FISH FACTOR: Salmon forecasts down 40% overall; early halibut prices up
Alaska’s 2016 salmon harvest will be down by 40 percent from last year’s catch, if the fish show up as predicted.
The preliminary numbers released by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game call for a total catch of 161 million salmon this year; the 2015 harvest topped 268 million fish.
The shortfall stems from a projected big decrease for pink salmon. A humpy harvest forecast of 90 million would be a drop of 100 million fish from last summer.
Here’s the statewide catch breakdown for the other salmon species:
For sockeye, the forecast calls for a catch just shy of 48 million, down by more than 7 million reds from last year.
A coho catch of 4.4 million would be a half million fish increase; likewise, for chum salmon, a catch of nearly 19 million would be a similar increase over last season.
For chinook, a catch of 99,000 fish is projected for all areas except Southeast, where the harvest will be determined according to Pacific Treaty agreements with Canada. Last year’s statewide chinook catch was 521,612.
It all adds up to fewer salmon being available to global buyers this year — and some hopeful market signs for Alaska salmon are starting to surface.
A failure of both farmed and wild salmon fisheries in Japan has spawned a surge of demand for Alaska sockeyes. Exports to Japan from October through December were up 320 percent over the previous year, reported Seafood.com, and sales are expected to remain “substantially” higher as inventories clear prior to the new fishing season.
Alaska could also benefit from the misfortunes of the world’s top farmed salmon producers, a scenario that is steadily pushing up salmon prices.
Farmed fish sales from Chile, the largest supplier to the U.S., are expected to drop by up to 20 percent this year due to a toxic algal bloom, and production is expected to be affected well into 2017. According to Chile’s National Fisheries and Aquaculture Service, 38 salmon farms have been affected, with nearly 24 million fish killed — enough to fill 14 Olympic swimming pools.
Financial Times reported that Chilean salmon prices have increased 25 percent to nearly $5 a pound since December.
Norway, the world’s largest farmed fish producer, is unlikely to fill the salmon shortfall, as that country is dealing with severe fish loss from sea lice.
“We expect to see a global supply shock,” warned Kolbjørn Giskeødegård, director of seafood at Nordea Bank.
Dock prices for halibut started out in the mid-$6 range at major ports, about 25 cents per pound higher than last year. The fishery opened March 19 and first deliveries were sketchy, except in Southeast Alaska.
“Fishing is fantastic,” said Dave Ohmer, manager at Trident Seafoods in Petersburg.
Halibut prices are usually broken into three weight categories.
They were reported at $6.45 for 1- to 20-pounders, $6.65 for 20-40s and $6.85 a pound for “40 ups.” The payout at Icicle was reported at $6.50-$6.75 with a 20 pound split. Halibut prices usually drop a bit after the first week or so into the fishery. In recent years, the dock price has seldom fallen below $5 a pound.
Federal data show that 676,000 pounds of halibut crossed Alaska docks through March 25, slightly higher than at the same time last year. Alaska’s share of the Pacific halibut catch this year is 21.45 million pounds, an increase of 200,000 pounds from 2015. The fishery runs through November 7.
Fishing slows growth
It turns out that fishing appears to be a prime cause of shrinking halibut.
A Pacific halibut that weighed 120 pounds 30 years ago tips the scales at less than 45 pounds today. That’s especially true for fish in the biggest fishing holes: the Central and Western Gulf of Alaska.
“We found that fishing can explain between 30 and 100 percent of the observed declines in size at age in the Gulf of Alaska, depending on which area you’re looking at,” said Jane Sullivan, a University of Alaska graduate student who is investigating the impacts of fishing on halibut growth for the first time.
“We took all the information that we knew about the halibut population in the 1980s when fish were big, and used a computer model to fish this population at different harvest levels to see how fishing affects size at age,” she explained.
“And we found that resulting declines in size at age become greater with age because fishing effects compound with each year of fishing.”
Sullivan modeled several scenarios, including reducing the 32-inch minimum size in the fishery, and releasing halibut over a maximum of 60 inches. Neither appeared to make any difference in fishing impacts on the fish size at age. The research also found that bycatch of halibut in other fisheries is not a key factor in the slower growing fish.
“The majority of halibut caught as bycatch in these other fisheries are much smaller sized halibut, so we don’t think there would be the same selective fishing going on as there is in the commercial halibut fishery,” Sullivan said.
In terms of potential changes to the fishery to protect the slow growing halibut, the science points to an unpopular solution.
The only management action that appears to make any difference is to reduce fishing effort or harvest. By reducing effort, you reduce the selective harvest of large halibut, she said.