By WESLEY LOY
Anchorage Daily News
March 14, 2007
And high prices at the docks are likely to translate into steep charges in restaurants and grocery stores, which should begin receiving shipments of fresh halibut this week and next.
Rhonda Hubbard, who operates the Seward-based commercial fishing boat Kruzof with her husband Jim, said the buzz on the docks was $5.50 a pound for halibut. That's about as strong a price as fishermen have ever seen.
"It's ridiculous," she said.
In contrast to some of the state's other commercial fisheries such as salmon, which has been mired in a depression in recent years, these are grand times for halibut harvesters.
Halibut fishing off Alaska used to be a frenzied, dangerous affair, with seemingly every boat afloat chasing the big flatfish into any kind of weather. So many boats went to sea that seasons closed in as little as two days. Vessels sank. People died. And tons and tons of halibut were dumped onto the docks all at once.
The advent of individual fishing quotas, or IFQs, in 1995 revolutionized the fishery. Because each captain holds his own percentage share of the annual harvest, he no longer needs to race to catch the fish before the next guy grabs them.
That's yielded safer and longer fisheries. This season will last eight months, until Nov. 15.
In the past, most of the halibut was frozen. Now much of it is flown or trucked fresh to the Lower 48, and that's added great value to the catch.
Halibut has become a menu staple in white-tablecloth restaurants across the country, said Bob Alverson, a Seattle representative for the Alaska halibut fleet.
"We were, for a long time, in the lunch pail market of America," he said. "Now we're kind of going uptown."
Restaurants are hyping opening-day halibut much as they do Copper River salmon, Alverson said. "They'll all have that 'fresh' sign out. 'Fresh and wild, from Alaska.' Alaska sells," he said.
Most halibut is caught by boats that deploy miles of baited hooks into the water. The boats and the halibut fishermen themselves are called longliners.
According to government figures, average dockside prices for Alaska halibut have tripled since the years prior to IFQs - from less than $1 per pound in 1992 to $3-plus in 2006.
At $193 million, last year's halibut value ranked third behind only bottom fish - chiefly pollock and cod - and salmon among all Alaska commercial fish harvests.
Halibut prices are expected to edge even higher this year because the catch limit for all Pacific halibut is down nearly 7 percent to 65 million pounds. Halibut are caught off Alaska, British Columbia and the West Coast, but Alaska is by far the biggest producer.
The halibut industry is not without worries. Fishermen and processors figure what goes up must come down. So prices could drop or the now-healthy halibut stocks could dip. Many wonder when consumers will revolt against paying even more per pound for halibut than for king crab. Some also worry that farm-raised halibut someday could become a serious competitive threat, just as foreign farmers have routed Alaska's wild salmon fisheries.
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Scripps Howard News Service, http://www.scrippsnews.com
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