Attacks hamper halibut market

Processors are freezing more halibut as the demand for 'luxury' food declines

Posted: Tuesday, September 25, 2001

ANCHORAGE The East Coast terrorist attacks have sent cross-continent ripples through the Alaska seafood industry, hurting the halibut fishery in particular.

Fishermen and processors say prices at the dock for the big flatfish have dropped by 15 percent or more, in part because of transportation delays but also because of reduced demand for halibut in restaurants and supermarkets.

"Halibut is a luxury food, an expensive fish," said Brad Faulkner of Alaska Custom Seafoods in Homer, a major halibut buyer. "In any recession or downturn or malaise like you're seeing after the attacks, people draw in their belts and don't buy luxury foods."

Fish packers are still buying fish, but canceled flights and other transportation disruptions since the attacks prompted more freezing of halibut as sales of fresh fish dried up. Fishermen get less money for halibut that goes into freezers because it is sold to markets and wholesales for less than fresh.

The Alaska halibut season runs from mid-March to mid-November. So far the fleet has caught 80 percent of the 62 million pounds allowed. Before the attacks, fishermen were getting up to $2.40 a pound for the biggest, most valuable halibut. Last week, Faulkner said the top price was $2.

Now fishermen such as Jon Kinsey and his stepson Travis Goodrich are in a bind. They still have about two-thirds of their annual quota to catch before the season ends. Weather soon will deteriorate, reducing fishing time. Normally it's a pretty good gamble for a fisherman to wait until the end of the season to catch fish, as prices often go up then.

But who could have anticipated a terrorist attack tightening wallets nationwide?

"People just aren't as anxious to buy an expensive fish now," said Kinsey, who fishes off a 53-foot sailboat called the Inua.

"This late in the season you don't have much choice but to keep grinding," Goodrich added. "We're definitely going to take a hit on price."

The good news is that much Alaska halibut reaches the Lower 48 by truck through Canada. Also, the attacks came after the bulk of the summer salmon seasons were done. And Alaska is generally between major crab seasons.

"A month earlier and the ripple effect would have been far more severe," said Dave Beach, owner of Movers Inc. The Anchorage-based company specializes in getting Alaska seafood on planes and to market fast, moving millions of pounds annually.

After the Sept. 11 hijackings, Beach said, "we went through a week of dead stop." No planes were flying, and 40,000 pounds of fresh seafood, mostly halibut, was

stranded in cities such as Seattle, Salt Lake City, Denver and Cincinnati.

In some cases, the fish was resold to local buyers in those cities, Beach said. In others, the intended customers drove hundreds of miles to pick up their goods. Some was trucked back to Seattle and put into freezers.

"Nothing out and out spoiled that I'm aware of," Beach said.

Faulkner added, "Wherever those fish landed, we gave them a hell of a deal."

Last week, Faulkner shipped some halibut to the famous Fulton Fish Market in New York City, which was moved to the Bronx from its normal location near where the World Trade Center towers used to stand. Faulkner said the shipment was only about 20 percent of normal.

Beach said a week of inactivity would hammer his business, but he hopes to stave off rate increases.

"That would be an act of last resort," he said. "We're going to try to run as efficiently as we can through the end of the year and see if we can't make it on the current rate structure."

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