“You have fish that don't have any eggs in them at all; they'll be spawned out,” said Jeff Pool with Icicle Seafoods Inc. “You've got to be careful. You can't just wait forever.”
When schools of herring swim to town, you’ll find a wealth of wildlife feasting on the sea of silver scales. When the fish are here, the most frustrating part for the fishermen is waiting.
There's a fine science to figuring out when to open the fishery. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game runs aerial surveys and takes test samples. It's a team effort with local fishermen setting test sets and processors and buyers examining the results.
The Sitka Herring Sac Roe fishery may be the most closely monitored fishery in the state. Millions of dollars are at stake for about 50 permit holders. Last year, the fishery netted over $12 million, and some years all that money is made in a matter of minutes.
“You know growing up in this fishery, there has always been highs and lows,” said Miller. “There has always been $2,000 a ton one year, $500 the next.”
This year, fishermen found themselves waiting several days for an opening. The roe matured late, and once it reached the right level of maturity there were either too many fish, or too few fish to open. One day the fish hunkered down in a small bay where only a couple of boats would have had access.
The fishery is shrouded in superstition. Fishermen say the color of the water or a bird standing on one leg can tell them whether or not they will get the chance to set their nets that day.
Some fishermen speculate the market won't be great this year because some say there is still roe left over from last year. But the deadly earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan brought up even more questions about what will happen.
While they wait to fish for a Japanese delicacy, most of the fishermen can't help but think of their business partners and friends in Japan. For a fishery that already faces so many unknowns every year, this is the one that nobody bet on.
The fishery has had three openings so far this year, and vessels have netted 12,700 tons of herring. The next opening will happen after Thursday.