Alaska Halibut & Sablefish Prices High
October 01, 2011
Halibut prices are usually broken into three weight categories: 10-20 pounds, 20-40 pounds and “40 ups.” At Kodiak, the fish was fetching $6.55, $7.05 and $7.40 a pound. Southeast halibut prices were reported at $6.80, $7.15 and $7.40 per pound. And at Homer, the nation’s leading port for halibut landings, prices were $6.75, $7.30 and $7.50 a pound.
The principle of supply and demand has come into play to push up prices, explained a major buyer in the Panhandle. The amount of halibut available for harvest from Pacific Northwest fisheries has steadily trended downwards, from 60 million pounds in 2002 to 30 million pounds this year. (And that reflects a decrease of 10 million pounds since 2010.)
“Competition is fierce to get boats to deliver fish,” said a major Southeast processor. “We used to make 5% margins with halibut, now it is 1%-2% and we just hope to get our labor costs covered.”
Most of the halibut goes out fresh to white table cloth restaurants in the U.S. and even though prices are through the roof, the fish is still in demand.
“Alaska halibut is pretty well known now and people really want it,” said Tuck Bonney, assistant manager at Alaska Pacific Seafoods in Kodiak. “There’s been some pushback by buyers, but most are scrambling to get all they can. We’ll just have to see how high the price can go before they stop buying.”
Prices for sablefish (black cod) are even higher, and again, supplies are slim. Processors said they “could get whatever we asked for that fish.”
Alaska is the world’s biggest producer of sablefish, but that only amounts to about 27 million pounds this year (a rare 14% increase).
Sablefish prices also are based on fish size, and broken into six categories, ranging from less than three pounds to over seven pounds. The breakdown at Homer ranged from $6.05 to $9.35 a pound. Southeast prices went from $6.00 to $9.20; and from $6.50 to $9.00 a pound at Kodiak.
Nearly all of that fish goes to Japan, Korea and China, said Tuck Bonney.
“Our dollar is weak and the currency in Asia is strong and that’s why we’re seeing the big prices,” Bonney said.
Alaska longliners have about 3.5 million pounds remaining in their catch limit for this year; and 4.7 million pounds for sablefish before the seasons close in mid-November.
King crab’s a go
Crabbers in Southeast Alaska will drop pots for red king crab for the first time in six years when a fishery opens on November 1. The fishery has remained closed due to what appeared to be declining crab stocks, although crabbers have argued to the contrary.
Since 2009, crabbers have partnered with state shellfish biologists to double check the annual surveys by catching, tagging, and re-catching king crabs. The results far exceeded the surveys in four areas; in some cases catches of mature crab were up 150% to 500% higher.
Julianne Curry, director of the Petersburg Vessel Owners Association, had high praise for the collaborative effort with local fish managers.
“If it wasn’t for them believing the fishermen when they said there was more crab out there than the original survey was reporting, we wouldn’t be here right now,” she told KFSK. “The department has moved very quickly and they have been with us every step of the way. It’s been a really great experience to be able to work alongside them on this.”
About 60 crabbers have permits for the red king crab fishery which brings in more than $1 million to Southeast communities.
New crab voice
Mark Gleason of Seattle has taken the helm for Alaska Bering Sea Crabbers (ABSC), a harvester trade group. Gleason most recently was the government affairs rep for Ocean Peace fishing company, a former Sea Grant Policy Fellow for the US Senate Subcommittee on Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries & Coast Guard in Washington, D.C., and a fisherman for 11 years in Bristol Bay.
“ABSC is an umbrella organization that aims to take all the various factions within the harvesting sector and help them develop a unified position, and articulate that to policy makers in the North Pacific Council and in DC,” he said in a phone interview.
Gleason said primary issues include stopping Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated (IUU) fish poaching, helping crews obtain crab catch shares and keeping a close watch on ocean acidification.
“If the predictions about ocean acidification prove to be correct, we in the crab industry really need to pay attention. Crabs build their shells of calcium and they are going to be very susceptible to more acidic oceans,” he said.
The group also plans to educate the public that there is a lot more to Alaska’s Bering Sea crab fisheries than they see on TV.
“It has been great that there is more awareness of the crab fisheries and they have been portrayed in such a positive light. But it is incumbent on us as an industry to tell the story of a more modernized fishery,” he said. “This is not the old days of the king crab cowboys - we have much more rational business men and women trying to figure out how to prosecute the fishery in the most efficient and safest way possible. That takes a level of planning and coordination and understanding of the regulatory environment, and awareness of market developments that really wasn’t necessary as much in the past.”
Gleason replaces Edward Poulsen as ABSC executive director, and begins his job this week.
Wanted: Alaska Fish Stories
“Voices from the Fisheries” is a federal project that began three years ago as a way to highlight and preserve fishing cultures across the nation. Stories, pictures and videos have flooded in from most fishing places – but not from Alaska.
“We only have a few from Alaska and that is very sad, because marine fisheries are so important to Alaskans, both in the commercial and subsistence fisheries. So this is a big hole and we really need to do something about it,” said
Susan Abbott-Jamieson, a retired social scientist with NOAA Fisheries and project coordinator.
The Voices are not limited to fishermen, but can include firsthand accounts of fishery managers, scientists, processors, subsistence and sport fishermen – also industry support businesses, people who repair fishing boats and those married to fishermen.
“Even things you do to cook the fish you eat, and aspects of the arts and that are based in the marine fisheries,” she told KDLG, referring especially to local totems.
A lot of cultural knowledge is disappearing, Abbott-Jamieson said, so it is important to gather the voices now.
“ We all know that fisheries are changing – many younger are people not entering the fisheries, and as older people retire, a lot of cultural knowledge is disappearing. Also, for those who remain, local knowledge constantly changes because the conditions change,” she said.
There are 136 Alaska communities officially designated as fishing towns, each with its own unique fish stories. See the colorful array and submit yours at the Voices from the Fisheries web site.
This year marks the 21st year for this weekly column that focuses on Alaska’s seafood industry. It began in 1991 in the Anchorage Daily News, and now appears in over 20 newspapers and web sites. A daily spin off – Fish Radio – airs weekdays on 30 radio stations in Alaska. My goal is to make all people aware of the economic, social and cultural importance of Alaska’s fishing industry to our state, the nation and the world.