Story last updated at 11/25/2009 - 12:04 pm
Alaska's halibut fishery ended on Nov. 15 amidst little fanfare. Brutal winter weather wreaked havoc on deliveries the final week, and bumped up prices as buyers scrambled for the last fresh fish of the year.
The season opened in late March with lots of expensive halibut holdovers from last year in U.S. freezers. That pushed dock prices down by roughly a dollar per pound all season.
Final prices at Kodiak were reported at $3.40 to $4.30 a pound for fish weighing from 10 pounds to "40 ups." Kodiak prices dipped as low as $2.50 at the docks this summer.
At Homer, final halibut prices to fishermen ranged from $4 to $4.35 a pound. Homer easily held on to the title of America's #1 halibut port with more than 12 million pounds, 23 percent of all landings, crossing those docks. Kodiak was a distant second at 7.6 million pounds, followed by Seward, Dutch Harbor, Juneau and Petersburg.
Most of Alaska's fresh halibut catch goes to U.S. retail counters and restaurants. The demand this year came from retail buyers, as more customers avoid expensive restaurants and buy halibut to eat at home, said market analyst Ken Talley. The frozen market also has taken off, and inventory to holdings "are said to be very low," he added.
Customers appreciated this year's lower prices, said Dannon Southall, wholesale/retail manager at 10th and M Seafoods in Anchorage.
"It's definitely down - last year we were running halibut fillets at $13 to $14.95 at retail and this year we had it as low as $10," Southall said, adding that sales were steady all season.
"There is still lots of excitement around Alaska halibut," he said. "We are definitely getting more questions about omega 3s and the different health benefits from halibut and all the fish we carry."
In all, Alaska longliners landed 42 million pounds of halibut during the eight month fishery, or 97 percent of the catch limit. Lots of small fish were being landed again this year, said Duff Hoyt, manger at Icicle Seafoods in Homer.
"The halibut growth rates are much slower," Hoyt said, "probably due to competition for food with all the arrowtooth flounders that are blanketing the bottom of the Gulf."
Alaska fishermen delivered 162 million wild salmon in 2009, the 11th biggest catch since statehood. The salmon haul is worth $370 million so far to fishermen, compared to $452 million last year for a smaller catch. Blame the overall drop in value on disappointing pink salmon returns to prime producing regions in Alaska, plus a flood of pinks coming in from Russia.
The global recession tamped down all wild salmon prices at the docks this year. Pinks averaged 22 cents a pound, down from 35 cents last year. King salmon averaged $2.62 a pound, down almost two dollars; sockeyes at 80 cents is a drop of four cents; cohos fetched 86 cents, down from $1.28; and chum salmon averaged 44 cents a pound, compared to 59 cents last year.
The salmon prices are preliminary and don't include post-season adjustments based on year end sales. Most importantly, they only represent the value of the fish at the docks.
"That ex-vessel value only represents 40 percent of the total value of the salmon industry," said market specialist Chris McDowell at the Juneau-based McDowell Group.
The latest surveys show a bump up in the number of Steller sea lion pups throughout the Gulf of Alaska, Aleutian Islands and Bering Sea.
"Between the last survey in 2005 and what these results show from this summer is a 10 percent increase overall in pup production for the western segment of the population throughout the range. The only region still showing a slight downward trend is far west of Adak. That's really good news," said Dave Benton, director of the Juneau-based Marine Conservation Alliance, which represents about 75 percent of the participants in Alaska's shellfish and groundfish fisheries.
A 2008 survey also showed either a "stable or increasing trend" for juvenile and adult sea lions throughout most of the westward range.
Even though the numbers are growing, it is a very slow increase, cautioned Doug DeMaster, director of the Alaska Fisheries Science Center in Juneau.
"It is not a statistically significant increase overall," DeMaster said. "It's not as strong as we'd like, but at least it's positive."
The westward stock of sea lions was listed as an endangered species in the 1990s because their numbers have declined dramatically since the 1980s. No one is sure why - it could stem from climate changes or predation by killer whales, and although scientists have concluded that commercial fishing is likely not the culprit, sea lion protective measures starting in 1999 have shut down or shuffled traditional fishing grounds and seasons ever since.
The question now is whether the fishing restrictions are helping the sea lions rebuild their numbers fast enough. According to federal guidelines, population increases over 15 years "would reflect sustained growth for two generations during two environmental regimes, and provide assurance the sea lions are recovering."
Fishery managers are crafting a new opinion on the effects of commercial fishing on the sea lions and their habitat. Benton believes the steady upward tick in overall numbers bodes well for the industry.
"With these trends, we're hoping that the National Marine Fisheries Service is going to make a determination that additional restrictions are not necessary for commercial fisheries," Benton said.
The draft biological opinion will be out for public comment in March.