Subsistence fisheries for herring in Alaska predate recorded history. The spring harvest of herring eggs on hemlock boughs or kelp has always been an important subsistence resource in coastal communities throughout Alaska). Traditional dried herring remains a major staple of the diet in Bering Sea villages near Nelson Island. Pacific herring are also harvested by subsistence users for consumption as fresh fish and for bait.
The commercial herring fishery in Alaska began in 1878. The herring were originally used for human consumption, bait, and reduction (the production of fish meal and fish oil). Peak catches for the Pacific herring industry occurred in 1929 with 78,745 tons of fish harvested. The reduction fishery ended by 1967. Currently, herring are harvested from Southeast Alaska to Dutch Harbor for use as bait in halibut, groundfish, crab, and salmon troll fisheries.
The primary commercial use of herring is sac roe for foreign markets. Sac roe is the term used to describe the herring eggs while they are still in the skeins (the membrane that holds the eggs together inside the fish). The sac roe fishery began in Southeast Alaska in 1971 and now occurs from Southeast Alaska up to Norton Sound. Pacific herring for the sac roe industry are harvested by gillnetters and purse seiners.
There is also a commercial harvest for herring eggs on kelp. The most common commercial spawn-on-kelp harvests occur with the use of pounds (floating pens), where herring are captured in purse seines and confined in enclosures containing harvested kelp until they spawn. In some areas the kelp is harvested by divers or handpicked in intertidal areas. The product from these pound harvests typically sells for a very high value.
The majority of the Alaska harvest has been taken in sac roe fisheries. The total Statewide sac roe harvest in 2009 was approximately 40,500 short tons resulting in $17.1 million paid to fishermen for their catches (Commercial Fisheries Division website). The commercial fishery for herring eggs on kelp in Southeast Alaska harvests and average of 300 tons annually (most recent 10-year period) with approximately $2.5 million paid to fishermen for their harvests.