Each year fishery scientists conduct surveys in the winter to collect tissue samples from the spawning grounds, and during the summer to collect data on the halibut stocks. The research includes various areas - this year occurring off the Queen Charlotte Islands in British Columbia, in the Central Gulf of Alaska and in Bering Sea waters along the Aleutian Chain.
The researchers have special permits to offload and sell the halibut they catch in local ports. The landings are quite low, and prices intend to be inflated. But the pre-season landings do give an indication of market interest, and they can be summed up in a word: high.
In early February, 7,000 pounds of halibut crossed the Homer docks and fetched $6.55/lb for all sizes. "That compared to an average price last summer of $3.77/lb. So there was a big jump interest over the winter," said Claude Dykstra, survey manager for the International Pacific Halibut Commission, which conducts the annual research.
At Dutch Harbor, two deliveries in early February of 8,500 pounds and 10,000 pounds were broken out by size classes. Halibut weighing 10 to 20 pounds paid $3.60/lb; 20 - 40 pounders got $3.95/lb and larger sizes received $4.35/lb. The average price paid in Dutch during the summer was $3.41/lb, Dykstra said.
One major Kodiak buyer said the pre-season landings by researchers have little bearing on the actual market. However, he agreed there is no doubt the halibut market will be strong, adding that prices are likely to hit $5/lb in some areas. "But when there's that much of an increase in value, it can go sour really fast and buyers will be extremely cautious," he said.
Starting prices for halibut last year approached or topped $4.00 a pound in major ports and seldom dipped below $3.00 during the eight month season. The statewide average price for 2006 was $3.71/lb.
Alaska's 2007 commercial halibut fishery has a catch limit of just over 52 million pounds. The Halibut Commission has a call out for several research charters starting this summer, preferably for vessels over 55 feet. Contact the IPHC for more information at (206) 634-1838 or www.iphc.washington.edu.
Fast food features
Fast food giant McDonald's is using interactive, online computer games to lure more folks to enjoy its Filet of Fish sandwich.
The new multi-media ad campaign allows consumers to 'interact with the brand' by challenging gamers to go 'head to snout' with one of the ocean's most competitive creatures - the dolphin. In a game of 'Aquatic Tennis' (which would more correctly be called volleyball), 'man and dolphin' try to bang a fish sandwich past each other. In 'Ocean Commotion,' man tries to balance a sandwich on his nose longer than the more adept dolphin. And in a popular repeat from last year called 'Sharkbait,' players try to keep the Filet o Fish away from a swarm of hungry sharks. All games are timed, allowing gamers to compete with one another. The promotion, in both Spanish and English, also offers wallpapers, cell phone ring tones and t-shirts. Nearly all of McDonald's fish sandwiches are made from Alaska pollock, and the company claims to sell more than 300 million sandwiches each year. (www.filetofish.com)
And for the first time, Kentucky Fried Chicken is offering a fish sandwich at its more than 5,500 locations across the country during the 40 days of Lent. Called a Fish Snacker and selling for just 99 cents, the sandwich is made of 100 percent Alaska pollock. To increase the new promotion's visibility, KFC has asked Pope Benedict to bestow his blessing on the new menu item. No word yet on whether Benedict will offer his papal approval.
worries wild producers
People are familiar with how farmed salmon competes with Alaska's wild caught fish in world markets. In that case, it is lower prices - not availability- that gives farmed salmon a toe hold. Today, demand for dwindling stocks of whitefish is prompting a boom in farmed varieties that compete with Alaska's largest fisheries - cod and pollock.
Industry watchers predict that in less than ten years, world farmed cod production could top 440 million pounds. According to the latest Seafood Market Report by the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute, two freshwater fish pose an even bigger threat: farmed tilapia and pangasius.
Imports of tilapia to the U.S. through October last year were nearly 276 million pounds, up 70 percent from the year before. China imports 90 percent of all frozen tilapia, while Costa Rica, Ecuador and Honduras provide 90 percent of the fresh imports. U.S. per capita consumption of tilapia grew 62 percent between 2003 and 2005, the report said.
While tilapia has come to dominate the American market for farmed whitefish, pangasius has been developing as the darling of the European market. Pangasius, also called basa, is a type of shark catfish and it can grow to market size in just seven months. Vietnam, the primary producer, sent more than 217 million pounds of farmed pangasius to Europe through October last year, an increase of 80 percent. In just a few more years, Vietnam expects to produce more than two billion pounds and make more inroads into U.S. markets as well. By comparison, Alaska's 2007 catch quota for pollock is roughly three billion pounds.
World consumption patterns favor seafood as more people are aware of its health benefits, combined with concerns over poultry and beef borne illnesses. The ASMI report said farmed whitefish are "shifting the playing field" as they do an end run around the biological limitations occurring with wild catches.
Welch has written about Alaska's seafood industry since 1988.