FISH FACTOR: Halibut gets bump; salmon prices soar
More Pacific halibut will be going to market this year due to an overall boost in the harvests for the West Coast, British Columbia and Alaska. The coastwide catch of 31.4 million pounds reflects a 5.1 percent increase, and for the first time in decades, not a single fishing region met with a decline in halibut catches.
The heartening news was released on Jan. 27 by the International Pacific Halibut Commission, overseer of the stocks since 1923.
Halibut catch limits are determined by summer surveys at more than 1,200 stations from Oregon to the Aleutians. In 2016, the results showed the stock had remained stable over a span of three years, although the fish remained small for their ages.
Alaska always gets the lion’s share of the Pacific halibut catch and a take of 22.62 million pounds this year adds up to an extra million pounds for longliners who hold quota shares of the fish.
The good news has been dampened somewhat by a potential delay to the March 11 start of the fishery due to the bureaucratic freeze by our new president.
On Jan. 20, Donald Trump issued a memo to all federal departments and agencies to freeze new or pending regulations until his administration has time to look them over.
That includes the rules for running the federally managed Pacific halibut fishery. Also potentially stalled is the use of pots to catch sablefish, or black cod, in the Gulf of Alaska. That gear was ok’d starting this year by federal advisors to prevent sperm whales from snatching the fish from hooks.
“The National Marine Fisheries Service is working to determine the impacts of the Executive Order on our Alaska Region rule making actions,” said Rachel Baker of NOAA Fisheries in Juneau.
Here are the 2017 halibut catch limits for Alaska in millions of pounds, provided by the Halibut Coalition:
Southeast Alaska: 5.25m, a 6.1 percent increase
Central Gulf: 10m, a 4.2 percent increase
Western Gulf: 3.14m, a 15.9 percent increase
Aleutians regions remain flat at 1.39m and 1.14m
Bering Sea: 1.70m, a 2.4 percent increase
A rising tide lifts all boats and a global shortage of farmed salmon is increasing fish prices across the board.
“We’re looking at several years of either lower or constrained supply growth for farmed salmon. That is important because farmed salmon production has typically grown around 5 percent a year over the last 20 years,” said Andy Wink, Senior Seafood Analyst with the McDowell Group.
The farmed salmon shortfall stems from a double whammy: tens of millions of fish have been lost in Chile due to an ongoing virus caused by toxic algae in warming oceans. At the same time, sea lice are ravaging fish farms in Norway with increasing frequency and intensity. Norway is the world’s biggest farmed salmon producer, and its exports last year fell by five percent.
Sea lice are the farmed Atlantic salmon industry’s most expensive problem, costing around $550 million in lost output each year. Fish farmers also are coming under increasing criticism for the thousands of tons of antibiotics and/or pesticides they use to control the outbreaks of disease and parasites in the cramped salmon net pens.
Despite the dousings, the farmed salmon shortfall has pushed prices to record highs. Twice last year spot prices of Norwegian fish for export approached $21 per pound, according to the Nasdaq Salmon Index.
Limited supplies of wild salmon also continued to strengthen prices into the new year. Tradex Foods reports four to six pound sockeye salmon are holding steady in the $3.60 to $3.75 per pound range.
And despite the abundance of salmon fillets, wild sockeyes continue to move steadily at $6.75 to $7.00 per pound at retail counters, “largely influenced by the lack of chum and pink salmon in the market,” Tradex said.
The report added that in coming weeks “expect to see a rush for inventories as buyers analyze end user contracts to determine a need or a surplus of materials,” and “some processors mentioned strong refresh programs for sockeye, indicating that large volumes of raw materials would be destined for that. Expectations across the board for 2017 wild salmon pricing right now seem strong.”
United Fishermen of Alaska has released its latest popular Fishing Fact sheets that highlight the seafood industry’s economic importance for each fishing town/region in Alaska, statewide, and for West Coast states.
UFA is the nation’s largest commercial fishing trade organization, representing 33 diverse groups ranging from small skiff operators to big at-sea processing and crab boats. Find the fact sheets at www.ufafish.org.