Halibut fleet catches most of quota at end of season

The halibut and sablefish IFQ fisheries closed with little fanfare Nov. 7, with only one regular commercial buyer and one private buyer in Homer accepting fish.

The fleet landed 96 percent of the 18.3 million pound halibut quota in Alaskan and Canadian waters, but only 88 percent of the sablefish quota for those areas. That left only 665,740 pounds of halibut in the water, but a total of 2.7 million pounds of sablefish uncaught.

A total of 3,473 vessel offloads of halibut only were made during the season that started March 11, and 1,750 offloads of sablefish. Offloads with both species totaled 995. Many vessels made multiple offloads.

The Aleutian Islands and Bering Sea areas fared the worse in finding sablefish, with 30 percent and 53 percent landed respectively.

Part of this may be the result of sperm and orca whales learning to munch fat-rich sablefish off the hook as the groundline is coming aboard, which led to a controversial decision by the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council to allow boats to use pots for sablefish, which prevents whale predation.

Anecdotal information indicates that nine or 10 percent of the sablefish quota was harvested by pots in the central Gulf of Alaska this year.

As for 70 percent of the Aleutian Islands sablefish staying in the water, Doug Bowen of Alaska Boats and Permits, said that’s not unusual.

“That Aleutian Islands stuff, there must be so much of it that stays on the bottom every year,” he said, “because you can just barely give it away. The last time I saw any of it sell, it went for like 50 cents per pound, maybe 75 cents per pound because nobody can catch it.”

That compares with as much as $70 per pound for halibut IFQ’s in Southeast Alaska, Area 2C.

The ex-vessel prices for halibut and sablefish had a bit of a convoluted year, with sablefish selling for as much as $12.25 per pound for fish over 10 pounds at the beginning of the season, and halibut selling for as much as $6.50 for fish over 40 pounds, compared to $7.25 per pound in 2016.

The halibut price dropped to less than $5.75 for large fish in Homer at the end of the season, while sablefish appeared to remain relatively stable.

The interim meeting of the International Pacific Halibut Commission takes place Nov. 28-29 in Seattle.

Cristy Fry can be reached at realist468@gmail.com.