The halibut season: More positive news

Times weren't so good when season was run derby-style

Posted: Tuesday, November 30, 2004

The halibut season rounded out its 10-year anniversary this November on a positive note - three solid years of high prices.

"It's been a great year," said Terry Berry, general manager of Hoonah Cold Storage. Prices for his frozen halibut hovered around $3 per pound.

"Prices are more stable now than they've ever been," Berry said.

Alaska fishermen didn't capture such prices 10 years ago when the halibut season was conducted derby-style, glutting the market with poor-quality fish, said Floyd Peterson, a Hoonah hand troller who fishes off his 35-foot catamaran, the Silver Spoon.

On the other hand, many small-scale fishermen like Peterson have sold their shares in the individual fishing quota (IFQ) system, leaving the fishery to consolidation among the larger boats.

Fishermen to file on Internet

JUNEAU EMPIRE

The Pacific Coast halibut fishery is entering the Internet Age.

Going, going, gone are 450 modem-equipped magnetic swipe terminals that have populated seafood processors and harbormaster offices up and down the coast for the past decade.

The terminals - used to file fish landing reports for the Individual Fishing Quota program- are so antiquated that federal managers can no longer order replacement hardware.

On Dec. 31, "we'll turn off the modems and breath a sigh of relief, to be frank," said Jessica Gharrett, of the National Marine Fisheries Service office in Juneau.

Beginning on that date, the National Marine Fisheries Service will require IFQ fishermen and processors to file their landing reports on the Internet. Faxing is an option where the Internet is not available.

"It provides 24-hour (Web) access for the fishermen," said Gharrett. "It relieves us of a lot of routine phone calls."

Peterson is a true believer in the IFQ system instituted 10 years ago. He caught his personal share of 800 pounds of halibut on one sunny day in July, netting about $2,400.

"That's a pretty good day," he said.

For the second year in a row, the 2004 fishing season began about two weeks earlier - a controversial decision by the International Halibut Commission prompted by Pacific coast fishermen's fear of looming competition from halibut farming.

Fish farms have yet to produce halibut for the U.S. market, but fishermen anticipate that when they do, farms could take advantage of the typical four-month period when there is no commercial fishery to establish a solid advantage. A similar phenomenon has already affected salmon fishermen.

Lengthening the halibut commercial season was a first step to address fishermen's market fear and "it may be as far as it goes," said Jessica Gharrett, of the National Marine Fisheries Service regional office in Juneau.

This year, Southeast Alaska's catch limit was 10.5 million pounds, an increase from the region's 8.5 million-pound limit in 2003 and 2002. Overall, Alaska's catch limit was 61 million pounds, British Columbia's limit was 13.8 (including sport-caught fish) and Washington, Oregon and California had a combined limit of 1.5 million pounds.

This year, Pacific Coast fishermen caught 97 percent of the halibut catch limit, as they did in 2003.



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