll be sure to put those kids to work!
Secondly, and more egregiously, since our herring are only prized for their sac roe, this fishery collects ~88% bycatch by weight! Why so high? If the meat of our exported fish is not being eaten by people (it isn’t), then the targeted product is only present in 50% of the fish caught, the females, and only makes up about a quarter of their weights at the most. This year was one of the most successful years for our fishermen in terms of roe percentage - up to 14% according to the seiners. Only 86% bycatch! It’s pretty hard to spin such a small reduction in the bycatch amount positively.
If that didn’t make you angry, what happens with that bycatch certainly will. After the kazunoko has been extracted from our herring, the remainder are ground into fish meal. “That’s better than nothing!” you might say. Indeed, it’s certainly preferable to simply dumping the waste, but fish meal should come from actual fishery waste, such as halibut heads, rather than from a wasteful fishery. In this case, the cloud’s silver lining fails disguise all the rain.
A successful set in this year's harvest! Too bad 86% of that biomass goes to waste or to farmed fish.
Fishmeal gets fed to farmed tilapia, shrimp, and salmon all over the world - fish that often compete directly against our wild stocks. This is a classic case of robbing Peter to pay Paul. Our wild salmon have their preferred dinners seined up, frozen, and sent across the Pacific, where they go to feed farmed salmon somewhere else. That’s a lot of expense and fuel consumption to recreate a food chain that already exists right here in Sitka Sound.
“All in all we’re advocating for more conservative management … we think herring are worth more feeding the ecosystem than they are feeding farmed salmon. We think we need to do a better job, a more conservative job of managing the resource.” -Jeff Feldpausch, Director of the Resource Protection Department, Sitka Tribe of Alaska.
In an ironic, but all-too-typical economic twist, Alaska actually imports fish meal to feed its hatchery salmon. It’s not just a little bit of fish meal, either. Alaska spends $20 million/year to get that feed, primarily from South America. Alaskan salmon do love Peruvian anchovies, but it’s hard to make the argument that the salmon enjoy them more than the Pacific herring they’ve evolved over millennia to eat. At the very least, the bycatch from this inefficient fishery should go directly to our hatchery salmon, giving them back the meals we’ve removed from the local ocean.
Is there any good news?
There are a few bright spots. First, the Sitka Sound Sac Roe Fishery is exclusively a seine fishery. The alternative possible gear in this case would be gillnets, but gillnets do not allow for any live releasing and they increase the potential for non-herring bycatch. Catch and release with seine nets is not without fish stress and mortality, but it definitely beats the near complete mortality and commitment associated with gillnets. Of course, that catch and release temptation can lead captains to “high-grade”, or release sets without a high roe content, but ADF&G Area Biologist Dave Gordon explicitly warned seiners this year against doing that. Seining over gillnetting is not great news, but we’ll take what we can get.
Secondly, we can be happy that our harvest rate is considerably less aggressive than herring harvest rates in Europe. The Barents Sea herring fishery, controlled by Norway, considers harvesting 30%-40% of the biomass to be both conservative and sustainable. Our harvest rate is set between 12% and 20% of the biomass. Does that mean we’re in no danger of overfishing? In a word, no. The only Southeast Alaskan herring stock that still manages to support a herring fishery is Sitka Sound, down from Hobart Bay, Lynn Canal, Auke Bay, Kah Shakes, West Behm Canal in previous decades. Our own stocks are on a pretty significant downward trend, with this year’s quota the lowest since 2003. Is this downward trend due to the commercial fishery? Fish and Game believes that it’s due to low ocean survivability (ocean acidification? global warming?). It’s easy to imagine the fishery being the straw that breaks this camel’s back, though, and with it, the backbone of our marine ecosystem.
Yes, we are more conservative than Norway. No, it does not mean we can rest easy.
How can we improve this?
First, let’s find better things to do with that bycatch than to feed it to Malaysian farmed fish. Best case? We start eating the herring ourselves. If that’s not palatable, let’s at least stop exporting fish meal to feed other nations’ aquaculture projects while simultaneously importing fish meal to feed our own. This is inefficient, carbon intensive, and detrimental to both our wild and NSRAA-supplied salmon. It’s wrong, and it needs to stop.
Second, let’s stop eating sac roe in the first place. Why not consume roe on kelp instead? All of the deliciousness of herring eggs without the unwelcome spice of guilt.
Finally, let’s consider the possibility that we are overfishing our stock and consider reducing our harvest rate. Forage fish are worth much more left in the water than they are on the market. Let’s bow to economic and ecosystem pressures and leave more herring where they belong: feeding salmon and whales in Sitka Sound.
Whales feasting on herring © Bethany Goodrich