Halibut season gets off to rocky start

The 2018 halibut season got off to a late, rocky and confusing start when the International Pacific Halibut Commission was unable to agree on catch limits for the season, leaving the U.S and Canadians to set their own limits based on the previous year’s quotas.

By regulation, if the treaty participants cannot agree, the previous year’s quotas remain in place, but both sides agreed that those quotas were too high from a conservation standpoint.

The season opened as scheduled on March 24, at least two weeks later than recent start dates, and early pre-season reports had the quota for Alaskan waters anticipated to drop by as much as 22 percent; however, when the final ruling came out only four days before the season opening, quotas coastwide dropped by 10 percent on average, with some areas down more than others.

The coast-wide Alaskan quota was set at 17.5 million pounds for the commercial fleet, compared to 18.67 million pounds last season.

In addition to the lower quotas, fishermen are seeing much lower dock prices.

The usual high prices at the beginning of the season, when markets are hungry for fresh fish, did not materialize this year. Last season saw early ex-vessel prices as high as $7.25 per pound, but this year fishermen have been lucky to get $4.50 to $5 per pound, with Yakutat reportedly paying a premium of $5.25 per pound.

The usual laws of supply and demand have not produced higher prices, since as of Monday only 690,000 pounds of halibut had been delivered state-wide, less than half by this date last season.

There was the beginning of push-back on the high prices toward the end of last season, when halibut fillets were selling for nearly $30 per pound retail, and dockside prices fell around $1.50 per pound or more, with some boats having a hard time finding markets at all. In addition, there is reportedly a substantial backlog of halibut in the freezer at major processors, creating a clog in the pipeline and depressing prices.

Adding to the misery is an increase in cheaper Atlantic halibut being caught in eastern Canada, where the harvest has increased by 195 percent since 2004, while Pacific halibut quotas have dropped by 63 percent during the same period. Much of that fish is being imported to East Coast markets, and is making inroads even farther west.

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