FISH FACTOR: Rare optimism as halibut fishery kicks off

  • The crew of the stock assessment vessel Star Wars II hauls in a large halibut during the 2002 fishing season. Catches are up nearly coastwide for 2021 and fishermen are hoping prices will follow. Photo/Courtesy/International Pacific Halibut Commission)

The Pacific halibut fishery opened on March 6 and increased catch limits combined with a cautiously optimistic outlook for the near future have fanned interest in buying shares of the popular fish.

In January, the International Pacific Halibut Commission boosted total halibut removals for 2021 by 6.5 percent to 39 million pounds for all users and as bycatch in fisheries of the West Coast, British Columbia and Alaska. That is higher than the total take for the past three years.

For commercial fishermen, the halibut catch limit of 25.7 million pounds is an increase of 2.6 million pounds over 2020. Alaska gets the largest chunk at 19.6 million pounds, and all regions except for the Bering Sea will see increased catches.

“People are thrilled to see that, hopefully, the tide has turned after catch limits for most areas have been declining for about the past 15 years. And they are happy to know they’re going to see some more pounds on their permits this year,” said Doug Bowen of Alaska Boats and Permits in Homer.

“By all accounts the market looks like it is warming up,” agreed Lisa Gulliford at Permit Master in Tacoma, Wash. “Interest and flexibility from both buyers and sellers is always good news and I am hopeful this trend will continue through the year.”

The optimism over the apparent better health of the halibut stock is reflected in the demand for purchasing shares of the fish that is pushing up prices, Bowen added.

It’s nowhere near the levels in 2017 when quota share prices in the Central Gulf of Alaska, for example, were at $65 or more per pound and now are closer to $45. Quota shares at Southeast that topped $70 are listed in the $45 to high $50 range per pound.

The increase in halibut catches is one part of the equation; the other is what the fish will bring at the docks.

“We were seeing some decline in values even before the pandemic hit, with increased imports from the east coast of Canada and halibut coming in from Russia and even farmed halibut showing up in Costco from Norway,” Bowen said. “So there’s more competition in the market place. And then the pandemic didn’t help with all the restaurants closed and the cruise ships tied up. Even with all that, we still saw pretty decent prices last year. In Homer, we probably averaged $4.50 a pound for the whole season. Considering the pandemic and the hit to the economy, that was probably a pretty good price. And we’re hoping to see a good price again this year.”

Federal data show the annual average ex-vessel (dock) price for halibut has been decreasing since 2016. The price to Alaska fishermen in 2020 averaged $4 per pound and the value of the fishery totaled just less than $62 million. That compared to an average dock price of $5.30 per pound in 2019 and a fishery value of more than $87 million.

Meanwhile, another good sign, Bowen added, is that boat sales are “brisk.”

“I don’t know whether you could find a stronger vote of confidence in investing into these fisheries by buying a boat or buying quota,” he said. “So yeah, there’s definitely some optimism in the fishery in spite of this pandemic that’s going on in the background. It’s very encouraging.”

The Pacific halibut fishery this year also was extended by one month to Dec. 7.

The human side of halibut economics

Who are the users of Pacific halibut and how do they use it? Answers to that question will come from responses to a stakeholder survey that aims to provide stakeholders with an assessment of the economic impact of the Pacific halibut resource in Canada and the U.S.

The International Pacific Halibut Commission is the first regional group in the world to conduct such a study, claiming that understanding the human dimension is part of its mandate for optimum management of the resource.

The survey assesses halibut users in commercial, sport charter, subsistence and processor sectors. It measures economic impacts from hook to dinner plate, employment and incomes, household prosperity and contributions to regional and national economies, known more broadly as multiplier effects.

“So per dollar of landed fish, how much economic activity is generated and how much of this translates to wages and to the national GDP. (GDP is Gross Domestic Product, a measure of the U.S. economy and its growth.) That encompasses effects on wages, but also effects on profits by the businesses that are supported by the commercial or recreational fisheries,” said Barbara Hutniczak, IPHC lead economist for the study.

The survey also includes regional spillovers to other areas.

“For example, a vessel that is fishing in Alaska and benefiting from the Alaska-based halibut resource might in the wintertime be serviced in Washington state. So in this case, the economic effects will also be in Washington state because the marina where this vessel is serviced will have additional economic activities,” she explained.

The confidential survey includes four main sections on vessel activities, revenue and quota use, labor information and vessel operating expenses.

Hutniczak said responses are accepted on a rolling basis and the information will be updated continuously.

“I would like to encourage stakeholders to provide the information that will benefit all the sectors and show the potential of each sector in terms of supporting the local communities and economies and various other aspects that can be highlighted through your responses,” she said.

Questions? Contact [email protected] or 206-552-7693.

Fishing mentors wanted

The Young Fishermen’s Fellowship Program is calling for fishing groups or businesses to partner with young Alaska fishermen to help them hone skills in management, advocacy, research, marketing, conservation, business and more.

It’s the fifth year for the Fellowship, which is an offshoot of the Alaska Marine Conservation Council.

“The program is really energized to help young fisherman bridge the gap between the water and the waterfront and to help diversify their experiences within the fishing industry,” said AMCC Working Waterfront director Jamie O’Connor. “It has included everything from direct marketing to the history of fisheries to policy and whatever creative, meaningful project our host organizations can dream up. It’s a really great way for young fishermen to utilize other skills that they may have onshore.”

The program has so far placed 15 fishermen under 40 in a wide range of mentorships, many of which have led to diverse careers. They are paid a stipend that usually adds up to $16 to $26 per hour, depending on experience.

“Our fishing fellows have gone on to careers as fishery staffers in Congress, (Advisory Panel) members to the council, one used her time with the Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association to segue into work as a fleet manager in Sitka for one of the seafood companies out there,” O’Connor said.

She added that along with being a Bristol Bay fisherman, her Fellowship experience with the North Pacific Fisheries Association in Homer led into her current job at AMCC.

“I think one of the main benefits I’ve seen to both Fellows and the host organizations is building those relationships within the broader fisheries community and the industries that support them,” O’Connor added. “It expands our fisheries network in a really beautiful way.”

Interested mentors can apply through March 31 and a call for fishing fellows will follow. Mentors and Fellows will then be matched up and work out flexible schedules lasting two to five months.

“If you have a project that you think could be energized by the efforts of a young fisherman, reach out to me and I can help you put a proposal together,” she said.

Organizations and businesses can apply at www.akyoungfisherman.org.

Laine Welch lives in Kodiak. Visit www.alaskafishradio.com or contact [email protected] for information.

Updated: 
03/03/2021 - 9:22am