When you pull over Baycrest Hill and catch a glimpse of the Spit, it almost looks like a hook dangling in the gaping mouth of Kachemak Bay.
And then you pass the sign proclaiming Homer to be the “Halibut Fishing Capital of the World.” Last year, 2.8 million pounds of halibut came over the Homer dock. That was 18 percent of total commercial halibut landings in the United States, and the most poundage of any Alaska port.
Which makes the Homer dock a busy place.
Alaska Custom Seafoods, Auction Block, Carroll Corporation, Fish Factory, Icicle Seafoods, Snug Harbor and about a dozen other companies move and buy fish off the docks. Most of the halibut that comes off the dock is sent out of state, mainly to Vancouver, where it’s processed and shipped all over the world. A tiny fraction of it stays right on the Spit — landing on a dinner plate near you. Here are the people involved in bringing one meal to the table:
1. Dave Fry, commercial fisherman. A commercial fisherman for 45 years, Fry took his boat, the F/V Realist, on a two-and-a-half day run to the mouth of Kachemak Bay. In three sets of longlining gear, he caught 1,425 pounds. Many boats delivering halibut to the Homer dock go out for longer — four days to a week — and deliver much larger loads — 10,000 or more pounds. Fry likes to stick closer to home with short runs and small loads. His expenses include fuel, bait and the deckhand’s share. He has been delivering halibut that stays on the Spit steadily for about four years.
“What I really like is sticking a gaff into a 70- or 80-pounder,” Fry says.
2. Ray Starzec, individual quota holder.Starzec started fishing in Homer in 1975 for halibut, shrimp and crab. Now retired after a 30-year fishing career and two other careers, he lives in Anchorage. When the fishery was “rationalized” in 1995, the crazed derby fishery — in which scores of fishermen rushed out for a short window of highly competitive and often sleepless fishing — ended. Fishermen with history in the fishery were given individual quotas (IQ) they could catch over a longer period of time. Fry fishes Starzec’s IQ, but regulations require Starzec to be onboard. Starzec watches from the flying bridge or reads a book while Fry and his deckhand work. Starzec takes 60 percent of the earnings; Fry gets 40 percent.
3. Erica Walli, deckhand. Fry often fishes with his wife, Cristy. On this run, Erica Walli joined him. Granddaughter of “Grandpa” Watson who homesteaded in Homer and great-granddaughter of Stariski homesteader “Ma” Walli, who also owned the Homer Cash Store in the 1936 building at the corner of Main Street and Pioneer, Walli moves wherever commercial fishing jobs take her. After setting the gear and letting it soak for a few hours, Walli and Fry pull it in, bleed and gut the fish, stick ice in the body cavity — or “poke” — and then store the fish on additional ice in the hold. The weather was exceptionally warm on this run, and Walli had to re-ice the fish. By the time this halibut will make it to the plate, it will have been touched a dozen times. Walli gets paid 5-7 percent of Fry’s earnings.
4. Jessica Marx, port sampler, International Pacific Halibut Commission (IPHC). Jessica Marx is one of about a dozen IPHC port samplers in Alaska, Washington, Oregon and Canada. Formed by the United States and Canada in 1923 and government-funded, the IPHC is charged with managing the halibut fishery. The organization, which has a permanent staff of about 30 in Seattle and a budget near $11 million, sets the total allowable harvest amount for halibut in U.S. and Canadian waters each year. During the March to November halibut season, Marx gathers data from a sample of fish coming over the dock that will shape management decisions: fish length, weight and age — from recovered otoliths or ear bones. When the fishery was privatized in 1995 the total harvest amount was 37 million pounds. This year it’s
5. Billy Sullivan, owner, Kachemak Bay Seafoods. Sullivan estimates he provided fish for 30,000 halibut meals on the Spit last year. Originally from New York, Sullivan worked summer jobs as a kid baiting gear with squid for commercial fishermen in Montauk on Long Island, who paid him $10 per tub of hooks. He started his business in 1989 after working on a 350-foot Korean factory boat that bought pollock, cod and sole in 100-ton quantities for shipping frozen to Asian markets. Using direct flights out of Anchorage, Sullivan began by shipping fresh cod to Korea. The quota system means a steady stream of fresh halibut over the Homer docks, which Sullivan provides to Spit restaurants. In comparison to other companies at the dock, his overhead is low: Sullivan hires one part-time fish cutter and maintains a forklift, brailer bag, fish totes, a tiny building in which to process fish and a fleet of two delivery bikes.
6. Johnny Kaiser, fish cutter. Kaiser has been fileting fish since he was 18 and started as a charter deckhand about two decades ago. In addition to cutting fish for Sullivan, Kaiser works as a deckhand on halibut boats. It takes him and Sullivan about an hour to filet 100 pounds of fish.
7. Harrison McHenry, owner and chef, Fresh Catch Café. Harrison McHenry and his wife Heather started Fresh Catch in 2006. He uses local seafood and produce in his cooking. The McHenrys are year-round Homer residents with their young son, Liam.
8. Alexandra Guilford, Hannah Jewess and Bryan Goldstein, halibut consumers. The halibut reaches its last stop on the plates of three college students from Connecticut, Colorado and Ohio, who all ordered fish and chips. Visiting Homer for the weekend from Palmer, they’re spending the summer in Alaska working for the Anchorage-based environmental group, Alaska Center for the Environment. One thing Jewess noticed is “how people are connected to the fish out here” in Alaska. Goldstein came to Alaska once before with his college fisheries class, where part of the curriculum involved going halibut fishing. “It was cold, wet, and miserable. But it was incredible,” he said.