Despite quota cuts, Pacific halibut prices slip
By Mercedes Grandin, SeafoodSource contributing editor
18 September, 2009 -
One major factor continuing to dog the Pacific halibut market is the steady decline in annual quotas; this year’s quota is set at 54.1 million pounds, down 10.4 percent from 60.4 million pounds in 2008 and 17.7 percent from 65.1 million pound quota in 2007.
As a result, U.S. Pacific halibut landings have dropped gradually each of the past five years, from 79.1 million pounds in 2004 to 47.3 million pounds in 2008. The numbers continue to fall, with 2009’s total catch, as of 17 September, at 34.5 million pounds. There are nearly two months left in the season.
Declines in growth rates and stock biomass have contributed to quota cuts. “For some regulatory areas, the catch limits are also lower because our research has shown that halibut are moving at later ages than we previously believed,” said Dr. Bruce Leaman, executive director of the International Pacific Halibut Commission in Seattle, which sets the quota.
“This meant that catch limits for Area 2 were set higher than they should have been, in retrospect,” he explained. “Therefore catch limits have are being set lower to achieve sustainable harvests for those and all areas.”
“Supply and landings are down because we’ve been ratcheting back on allowable catch for the last few years,” said Dave Whitmire, a Homer, Alaska, halibut fisherman who’s been fishing for 30 years. “We’re between big year classes right now, with some speculation that within the next few years, by 2013 say, we’ll be on the upswing again because the 1999-2000 year class is the largest ever recorded. It used to take 8 to 10 years for harvestable commercial fish, which must be 32 inches head-on, and now it’s taking upward of 12 to 13 years.”
According to Leaman, 12-year-old halibut is now 40 percent of the weight it was in the 1980s and 1990s, particularly in the central Gulf of Alaska, due to competition with a large biomass (up to 5 million metric tons) of arrowtooth flounder.
“There’s nothing out there that eats them (arrowtooth), so it’s just going to be something that needs to go through its natural cycle. We don’t anticipate change in the growth of halibut in the mid-term,” said Leaman. “Right now we’re not recommending a decrease due to the large differential in price across size. While a larger quota might come with a lower size limit, we’re concerned that it would also encourage high-grading so that more catch would be taken out of the sizes of fish currently harvested. The change would also increase mortality on females and a larger catch could be taken out of the existing biomass.”
The difficult economic climate has also affected halibut prices and demand. Alaska fishermen are getting about USD 3.35 for 10-20s, USD 3.60 for 20-40s and USD 3.80 for 40s-and-up, down more than USD 1 a pound from a year ago, according to Whitmire. At wholesale, fresh whole halibut is fetching as little as USD 5 for 10-20s and as much as USD 5.75 for 40s-and-up, f.o.b. Seattle.
“One of the differences this year as opposed to past seasons is you’re seeing it more in grocery stores because the price is down and white tablecloth restaurants have taken a hit with the economy,” said Whitmire. “A friend was just in Anaheim, Calif., and saw halibut at USD 7.99 for steaks. Retreat one year and that would have been USD 12 or 14 a pound and SUD 17 to 20 for fillets.”
“Probably the biggest difference in dock price is in the western ports — Dutch Harbor, Akutan and Sand Point, King Cove — where the [ex-vessel] price is around USD 2.45 for 10-20s, compared with USD 4.10 for 10-20s last year. It's mostly frozen product.”
Another challenge of the 2009 season has been the oversupply of frozen fish accumulated from the previous years’ supply. But by mid-summer, cold-storage holdings dwindled, allowing the domestic market for fresh fish to improve.
“Halibut tends to be white linen table cloth item and buyers have been cautious not to have too much inventory,” said Leaman. “The general price trend has been increasing — it dropped by USD 1 a pound [compared to 2008] early in the season. But it’s working its way back up.”
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