A bounty of fresh halibut in Alaska

Posted: Friday, March 14, 2003

Wow! The opening price for halibut was $3 a pound and up. In Homer and Seward some sales went to $3.25. The season opened March 1 and will last until Nov. 15. This is a quota fishery, meaning fishermen can catch fish anytime during the year, when they want, and when they think the market will be best. Each fisherman has a certain number of pounds that can be caught. The price will probably level out, after the initial frenzy of buying at $2.30-2.70 a pound.

On the WaterfrontBy Elton Engstrom

The halibut fishery has been very successful for fishermen and processors. Last year's total catch in Alaska was about 60 million pounds, and 11 million pounds in Canada. The same allocation is planned for this year.

The halibut fishery is managed by the International Pacific Halibut Commission, a group made up of three Alaskans and three Canadians. The commission was set up in 1923 by treaty between the United States and Canada. Commercially caught halibut, whether 10 feet off the shore of Douglas Island or 150 miles off the coastline, are treaty fish managed by the commission and the National Marine Fisheries Service. Both parties have done an excellent job in preserving the resource. Phil Smith of Juneau is one of the leaders of the service, who determines each year how much halibut individual fishermen are allocated.

Halibut is basically a fresh fish business, with some freezing, which covers the period of November to March for consumers, when the fishery is closed. Most of the fresh halibut is iced, packed in large totes of 1,000 pounds, and loaded into refrigerated vans, and hauled by truck to markets across the United States. The initial destinations are along the Pacific coast from British Columbia to California.

Fresh is the mantra in the fish business today. When I was buying halibut in Juneau and Kodiak in the 1960s, and in Yakutat in the 1970s all the fish was frozen.

Although fresh is best, I like to buy halibut cheeks in the summer from workers at the local cold storages, and freeze enough personal supply for the winter months. Usually, the heads are thrown away, and often the plants do not want to spend the time cutting out the cheeks, so workers, during their spare time, can do so. The cheeks are all flesh, no bone to worry about. The flesh tends to be stringy and watery, so that freezing, if anything, dries the product a little and makes it tastier. I like to flour the chunks and fry them in olive oil. Forty or 50 pounds will usually last me the whole winter.

If properly frozen and protected by an air tight plastic liner, a piece of fish can last a year, and taste almost as good as fresh. I just had a halibut fillet, my last piece out of the freezer, caught last summer, that I could hardly tell from fresh.

In addition to the halibut season, the tanner crab season opened Feb. 15 and closed, in major areas, five days later, and by the 25th in all other areas. Gretchen Bishop is the Region One Southeastern Alaska shellfish project leader. She said the catch will be about 700,000 pounds, the low side of the forecast. Also, the golden king crab fishery started Feb. 15, with the aim of a catch of 485,000 pounds.

I asked Gretchen about the Dungeness crab fishery at Yakutat. When I was there in 1972, we processed about a million pounds. She said the fishery peaked with a harvest of 5 million pounds, in 1982-83. From there it was all downhill. In 1996, the harvest was 244,000 pounds, in 1997 it was 156,000 pounds, and in 1998 it dropped to 121,000 pounds. Before the last crab was caught, the seasons were closed in 2001 and 2002, and for the coming 2003 year.

Some say that this decline is due to the rapid fluctuations in the crab population on the Pacific Coast. Others suggest evidence of increased levels of depredation by other creatures of the sea, but, in my opinion, the once robust and consistent Yakutat Dungeness crab fishery crashed because of over-fishing. What a loss, since this is a great long sandy beach of about 60 miles and a wonderful crab habitat.

Elton Engstrom is a lifelong Alaskan, retired fish-buyer, lawyer and legislator (1964-70) who lives in Juneau. He can be reached at 586-1655.

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