The Craig and Klawock area spawn-on-kelp pound fishery will open by regulation at noon on March 17, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game announced last Friday. Spawn-on-kelp fishermen can use up to 7,078 tons of herring for their sticky, golden roe in the fishery this year, according to Fish and Game.
The spawn-on-kelp fishery was established by the Alaska Board of Fisheries in 1992. According to a 2022 herring status report from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, the Craig and Klawock herring guideline harvest level has averaged 2,864 tons since the fishery began in the area in 1992, ranging from a low of 626 tons in 2000 to a high of 19,456 tons in 2021.
Spawn-on-kelp fishermen work out of seine boats to string blades of macrosystis kelp from racks attached to floating pen structures known as "pounds." When herring return to their spawning grounds in early spring, "closed pound" fishermen seine up schools of herring and transfer them into nets that hang to close the bottom of their pound structures. “Open pound” fishermen suspend blades of kelp from pound structures and do not use nets to capture herring. When herring spawn, they deposit their eggs on the kelp blades.
Alaska Department of Fish and Game Area Management Biologist Bo Meredith told the Daily News that fishermen who participate in the Craig and Klawock herring spawn-on-kelp fishery tuck their pound structures in the places where herring spawn year after year around the southwestern sides of Wadleigh Island. Boats seek additional protection for their pound structures from Clam Island or from the Alberto Islands further north along Wadleigh Island.
Meredith said that exposure to wind and waves "beats your kelp blades all to hell and stresses the herring and you end up with a mortality event and that's not good for anybody, so they try and keep them tucked in the predominant area in the southwestern sides of Wadleigh Island."
Meredith said that some areas around Fish Egg Island near Craig are closed to the commercial fishery because they are recognized as traditional subsistence harvest areas.
Indigenous people of this region have long harvested an important spring food by picking wild kelp that's laden with herring roe, or by laying down and later retrieving hemlock tree branches that offer favorable spawning beds for herring.
Spawn-on-kelp fishermen describe "pounding" as a feat in timing. Crews first harvest, high-grade, clean and hang hundreds or thousands of blades of kelp from racks stacked in their pound structures so that the spawning substrate will be in good condition at the moment that herring choose to lay their eggs.
Meanwhile, closed pound fishermen are allowed to spend up to four days seining schools of herring that they corral into their structures when the spawn seems imminent. State regulation requires fishermen to release the herring on the seventh day following their initial capture.
Fish and Game data from recent years show that herring actively spawned in the fishery area for about five to ten days spanning late March and early April.
Last year, successful spawn-on-kelp fishermen sold the special food product gleaned from herring inside their structures for an average of $6.30 per pound. One hundred nineteen permit holders created an ex-vessel value totaling almost $2.5 million in the 2022 fishery, according to Fish and Game information.
Meredith said that fish processors E.C. Phillips & Son of Ketchikan, Alaska Glacier Seafoods of Juneau and OBI Seafoods of Seattle will buy the macrosystis kelp blades loaded with the roe deposited by impounded herring that will then mostly be sold to markets in Asia. Fishermen also create their own direct markets.
"Buyers send technicians over here," Meredith said. "They grade the product based on egg density." 
Meredith said that buyers' grades include "super-jumbo," "jumbo," grade five to indicate a poor mark and "tattered, broken."
Meredith said that in recent years, fishermen also have sold "commercial spawn-on-kelp to various tribal entities in the region." He said it's an "added bonus for their subsistence egg harvest that they do that's gaining more traction."
Spawn-on-kelp fishermen can also hang hemlock branches around the sides of their pen which also become laden with the spawning herrings' roe. Fishermen say that hanging hemlock branches helps prevent currents from damaging their spawn-on-kelp product.
In recent years, some Craig and Klawock spawn-on-kelp fishermen have shared the spawn-on-branch food that they harvest with Ketchikan Indian Community. Spawn-on-branch cannot be sold commercially.
In recent years, the KIC Cultural Resources Department has coordinated a community distribution of spawn-on-branch that in 2021 delivered bags of the traditional food to 370 households including 1,072 individuals, according to KIC information. KIC also centered distribution efforts on Ketchikan High School, the Ketchikan Pioneer Home and Women In Safe Homes (W.I.S.H.).
