Halibut opening a wild ride

Prices on rollercoaster after high demand, dismal weather leads to all-time highs

Posted: Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Commercial fishermen and local processors report a rocky start to the halibut season, with prices for fresh fish soaring to all-time highs, then softening under pricing resistance.

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Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Michael Penn / Juneau Empire

Pent-up demand and bad weather conspired to push prices up when the commercial fishing season started the first week of March.

Fresh halibut sold for more than $6 a pound at some docks in the Homer area and fetched just less than $6 in Juneau - some of the highest prices ever seen in Alaska, fishermen and processors said.

Demand proved higher this year because there was no frozen halibut left from last year's catch, and horrific weather the first five days of the season kept many fishermen idle.

"Boats couldn't get to the dock. The weather was so bad and everyone was screaming for fish," said commercial fisherman Jason Kohlhase, who was fishing for crab on his 56-foot Morgan Ann the first few weeks of the season but is switching to longline gear soon.

Kohlhase described early March conditions as "brutal." Other fishermen reported 35-foot seas.

The weather improved by the second week, and more fish came in - about 1 million pounds, one processor estimated - and the per-pound price dropped to the mid-$4 range in Juneau.

Some Alaska ports are off $2 per pound from where they were two to three weeks ago.

More than supply, the price this year adjusted quickly when wholesalers and other middlemen had to freeze fish after paying top dollar at the docks. Six dollars paid to fishermen means at least $20 a pound at the market in the lower 48 states.

"To the average Joe or Jane, that's some spendy stuff so you're kinda pricing yourself right out of the marketplace," Alaska Glacier Seafoods Plant Facilitator Peter Hochstoeger said.

Taku Fisheries General Manager Eric Norman said supply and demand hasn't meshed well so far this season, causing extreme pricing fluctuations.

Alaska Glacier Seafoods and Taku Fisheries buy from fishermen, process the fish in town and ship it out on Alaska Airlines or the state ferry system to wholesalers. Some also is frozen.

Halibut prices typically start high but stabilize as the season ramps up, Norman said, and the industry is still finding its "happy medium" price for this year.

The season lasts more than eight months, through the middle of November.

The opening price also was likely affected by another drop in the amount of fish the commercial fleet is allowed to catch.

Southeast fishermen have seen about a 60-percent reduction in their quota over the past five years, but prices have not kept up.

Southeast has a smaller halibut fishery, at about 4.5 million pounds, compared to 22 million in the Gulf of Alaska. But quota could still influence pricing, fishermen and processors said.

Kohlhase called it simple economics. Demand literally ate up all the fish caught last season, and there will be even less this year.

"It's going to drive the prices up a little bit," he said.

Black cod, another bottom fish caught by the longline fleet, also is fetching all-time high prices this year, at about $6 a pound - a dollar a pound higher than last year.

Unlike halibut, black cod prices have not softened. The primary market for black cod is in Japan, where it's bought already frozen, but its popularity is growing in the lower 48 states.

Black cod fishing quotas have dropped while demand is up, adding price pressure, Norman said.

• Contact reporter Kim Marquis at 523-2279 or kim.marquis@juneauempire.com.

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