Weather slows halibut opener, first prices similar to 2013

Commercial halibut fishers began targeting 16.7 million pounds of quota March 8, but bad weather kept many off the fishing grounds.

Individual fishing quota, or IFQ, holders will take the majority of the Alaska commercial catch limit, about 15.9 million pounds, with Community Development Quota landings from the Bering Sea areas making up the remainder of the catch.

Sablefish IFQ holders have access to about 23.6 million pounds this year.

Last year, IFQ holders landed about 20.8 million pounds of halibut and 25.5 million pounds of sablefish, or black cod. That was about 96 percent of the halibut limit, and 91 percent of the sablefish limit.

The 2013 IFQ halibut fishery was worth about $105 million, and sablefish was worth $72 million, according to an estimate from Laine Welch of Alaska Fish Radio based on cost recovery values. The National Marine Fisheries Service does not yet have a final estimate for those fishery values.

As of March 11, 28 IFQ halibut landings were reported to the National Marine Fisheries Service, totaling about 160,974 pounds. Southeast Alaska, or Area 2C, has seen slightly more deliveries, with about 73,738 pounds in 16 vessel landings. Southcentral, or Area 3A, has had fewer landings — 12 — but more total halibut delivered: 87,236 pounds.

For sablefish, just 11 landings were reported, at about 136,890 pounds. The majority were in Southeast Alaska, with about 87,565 pounds delivered in seven landings, but the locations of the remaining landings were listed as confidential.

Because of the limited number of landings made so far, port-specific information on where the halibut and sablefish landings were made is not yet available.

The 2014 fishery will run through Nov. 7.

Southcentral and Southeast Alaska fishers both reported bad weather that kept boats in port.

Linda Behnken, executive director of the Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association, said she hadn’t been out yet but heard that people who did go out from Sitka were fighting awful weather, and many had opted to stay on shore.

North Pacific Fisheries Association President Malcolm Milne, a Homer fisherman, said he didn’t go out for the opener either.

“There’s a big storm here,” he said March 10.

Milne said some fishers were also still out targeting Pacific cod, keeping them from getting out for the start of the halibut fishery.

Kevin Hogan, owner of The Auction Block in Homer, said iffy weather was probably contributing to the slower pace of the fishery so far this year.

However, Hogan said that he thought there might be a slight bright ray as the fishery gets started, although he said it was just an offhand observation.

“Fish seem a little bit bigger than last year,” he said. “They’re still small, but not getting smaller.”

In Seward, Jim Hubbard said he had been out fishing and made a delivery March 11.

“We fished halibut and fishing was pretty decent,” he said.

Hubbard confirmed the slightly larger fish Hogan mentioned, and said the smaller fish are a little thicker than in recent years.

‘The quality of the fish looked better than it has in the past,” Hubbard said.

Prices throughout the state have varied.

In Sitka, fishermen reported an ex-vessel price of $6.50 per pound, regardless of weight.

Fishing Vessel Owners Association Manager Bob Alverson said he had a few guys go out fishing and report prices, although most of the fleet hadn’t left yet.

In Homer, he heard that prices ranged from $6 per pound for 10 to 15 pound fish, to $7 dollars per pound for halibut 40 pounds or larger.

At Yakutat, sablefish prices ranged from $4 to $6 per pound, again depending on weight, Alverson said.

Hubbard said he was expecting both halibut and sablefish prices to be similar to what they were in the fall of 2013. That, he said, was somewhat disappointing since the halibut quota had been cut so significantly.

Hogan couldn’t provide specific halibut prices due to confidentiality issues, but also said that generally, “it’s similar to last year.”

From September 2013 through November 2013, the ex-vessel price for halibut averaged about $5.11 per pound at Central Gulf of Alaska ports according to NMFS. Sablefish was about $2.85 per pound during the same time period for the Central Gulf.

Typically, the yen-dollar exchange rate also affects sablefish prices, and when the yen value drops — as it has over the past year — so do Japanese sablefish purchases.

Processors this year had asked for a later opening date, March 22, but ultimately the International Pacific Halibut Commission sided with harvesters, who requested the fishery start no later than March 8.

The processors’ request came in part because of a concern about halibut already in the freezer, and also because of the timing of other industry events, and a desire to figure out contracts at the Boston Seafood Show before the fishery started.

Harvesters, however, said they wanted as long of a season as possible.

Last year, the fishery opened March 23.

11/15/2016 - 5:27pm