Story last updated at 3/27/2013 - 2:16 pm
It was unusually quiet along the waterfront as the halibut fishery got underway on Saturday.
Most of the first fish landed goes to Homer, Kodiak and Petersburg, and processors there said there wasn't "the usual chatter." None said they had a feel for what's going to happen yet with prices. Lots of halibut remains in the freezers and some major processors had reportedly unloaded the high priced fish at a loss.
In short, no one appeared very excited - catch limits have been slashed again this year, the fleet is unhappy about having onboard observers for the first time, and processors are not getting much interest from buyers. The term heard a lot is 'halibut fatigue' - the high prices for halibut has shrunk processors' margins to next to nothing, and "it's a fight to push the fish onto people and demand the prices they are having to pay" the processors said. Halibut "is just not fun anymore," said a Petersburg company spokesman.
Last year's prices started out at near $6 a pound for larger sized fish in Homer and Kodiak, and at $7 a pound in Southeast. Within a few weeks prices dropped by 70 cents or more and then held fairly stable all season.
Alaska's share of the halibut catch this year is 23 million pounds, down 2.5 million pounds from last year. Every region except for Southeast is again dealing with big cuts, and the outlook for at least the near future is bleak. Meanwhile, the price to buy quota shares of halibut has reached $40 a pound in prime Alaska fishing regions.
Hatcheries boost harvests - Home grown salmon are Alaska's largest crop - but don't ever refer to it as farming. Whereas farmed fish are crammed into closed net pens until they're ready for market, Alaska salmon begin their lives in one of 35 hatcheries and are released as fingerlings to the sea. When the fish return home, they make up a huge part of Alaska's total salmon catch.
The state's annual Fisheries Enhancement report shows that last year's catches of 44 million hatchery fish were valued at $149 million dollars at the docks, or 28 percent of the total value of the Alaska salmon fishery. (That's down from 37 percent of the value in 2011 due to the lowest returns in a decade.)
Statewide last year hatchery fish made up 67 percent of the chum catch, 36 percent for pinks, 19 percent for coho salmon, 17 percent of the Chinook and 6 percent of all sockeye salmon.
Prince William Sound has the most hatchery activity, accounting for 80 percent of the region's total catch last year, of which 88 percent were chums and 84 percent were pinks. Forty-four percent of the Sound's sockeye catch were from hatcheries and 5 percent of the cohos. In all, those fish were valued at $71 million, 63 percent of the Sound's salmon value.
Southeast ranks second for hatchery fish, which accounted for 27 percent of that region's salmon catch. Eighty-four percent of the fish were chums, 27 percent of the coho catch, 21 percent for Chinook, 12 percent for sockeyes and 1 percent of the pinks. The overall value of hatchery fish was $72 million, or 42 percent of the Panhandle's value.
At Kodiak, hatchery fish made up 12.5 percent of the total salmon catch - 25 percent of the chums, 22 percent of the coho catch, 14 percent of the sockeye salmon and 12 percent of the pinks. Hatchery fish contributed $6 million, or 13 percent of Kodiak's landed salmon value. At Cook Inlet, just one percent of the sockeye catch is hatchery raised.
There are no commercial salmon hatcheries further west except for one sport fish program located in Fairbanks.
This year, more than 65 million hatchery produced fish are projected to return to Alaska.
Find a link to the Fisheries Enhancement report, halibut catches and other information at www.alaskafishradio.com.
Begich talks fish - It's tough to handle millions of pounds of seafood when an Alaska fishing town has a population of around 2,000 people. But seafood processing workers will be in short supply again this summer since the J1 Visa program was crimped two year ago.
That program was intended to bring foreign students to the U.S. as a cultural exchange program. Instead, it became a way for businesses across the country to bring in temporary workers. After widespread complaints in other states, the U.S. State Department reformed the program and banned its use in seasonal processing plants and other factory jobs. Sen. Mark Begich has introduced a replacement bill called H2O that would let workers come to Alaska during peak fishing seasons.
"The good news is that I believe immigration reform is going to happen this year, so we now have a potential vehicle that we can insert this legislation," Begich said in a phone interview.
He stressed that the first priority would be given to local job seekers.
"People in the region will be hired first, and then there must be a process that determines if there are no other available people or a non-sustainable workforce, companies can then use this H2O visa to bring in workers to fulfill the needs of our industry," he said.
Hearings on the Magnuson-Stevens Act began in Congress last week and Begich said more will continue after the Spring recess. Begich is chairman of the Senate subcommittee on Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries and Coast Guard.
"We'll have lots of issues - catch shares, and concerns over the expanded observer program and NOAA's lack of use of (electronic monitoring) technology by NOAA is an important discussion," he said. "We'll talk about issues that are impacting fisheries that are not under our control right now, such as warming oceans, ocean acidification, and won't prejudge - ocean policy, such as ocean zoning which Alaska is opposed to.
Begich said he is still making the fight to stop "Frankenfish" from going to U.S. markets, and has put forward SAFE seafood legislation to stop fraud within the seafood industry.
"This would toughen labeling requirements and include consumer protections, and really focus on getting these seafood bandits who are not telling the truth about where they get their seafood products and trying to get a higher price," he said.
Laine Welch has been covering news of Alaska's fishing industry since 1988. She lives in Kodiak.