Halibut farms haven't grown as quickly as predicted, but they are gaining ground and could eventually do to longliners what salmon farms have done to trollers and other gear groups, according to an expert in the field.
"I think it's fairly certain in the next five years you won't have dramatic competition," said John Forster, who authored a 1999 report on the emerging industry.
"After that, all bets are off."
Forster spoke to Alaska fishermen and seafood marketers gathered in Juneau on Tuesday to hear whether halibut farmers are succeeding in efforts to pioneer the fledgling industry.
He told the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute's board of directors, meeting at the Baranof Hotel, that halibut is a promising prospect for fish farmers and their financial backers. For one thing, adult halibut are resistant to common marine diseases and a single fish yields a lot of fillets.
However, the white fish has posed some challenges for Chile, Norway and other countries that successfully reared salmon, cutting into Alaska's wild fish markets. For one thing, the survival rate for pen-reared juvenile halibut is low - sometimes as low as 3 percent, he said. That's the main reason the farmed halibut industry hasn't grown as quickly as Forster predicted two years ago. However, it appears halibut farmers are moving beyond the problem and producing more juvenile fish today, said Forster.
"What we're seeing is a much more steady and predictable increase in juveniles," said Forster, who has more than 30 years experience in commercial aquaculture.
Homer fisherman and board member Jamie Ross asked whether the farmed halibut industry could "totally trounce" wild halibut fishermen in the next 20 years, as salmon farmers have done to salmon fishermen.
"Absolutely," Forster said.
"How about in 10 years?" asked another fisherman on the board.
"If people (fish farmers) got their act together and started pouring out juveniles in the next few years, it could happen," Forster warned.
The prospect is grim for Alaska halibut fishermen who have watched salmon farms take over the world salmon market. Once up and running, the farms produce huge volumes of fish, increasing supply and driving prices down.
"It's going to be who can produce the product at the lowest cost and still remain viable ... I have a huge investment in halibut fishing in the state of Alaska, so I'm concerned," said Cordova fisherman Jim Kallander, board chairman of ASMI, the state's seafood marketing arm.
ASMI Executive Director Barbara Belknap said the agency doesn't have the funding to do extra marketing for halibut. But she said it's imperative Alaska fishermen take steps now to fend off the competition and ensure their place in the halibut market. They should nurture their relationships with buyers and focus on producing the highest quality product, she said. Belknap also suggested the governor or Legislature convene a study group to figure out the best course of action.
"Let's look at it long-term what can we do now to be ready for this in 10 or 15 years instead of just watching it come as we did with salmon," Belknap said.
Kathy Dye can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.