In 2022, Central Council of Tlingit and Haida purchased spawn-on-kelp from Craig and Klawock fishermen that was distributed along with the fishermen-donated spawn-on-branch during a similar distribution event coordinated by the KIC Cultural Resources department.
Herring are a keystone prey species that naturally lay their eggs on substrate such as eelgrass and macrosystis kelp. Meredith said that "everything eats herring."
As hatching larvae, herring rely on spring-time algal blooms and healthy ocean conditions for survival.
Fish and Game manages the spawn-on-kelp fishery to control its impact on the local spawning herring population by allocating the numbers of individual blades of kelp to permit holders in a way that incentivizes them to share pound structures.
"Any time that you put herring into a pound you're taking away from the natural spawning population that's going to go spawn on the beach right next to your pound structures," Meredith said.
Fish and Game estimates that fishermen seine and corral 20 tons of herring into each pound structure that holds herring throughout the fishery. Meredith said that the department estimates that 75%, or 15 tons of herring trapped in each pound, will die during the stressful spawn-time pounding process.
Meredith said that the actual number of herring that die because they are trapped in a pound is less than that 75% estimate, which is biased high as an "added layer of conservation."
Fish and Game encourages fishermen using closed pounds to set up fewer pound structures and thereby reduce their total take of herring by allocating more blades of kelp to individual permit holders who choose to share closed pound structures with other permit holders.
This year, closed pound fishermen using one single permit can use 600 blades of kelp to cull eggs inside their structure. With two permits to a pound, fishermen can use 900 blades of kelp per permit or a total of 1,800 blades per structure. With three or more permits to a structure, fishermen can hang 1,000 blades per permit or 3,000+ blades per pound to capture eggs.
Alternatively, permit holders can choose to suspend kelp blades from "open pound" structures placed in the exact areas where fishermen think herring are going to spawn. Fishermen don't seine or trap fish into an open pound; instead, the kelp assemblage tempts herring to come and spawn as they please. Meredith said that virtually zero permit holders in the Craig and Klawock area choose to fish with open pounds because "there's no guarantee that where you put your open pound is going to be where fish spawn. ... It's like rolling the dice."
Open pound fishermen using one permit per pound would be allowed 1,000 blades of kelp this year, while two or more permit-holders sharing one open pound would be allowed 9,000 blades per permit or 18,000+ total blades.
To set harvest limits that determine how much kelp that fishermen can use to capture eggs, Fish and Game creates an annual estimate of the mature spawning biomass of herring living in the Craig and Klawock area. Meredith said that about half of herring reach their spawning maturity by age three, while 80% to 90% of herring reach spawning maturity by 4 years old.
Meredith said that the department's 2023 forecast model used only 2022 data to estimate that 38,804 tons of mature herring are living in the area this spring. He said that Fish and Game biometricians usually incorporate three to four decades of data into forecasts for the Craig and Klawock area, but this year herring experts were "task-loaded with projects in Prince William Sound and Togiak."
"We really only have a few 'herring doctors' in the state and they were just fully tasked and they just didn't have the time," Meredith said.
Meredith said that any discrepancy between the survey methods would not impact Fish and Game management, and that this year's biomass estimate based on 2022 data should be fairly accurate.
"We document spawn from the air, then go ground truth it from the boat on low tide when the spawning event is kind of wrapping up," Meredith explained. "Our smart people in the department come up with ... a randomized transect survey and then we go out and dive on the transects."
In "transect surveys," Fish and Game SCUBA divers, including Meredith, measure the density of herring eggs in randomly selected points in the area where herring spawned.
"That's what generates our spawn deposition estimate in the postseason," Meredith said. "The herring doctors, the even smarter people in the department, take that data and generate a forecast."
Fish and Game breaks down its population forecasts by "age class." 51% of mature herring in the area this year, or an estimated 19,945 tons, are thought to be 7-year-old herring.
