By Laine Welch
March 11, 2006
Alaska's snow crab fishery (opilio Tanners, or opies) opened last October in the Bering Sea, under the rules of the new "rationalized" management plan. The new plan gives quota shares of Bering Sea king and Tanner crab to harvesters and processors and extends the length of the seasons to months instead of days, which has been the case in recent years.
Most of the snow crab fleet waited until January, the traditional time of year to drop their pots. Through March 10, landings had topped 15 million pounds out of the 33.5 million pound quota. A total of just 60 boats registered to participate in the snow crab fishery this year, compared to more than 200 boats in previous years. Just 36 boats are out on the water now, and catches have really picked up, said Forrest Bowers, a biologist with the AK Dept. of Fish & Game in Dutch Harbor.
"Through February the fishing was hampered by sea ice and boats had to move around a lot. Catches were averaging 112 crabs per pot, but since last week they've been averaging 250 crabs per pot. I expect the catch will stay high into April," Bowers said.
As with the rest of the Bering Sea crab industry, managers are also adjusting to the new style of fishing. "In the past the focus would be on making sure the fast pace and high fishing effort didn't exceed the harvest guideline in a short time period. Now we're able to spend more time on how the fisheries impact the stocks and how the fishing patterns have changed. It's a different emphasis," Bowers said. He added that managers want to be able to accurately characterize changes occurring in the fisheries so "we can address the questions that will come up as the new program is being analyzed and fine tuned in the future." The Bering Sea crab rationalization plan will undergo its first review in April 2007.
SNOW CRAB PRICES - Snow crab prices have been variable so far, averaging between 85-cents and $1 per pound. That compares to an average of $1.85 last season. Industry insiders say that snow crab prices are likely to increase to $1.15 per pound when the fishery ends in May. In fact, market experts believe the snow crab market is starting to show renewed signs of life after bottoming out last spring. For example, Urner Barry (a company that has been publishing food industry market news since 1858) reported that prices for snow crab last week jumped 20-cents at wholesale, reaching $3.20 per pound for 5-8 ounce portions.
The market for snow crab started to slide last spring - not just for Alaska, but also for Canadian and Russian crab, which all compete in U.S. and Japanese markets. Cold storage holdings were plugged with inventories (Alaskan producers had the largest carryover in 14 years at two million pounds), and record catches of Dungeness crab from the West Coast added to the crustacean crunch.
Alaska does not control the snow crab market, due in part to dramatically reduced harvests since 1999. "Russian imports of live and frozen crab appears to control the Japanese market, and it is safe to say that Canadian snow crab sets the base for the U.S. market. Alaska landings are about ten percent of the overall U.S. market," said market expert John Sackton. He added that Newfoundland exports more than 100 million pounds of snow crab into the U.S. each year.
But things are looking up. Industry watchers say that inventories of snow crab are very much in demand right now. "I'm hearing a lot of optimism. The crab is starting to sell like hot cakes at the lower prices. The general feeling is the market bottomed out and it is now moving up," said Arni Thomson, director of the Alaska Crab Coalition.
HALIBUT PRICES - Hurricane force winds with gusts topping 125 miles an hour in many parts of the Gulf of Alaska kept early landings grounded in several ports. That meant starting prices were inflated even more than usual as buyers scrambled to fill orders that were widely advertised in U.S. supermarkets.
At Kodiak, one major buyer was paying $3.75 across the board for the season's first fish. At Homer, where only about 20,000 pounds had crossed the docks, early deliveries fetched $4.30 - $4.35, and by week's end had jumped to $4.50 a pound for all sizes. Halibut was just starting to trickle into Dutch Harbor where early prices were reported at $2.70 for 10 to 20 pounders, $2.80 for 20-40's and $3.20 for 40 ups. In Petersburg, prices were $3.50 and $3.60 across the board, up twenty cents from last year's starting price; Hoonah posted $3.65; halibut was bringing $3.50 to $3.75 in Juneau, and at least one report pegged the price at $3.95 in Sitka.
Through March 10, the Alaska halibut catch was 874,205 pounds, compared to almost two million pounds at the start of the fishery last year. Some buyers said the market is likely to be "starving" by next week and prices should remain unreasonably high. Halibut prices will level off somewhat when weather allows the fleet to fish more steadily. Still, one major called the halibut market "solid and bullish and a great success story." He predicts halibut prices could remain 20-cents above last year's averages for the entire eight month season. Alaska's halibut catch limit for 2006 is 53.3 million pounds.
TRADE SHOW BLOW For the
second year in a row, hurricane force winds forced a Horizon
Lines container ship to bypass Kodiak, taking with it all the
trappings for the annual ComFish Trade Show. The van contained
railings for exhibitor booths, backdrop drapery, carpet, tables
and chairs and the electrical system. "We stood outside
and watched it all sail away," said Norm Wooten, director
of the Kodiak Chamber of Commerce which sponsors the show. Horizon
is making another special delivery attempt on Wednesday, in time
for ComFish to open its doors the following day. "We will
work all night if we have to," Wooten said. The ComFish
Trade Show & Fisheries Policy Forum is set for March 16-18
at the Kodiak High School. Also of note: a rally is being organized
by Kodiak fishing families called "Alaskans for Open Markets."
It will take place on Friday at 9:30am in the high school parking
lot. Questions? Call Theresa Peterson at 907-486-2991.
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