Fishermen set for halibut opener

Posted: Sunday, March 17, 2002

Randy Beason, captain of the 47-foot Oceanaire, is getting ready for Monday's halibut opening - his seventh.

When last it felt the roll of outside waters, the Oceanaire was longlining for black cod in Chatham Strait in September. But now the halibut gear must be taken out of storage. Switching to longline gear to catch halibut involves setting up bait tables and loading gear such as buoy lines, Beason said.

He'll head out with a crew of three others Monday for their share of a roughly $100 million fishery. Beason will share captain's duties with Doug Neal.

"Essentially we work for free for each other, and that means fewer shares of the profit," Beason said. "It's a pretty good arrangement, and other fishermen are adopting it."

Depending on the weather, Beason will fish in the calmer inside waters in Southeast or out in the Gulf of Alaska ranging from two to 25 miles offshore.

"Some guys are crazy going out in this weather - chopping ice (that covers the boat), fighting back the slime," said Wayne Alex who has fished for more than 50 years but recently gave up longlining. "If it doesn't warm up, going out on the Gulf (of Alaska) in this weather is dangerous."

As fishermen like Beason gear up for Monday's opening, changes in the dates of the season and halibut farming likely are on their minds, said Greg Williams of the International Pacific Halibut Commission in Seattle.

Halibut port ratings from 2001 season landings

• Homer: 13.4 million pounds of halibut

• Kodiak: 8.5 million pounds

• Dutch Harbor: 6.2 million pounds

• Seward: 6.1 million

• Sitka: 2.5 million

• Juneau: 2.3 million (4.2 percent of total Alaska halibut catch)

• Petersburg: 2.2 million pounds

• Hoonah: 1.4 million pounds

Source: National Marine Fisheries Service Web site

The halibut season has run from March 15 to Nov. 15 since individual fishing quotas were implemented in 1995. Those quotas give each vessel a share of the overall allowable catch. This year, however, the season opens March 18 and continues to Nov. 18. The season for sablefish (black cod) will parallel it.

Ninety percent of Alaska's halibut is marketed in Seattle. Halibut buyers objected, at the commission's annual meeting in Seattle in January, that if the season began on the 15th, a Friday, they would have had to process it over the weekend.

"Buyers know from past history that they do better with moving product if they bring it in on a Wednesday, Thursday or Friday," Williams said.

When considering a different opening date, the 150 buyers, fishermen, U.S. Coast Guard officials and others who attended the annual meeting also took into account the Old Believer religious colony fishing out of Homer.

"The 16th and 17th were considered, but the Old Believers do not fish on Sundays," Williams said. "So we decided to start on the 18th."

Halibut farming came in for a good deal of discussion at the commission's meeting.

"With the season being closed for four months during the halibut spawning period, halibut farmers are looking at that period to get their foot in the door," Williams said.

Halibut farms do not operate on the Pacific Coast of the United States yet and, on the Atlantic, are still in their infancy in Eastern Canada and Norway.

To combat the economic threat of farmed halibut on seafood markets, some fishermen would like the commission to extend the halibut season a month or two, Williams said.

"Our commission has been reluctant to go in that direction because there are significant implications to management and conservation of the resource," he said.

When halibut spawn, they do so in different areas than where they spend their summer feeding.

"Fish found in British Columbia in the summer are off Alaska in the winter, so you end up with a potential interception problem much like we have with salmon," should the halibut catch season be extended, Williams said. Furthermore, catch limits are predicated on summer locations of the species.

Fishermen need not concern themselves that wild halibut are a diminishing stock, Williams said.

"Commercial catch limits are at an all-time high for the last 20 years," he said.

The total allowable halibut catch for Alaska for this season is 61.86 million pounds, said Jeff Passer, special agent in charge with the National Marine Fisheries Service office in Juneau. The allowable catch last season was 58.53 million pounds.

The 2001 catch brought an average price of $2.04 per pound for a total value of $113.4 million, the agency said.

Stan Reddekoff, 65, plans to take his time about motoring out to the fishing grounds. Because he usually catches his limit in three days, Reddekoff is avoiding the historically miserable ocean weather of mid-March. He will wait until mid-April to go out with his friends Ed Duncan and Ben Gross from Petersburg.

"So many guys want to get out there the first rattle out of the box because there is a higher price in the beginning," Reddekoff said. "But I think if the price for fresh fish were the same all season, they'd wait until the weather gets a little better."

Ann Chandonnet can be reached at achandonnet@juneauempire.com.



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