Fishermen expect high halibut prices

Increased demand, lower catch limits bump up earnings

Posted: Wednesday, March 14, 2007

ANCHORAGE - As the season's first halibut arrived at the docks this week, fishermen said they expect to reel in high prices over the coming months due to lower catch limits and increased popularity in upscale eateries.

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Rhonda Hubbard, who operates the Seward-based commercial fishing boat Kruzof with her husband Jim, said the buzz on the docks was $5.50 a pound, one of the highest prices fishermen have ever seen.

"It's ridiculous," she said.

Halibut has become a menu staple in high-end restaurants across the country, said Bob Alverson, a Seattle representative for the Alaska halibut fleet.

"We were, for a long time, in the lunch pail market of America," he said. "Now we're kind of going uptown. They'll all have that 'fresh' sign out. 'Fresh and wild, from Alaska.' Alaska sells."

Prices are also bumped up because of Lent, the period before Easter when many Catholics avoid red meat and eat fish every week, said Dana Besecker, a major Alaska halibut buyer.

"It's a heck of a price. The fishermen should be really happy with that," he said.

High prices at the docks will likely carry over to restaurants and grocery stores, which should begin receiving shipments of fresh halibut this week and next.

According to government figures, average dockside prices for Alaska halibut have tripled since the early 1990s, from less than $1 per pound in 1992 to $3-plus in 2006.

In the past, most halibut was frozen. Now much of it is flown or trucked fresh to the Lower 48, and that's added great value to the catch.

Individual fishing quotas implemented in 1995 gave each captain a set percentage share of the harvest, meaning boats no longer race to bring in as many fish as possible.

And the season lasts for months rather than just a few days, meaning a steadier stream of fresh fish.

At $193 million, last year's halibut value ranked third behind salmon and bottom fish, chiefly pollock and cod, among all Alaska commercial fish harvests.

High halibut prices are expected this year because the catch limit for all Pacific halibut is down nearly 7 percent to 65 million pounds. Halibut are caught off Alaska, British Columbia and the West Coast.

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