Japanese losing interest in Alaska herring eggs

Posted: Monday, January 28, 2002

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- In Japan, an island nation with a huge appetite for seafood, the economy is down and tastes are changing as people get older. That's causing hard times across the Pacific for herring fishermen like Andy Golia.

Beginning in about seven weeks, Golia and hundreds of other Alaska fishermen will cast their nets for the little fish whose bellies bulge with tiny golden eggs.

In better times, Golia got $1,000 a ton for his herring at Togiak, along the state's remote southwest coast. Last summer, he got scarcely a tenth of that and he expects little better this year.

The problem is, Japanese consumers seem to be losing their appetite for salted herring roe, shio kazunoko, long a popular and expensive New Year's gift for bosses or business associates. To give kazunoko, or ''prolific eggs,'' is a wish for prosperity and happiness.

But the kazunoko custom is fading away with war-era generations. Young Japanese have new, fast-food tastes. And the market for Alaska herring eggs has cracked.

''It's sad that we're losing the traditional users of kazunoko,'' said Golia, who lives in Dillingham. ''The older folks would rather eat the traditional foods and the younger folks don't eat kazunoko. It's like my boys wanting to eat chicken vs. a mallard or a Big Mac vs. moose stew.''

Alaska's commercial herring fisheries seem to be in even worse trouble than its salmon fisheries, which have been hammered over the last decade by competition from foreign fish farms.

Herring doesn't face farmed competition, but its market options are far more narrow. In fact, Alaska puts virtually all its herring eggs into one basket -- Japan.

Herring, whose flesh is worth relatively little, isn't nearly as valuable a commercial harvest as salmon, but it is an important piece of the state's seafood industry. Many fishermen and packers rely on herring to supplement other fisheries they're involved in, including salmon, bottom fish and crab. In 2000, herring paid fishermen about $78.5 million, compared to $275 million for salmon.

With Japan's centuries-old taste for the herring delicacy waning, and with the rest of the world showing little appetite for the crunchy roe, fishermen, seafood packers and economists see little immediate hope for the industry.

Yet Golia, with boat, insurance and other payments to make, will be back on the water at Togiak come spring, hoping for both a good catch and a new day in the land of the rising sun.

''I think that fishery will bounce back once the economy in Japan comes back,'' he said.

Alaska's herring fishermen aren't alone in their gloom. Pacific herring fishermen and processors in California and British Columbia are in the same boat.

Fishermen catch herring just before they spawn, when they're fattest with eggs. Harvests kick off in December in San Francisco Bay and then move north, with British Columbia fisheries beginning in February, Sitka in mid-March, Togiak in early May and Norton Sound concluding by late June.

As with salmon, lack of fish isn't the problem. With the exception of trouble spots like Prince William Sound and Cook Inlet, where fisheries are closed due to low herring populations, the state's main herring fisheries, called sac roe fisheries, have consistently produced catches approaching 100 million pounds since 1980.

The trouble is price: Last year, the sac roe fisheries paid fishermen $9.8 million, compared to $58.4 million in 1996.

Regardless, herring fisherman Jamie Ross of Homer and three other fishermen who formed a cost-sharing combine they call Mega Contention Fisheries plan to drive their seine boats some 900 dangerous miles across the Gulf of Alaska to Sitka, where they'll battle with about 50 boats for a quota that last March was scooped up in 40 minutes.

After Sitka, Ross will hit two other stops on the herring circuit -- Kodiak and the king of Alaska herring fisheries, Togiak, which usually produces as much fish as all other Alaska herring fisheries combined.

One way to beat poor prices is to catch more fish than the other guys, Ross said.

But herring fisheries are notoriously secretive, risky and hard-fought. In major fisheries like Togiak and Sitka, dozens of spotter planes crowd the sky to guide boats to schools of up to a million fish. Boats lucky enough to find fish crowd in over the schools, waiting to swing into action the second the season opens. Diesels race and hulls sometimes grind against one another as boats unfurl nets. At Togiak in 1992, seiners famously took their entire quota in one 20-minute opener. Spotter planes have been known to collide with deadly results.

Even when boats score a big haul, the catch might contain a high number of male fish or the roe in the females might not be ripe, the eggs still either pale in color or red with blood vessels, not the fine yellow indicating a fish is about to let loose an average 20,000 eggs.

''I've seen people smash into each other, run over each other's nets. I've seen people run up on rocks,'' Ross said. ''It's an adrenaline rush. I'd go herring fishing even if I was Bill Gates.''

Once at Sitka, where roe fish bring some of the state's best prices, Ross said he made a single haul worth $300,000.

He doesn't expect anything close to that this year, and the big debt on his 54-foot boat, the Shadowfax, weighs like an anchor.

''We've got to keep fishing,'' Ross said. ''We have no other option.''

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