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PUBLISHED: 4:09 PM on Wednesday, October 10, 2007
Halibut prices sky high in Alaska
"They're in the nose bleed range," is how one industry expert described the high prices for Alaska halibut.

"It's crazy," agreed a major buyer.

"Why should I serve halibut when I can get king crab for less?" quipped restaurateurs in trade journals.

Last year, fishermen at most ports were thrilled to get well over $3 a pound for their catch for the duration of the eight-month fishery. This year, the price has seldom dipped below $4 at the docks - it's now pushing $5 -- and an eager market remains ready to buy.

Halibut prices are broken out into three weight classes, ranging from 10 to 20 pounds, 20 to 40 pounds and so called '40 ups'. Hold onto your hats for a sampler of prices from around the state last week:

At Dutch Harbor halibut prices were 'holding steady since August' at $4.10, $4.25 and $4.55 a pound. Kodiak prices were in the range of $4.20 for the smaller sizes, $4.40 for mediums and $4.60/lb for the big fish. (That's up 30-cents a pound across the board since late May.)

In Homer, prices were holding 'strong and steady all summer' at a whopping $4.35, $4.75 and $4.95 a pound. In Southeast Alaska, halibut were fetching $4.20, $4.40 and $4.70 and a major processor said prices 'could climb before it's all over.'

"Halibut continues to defy market expectations as high prices remain the trademark of the fish," said Ken Talley of Seafood Trend Newsletter.

"My read on the situation is that we will continue to see prices migrate upward because there is so much demand for this fish," said Cade Smith of Anchorage-based FishEx, one of the nation's busiest Alaska seafood e-commerce sites.

"Nobody except fishermen likes to hear this news, but that is how I see it. Processors in particular are being squeezed by the rising prices, and have watched their profitability on this item sharply decline," he added.

Both buyers and sellers give a nod to the fishermen for their savvy in supplying the market.

"It's not anything they've coordinated but the Alaska fishermen over the years have really learned how to pace their landings. They rarely crack 3 million pounds per week," said a major Southeast processor.

Homer retains the lead as the nation's #1 halibut port, with eight million pounds crossing the docks so far, 20 percent of the statewide catch. That's followed by Kodiak (6 million), Seward (5 million), Sitka and Dutch Harbor (roughly 3 million pounds each).

The high market price for halibut also has boosted the costs of IFQs (Individual Fishing Quotas) to unheard of levels in the prime fishing grounds.

In Southeast Alaska, for example, shares range from $18 to $24 per pound. In the Central Gulf, they're even higher -- $20 to $26 per pound.

Alaska's 2007 halibut catch limit is 52 million pounds, with 10 million pounds remaining in the fishery which ends in mid-November.

About 2,000 Alaska fishermen using hook and line gear harvest halibut in waters ranging from Southeast all the way to Savoonga. Fishery managers will announce the catch numbers for the 2008 halibut season the week of January 15th in Portland, OR. The fishery will reopen in early March.

Urchins and gooeys and sea cukes, oh my!

They don't make big headlines, but Alaska's 'dive' fisheries pump a nice chunk of change into coastal community coffers.

Starting Oct. 1, hundreds of divers using scuba gear or hookahs will soon head down to the deep to hand pick sea urchins, giant geoduck clams (called 'gooey ducks') and sea cucumbers.

Sea cukes, an oblong gelatinous creature distantly related to star fish and sea urchins, have been harvested in Alaska since 1983. Fisheries began in Southeast Alaska, and to a smaller degree around Kodiak and Chignik.

Close to 200 divers fish for sea cucumbers in Southeast waters, where catches have remained steady at about 1.5 million pounds a year. The take is far less at Kodiak, where last year 19 divers landed 150,000 pounds.

The fishermen get a good price for their efforts - $2 a pound on average for a value of $3 million at the docks.

Sea cucumbers are valued both for their muscles and their skins, which must be boiled over several days, then dried. The cukes go primarily to Asia where they are popular in Asian soups and salads. They are considered very healthful; the Chinese regard sea cucumbers as an aphrodisiac.

Sea cukes have fascinating defense mechanisms. When they are threatened, they can discharge sticky threads to ensnare their enemies. They also use another protective method called auto evisceration - meaning they literally can poop out their guts.

Energy advances aweigh!

Oregon State University tidal energy pioneers have designed bobbing buoys that contain metal coils surrounding a magnetic core. The buoys are tethered to the ocean floor, and as and the coil jostles around the magnets, electricity is zapped two miles to the Oregon coast.

Giant metal snakes are doing the same in Scotland where a company called Camcal has riveted together three 450 foot, wave-powered hollow tubes that slither across the ocean surface and produce electricity via generators in their joints.

Also, Technology Review reports that the first U.S. test trial on a tidal power system has been installed in the East River near Roosevelt Island, New York. The system, which uses six 35-kilowatt turbines, is meant to determine the best configuration for the equipment, and help develop easily mass-produced versions of the turbines. A system of 100 turbines is anticipated at this location. Learn more at www.ecogeek.org.

Welch, who lives in Kodiak,has written about Alaska's seafood industry since 1988.


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