Meredith said that this 7-year-old age class that hatched in 2016 is "driving the population." He said that the significant decrease in the department's biomass estimate from 63,250 tons in 2022 to 38,804 tons in 2023 is due in large part to "significant annual mortality applied to that age class."
Fish and Game estimates that 60% of the herring living near Craig and Klawock die from natural causes each year.
"If you're out there in the wintertime you'll see there's 40, 50 whales working the schools of herring as they're trying to hide in the rocks," Meredith said. "It's tough to be a herring."
Meredith expects herring biomass estimates in the Craig and Klawock area to fall as that 7-year-old age class "moves through the fishery and gets older."
"Although it was an unprecedented recruitment event, after those fish have been alive for seven years evading everything that feeds on them in the ocean, that age class is significantly reduced from its original biomass," Meredith said.
Meredith said tagging studies conducted from the winter reduction fishery's catch in the early 1900s show that Craig and Klawock herring stray to lower Chatham Strait and mix with stocks from inside waters as well as herring from Sitka Sound.
"There were reduction fisheries all over the place in the 1920s, '30s and '40s. Although that wasn't the best idea," Meredith said.
 According to Fish and Game, the commercial herring fishery in Alaska began in 1878 as a "reduction fishery" that turned herring into fish meal and fish oil through industrial catching and processing. The fishery operated in areas such as Chatham Strait and Cape Ommaney until 1967.  
In 1909, the US Bureau of Fisheries called on Congress to ban reduction fisheries in Alaska, citing their importance as a primary prey of king salmon, but the fish-oil lobby quashed the idea. 
According to Fish and Game information, reduction fishermen in 1929 marked the peak fishery catch by harvesting 78,745 tons of herring.
Given this year's 38,804-ton biomass estimate for the Craig and Klawock spawn-on-kelp fishery, Fish and Game set an overall 20% harvest limit of 7,761 tons of herring to be used by both the spawn-on-kelp fishery and a "winter food and bait fishery" that was open from Oct. 1 - Feb. 28.
State regulation determines an overall guideline harvest level of 20% for the Craig and Klawock area when the biomass estimate is over 25,000 in a given year.
Meredith said that the GHL is established on a "sliding scale" basis. A minimum threshold biomass estimate of 5,000 tons for the Craig and Klawock area would spur its herring fisheries to open with a minimum guideline harvest level of 10%.  
Meredith said that a public Board of Fish process in 1997 established that the harvest limit for the bait fishery is 60% of the overall guideline harvest level, and the harvest limit for the spawn-on-kelp fishery is 40% of that GHL. Under state regulation established by the board, any portion of the area's overall herring harvest limit that's not taken by the winter bait fishery may be taken by the pound fishery later that year.
Winter food and bait fishery herring "go to dolphins, Navy dolphins, some go to Sea World or things kind of like that," Meredith said. "The rest is predominantly processors wanting boxes of herring for groundfish, crab and shrimp bait."
Fishermen in the 2022-2023 winter food and bait fishery harvested a total 683 tons of herring in the Craig and Klawock area, leaving 3,974 tons of their quota for Fish and Game to combine with the initial Craig and Klawock spawn-on-kelp allocation of 3,104 tons for an overall 2023 spawn-on-kelp fishery guideline harvest level of 7,078 tons of herring.
Meredith said that spawn-on-kelp fishermen's herring harvest probably won't come close to that 7,078-ton limit.
Last year, 119 permit holders assembled and fished from a total of 60 pound structures. Meredith estimates that 900 tons of herring died to create the roe-on-kelp product last year, assuming a mortality of 15 tons of herring in each of those 60 pounds.
Other Southeast Alaska spawn-on-kelp pound fishery areas of Hoonah Sound, Ernest Sound and Tenakee Inlet have been closed for years because Fish and Game's estimates show that the local herring populations are smaller than the department's respective 2,000, 2,500 and 3,000-ton area guideline harvest levels that would spur a fishery to open.
State regulation requires permit holders to keep their pound structures, particularly the webbing of their pound nets, in the water for four weeks "with adequate water circulation on all sides ... to optimize hatching success" of any eggs left on the pound net after fishermen release the herring from their pounds and harvest their spawn-on-kelp product.