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Fish Factor

Pacific halibut gets MSC's stamp of approval
By Laine Welch


April 25, 2006

After a three year wait, Pacific halibut has finally gotten the stamp of approval by the international Marine Stewardship Council. It means that halibut can now boast the coveted blue MSC logo in world markets, telling customers that it comes from a fishery that is well managed and friendly to the environment. So far, only 15 fisheries from around the world have merited the MSC label.
jpg Laine Welch

"It is a great testament to fishermen from Alaska and Washington and all they've promoted over the past 10 to 20 years, as well as to the scientists and fishery managers," said Bob Alverson, director of the Fishing Vessel Owners' Association (FVOA) who announced the news on Friday. Alaska will get the biggest boost from the green label, with its catch this year of 53 million pounds of halibut. Washington, California and Oregon have a combined harvest of just 1.38 million pounds.

The FVOA sponsored the MSC certification attempt starting in February 2003. That began a lengthy process of intense scrutiny of the halibut fishery by a group of independent evaluators, Scientific Certification Systems of California. Fishermen financed most of the effort by taxing themselves $1,700 per season. The funds were matched by a donation from the Resource Legacy Fund, for a total cost of more than $150,000.

Alverson said he has long believed that U.S. consumers would follow the lead of Europeans, and throw their support behind earth friendly fisheries. "Some of the guys rolled their eyes, but you can see it gaining momentum ­ especially in large population centers on the west coast, the eastern seaboard and Chicago. People are concerned about the environment and how things are managed and they want to participate," Alverson said in a phone interview from his Seattle office.

The halibut certification "couldn't come at a better time," said Matt Moir, manager of Alaska Pacific Seafoods in Kodiak. He referred to the announcement last month by Wal-Mart and other huge global companies that they will source seafood only from sustainable, well managed fisheries. "Most are using the MSC nod as the industry standard," Moir pointed out.

Processors must sign on and pay for the privilege of using the MSC logo. Alverson said participants so far include Norquest, Icicle, Bering Select, North Pacific Seafoods and the Seafood Producers Co-op of Sitka. Whole Foods will launch a national promotion using halibut provided by those companies starting May 3. Meanwhile, buyers in the U.S. and overseas continue to clamor for the fish despite high prices, which have remained close to or well over $3.00 a pound at most ports since the halibut fishery opened on March 5. The season remains open through mid-November.

SABLEFISH ALSO GOES GREEN - In more good news for Alaska, sablefish (black cod) is set to be the next to be certified by the Marine Stewardship Council. The fishery received preliminary approval by independent certifiers on April 18, and the final ok is expected on May 10.

"We are really excited," said Bob Alverson, whose Fishing Vessel Owners' Association members also spearheaded and paid for the sablefish assessment. The FVOA has partnered with the Deep Sea Fishermen's Union to form a tax exempt corporation called Eat on the Wild Side to expand the sablefish market beyond Japan, where traditionally all of the fish has gone.

"We're hoping over the next few years we can transfer about 7-10 percent of the black cod consumption to North America, along with increased demand in China. We think that will really balance out the demand, instead of it just all going to Japan," Alverson said. The increased competition is already being reflected in higher prices to fishermen. Intrafish reported that interest from China has boosted sablefish prices to fishermen by 40 cents a pound to $4.30 (for fish weighing five pounds and up), and to $3.24 for four to five pound fish.

The total world catch of sablefish averages only about 65 million pounds, most of which comes from Alaska (34.5 million pounds this year). Anyone interested in a DVD highlighting Alaska halibut and sablefish harvests can contact Bob Alverson at (206) 284-4720 or via email at

HALIBUT CAUGHT BY POTS? A project will soon be underway to determine if halibut can be caught commercially using pots. "We've been asked for years by fishermen to look into ways that can harvest halibut and at the same time, minimize predation by marine mammals and reduce bycatch of rockfish," said Steve Kaimmer, a research biologist with the International Pacific Halibut Commission.

The pilot project will use conical stacking pots that are about 4.5 feet wide at the base, 3.5 feet wide at the top and about 30 inches deep. "These are the pots used for black cod in the fishery off British Columbia," Kaimmer said. "And believe it or not, halibut can squeeze into places you wouldn't think they could. Fishermen say they can catch quite a few 40, 50 and 60 pound halibut in these pots." He added that the fish size in all regions of their range averages "in the low to mid-20 pounds."

The research team will also use an underwater sonar scanning device that will allow them to observe the approach and capture of halibut, and hopefully, the escape of rockfish. "Then we'll modify the pot tunnel and escape ring to see how we can bring up the minimum number of rockfish while still retaining the halibut," Kaimmer said.

He added that a string of 10 to 15 pots would be equivalent to a skate of hook and line gear in terms of fishing power. "I think I would rather handle a hundred hooks because the pots are so much heavier. I don't it is a gear someone would switch to unless it helped them get around a problem such as catching too many rockfish," Kaimmer said.

The halibut pot project will begin on June 1 and last for about ten days. He added: "If anyone has ideas on how to either catch halibut or exclude rockfish in pots, I'll accept suggestions until the day we sail." Contact Steve Kaimmer at the IPHC at (206) 634-1838.

FISH BITS-Bumble Bee has launched a national line of ready to heat, pouched "prime fillet pink salmon steaks." The 10 ounce packages retail for $2.99. A spokesman said research shows that 92 percent of Americans consume a ready to eat product on a daily basis.

The Washington Post reported that Chinese President Hu Jintao was served a meal of Alaskan halibut with mushroom essence during his recent visit to the White House.Bristol Bay's salmon rich Kvichak and Nushagak Rivers made the list of America's most endangered rivers, based on threats posed by the Pebble Mine project, one of the largest proposed open pit gold and copper mines in North America.

Long-time Japan market analyst Bill Atkinson died on April 20 after suffering a massive stroke. Condolences can be sent to Alaska Frontier Company, 133 4th Avenue North, Edmonds, WA 98020.

Laine Welch has been covering news of Alaska's seafood industry since 1988. Her Fish Factor column appears weekly in over a dozen papers and websites. Her Fish Radio programs air on 27 stations across Alaska.

Contact Laine at msfish[AT]

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