As halibut comes in, prices slip at dock, not at store
Huge catches of halibut continue to cross Alaska’s docks since the fishery opened in mid-March. On April 25, for example, more than 726,000 pounds of the prized flats were delivered, the highest daily volume since a few days after the season opened on March 15. Starting on April 16, nearly 2.5 million pounds were landed throughout the state, for a total of nearly 9 million pounds delivered through April 27. That’s 15 percent of the Alaska catch limit of roughly 58 million pounds.
The influx of fish has had a downward press on prices. In Kodiak, for example, prices at the start of the halibut fishery ranged from $2.85 - $3.25 per pound, then after the first week dropped to between $2.10 - $2.25. As of April 24, prices had dipped again to $1.75 1.80 for fish weighing 10-20 pounds, $1.90 - $2 for those weighing 20 to 40 pounds and $2.10 - $2.25 for fish weighing more than 40 pounds.
Prices in Homer and Seward are usually at least 20 cents a pound higher, reflecting the fact that those ports are on the road system. Southeast prices are usually also somewhat higher than Kodiak due to closer proximity to Lower 48 markets.
Conversely, prices at Westward Seafoods in Dutch Harbor were at $1.50 for fish under 40 pounds and $1.55 for larger sizes. While those prices might still seem respectable, they’re well below last year’s average price of roughly $2.60 a pound.
The usual laws of supply and demand, however, don’t appear to be applying to Alaska halibut at most retail counters. There’s more halibut, prices to fishermen are lower -- but prices to American consumers have skyrocketed.
Urner-Barry, the nation’s oldest tracker of prices for seafood and other commodities, reported prices through April 28 for fresh halibut steaks at major supermarket chains in Chicago at $10.79 a pound, Los Angeles at $7.99, Florida at $9.99 and Boston at $7.99. Closer to home, 10th & M Seafoods in Anchorage was selling steaks at $6.25 and fillets at $6.95, and at New Sagaya, halibut steaks were retailing at $6.99 and fillets at $7.99. Kodiak’s Safeway was continuing to sell halibut fillets at a whopping $9.99 a pound.
"There’s no connection between what’s going on between retail and wholesale," grumbled one longtime buyer. "There are so many buyers and so many middlemen, they can simply go elsewhere (to buy fish.) They’re really holding our feet to the fire. Wholesalers try to work at a 3 to 5 percent profit margin and deal in high volumes, but now most of us are at zero. But we have no choice because we’re dealing with a perishable product, and we have to sell it. We’re all at the mercy of the guy buying the most fish and selling it the cheapest."
What can be done about the apparent inequity between prices paid to fishermen and wholesalers and what’s seen in supermarkets? "Nothing," according to two Kodiak processors. Both said "retailers are the ones making the bucks with halibut, not the fishermen or wholesalers."
Retailers could not be reached for comment.
The lower prices will also be reflected in lower raw fish taxes paid to communities where the halibut is delivered.
Meanwhile, Homer retains its lead as the nation’s No. 1 halibut port with just more than 2 million pounds crossing those docks at nearly 23 percent of the total Alaska catch. Seward follows at 1.85 million (21 percent), Kodiak at 1.2 million (13.5 percent), Juneau at just under 800,000 pounds (8.88 percent), Cordova at 636,000 pounds (7.13 percent), Petersburg at 572,000 pounds (6.4 percent) and Sitka at 467,000 pounds (5.24 percent). Alaska’s halibut fishery runs through Nov. 15.
Despite the Food and Drug Administration’s recent decree that more research is needed before health claims can be made about Omega-3 fatty acids found in many fish, studies in every country continue to find proof that eating such fish leads to a healthier life.
In recent years researchers have claimed that eating fish lowers the risk of heart attacks, reduces depression, improves eyesight and even boosts mental capacity and eyesight in babies.
An article in The New York Times revisited the American Heart Association’s recommendation that people should eat at least two servings of fish per week, claiming that doing so may prevent cardiac arrhythmia, as well as heart attacks caused by clotting. Another study examined 80,000 women and found that those who ate fish once a week reduced the risk of strokes by 22 percent, compared with those who ate fish just once a month.
More than a dozen anti-inflammatory studies have shown that people with rheumatoid arthritis experience relief with regular eating of seafood, and fish oils were found to be especially effective in reducing joint stiffness and fatigue. A recent study in the New England Journal of Medicine showed that more than half of the patients with Crohn’s disease and chronic irritable bowel syndrome remained symptom-free if they took Omega-3 supplements along with medication.
Kodiak-based free-lance writer Laine Welch can be reached via e-mail at ([email protected]).