Homer Alaska - Seawatch

Story last updated at 9:54 PM on Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Halibut season starts with record prices


Snug Harbor Seafoods workers sort halibut offloaded from the F/V Voyager Monday. The 2011 halibut season opened last Saturday at noon.

Halibut season began last weekend under clear skies and small tides in the central Gulf of Alaska, allowing for a healthy number of deliveries for record-setting prices by Monday.

There were 25 offloads scheduled for Monday in the central gulf, for a total of 324,000 pounds, and six deliveries scheduled in Southeast Alaska for a total of 38,000 pounds. There were no landings scheduled for Western Alaska.

Dock prices Monday were reported to be between $6.75 and $7.25 per pound.

That surpasses last season's record-breaking opening price of $5.95-$6.25 per pound. Although that was a record at the time, the in-season price rose higher than $6.50 per pound on occasion.

Managers have opened the season on a Saturday for the past two seasons to facilitate marketing, hoping to have fresh flatfish hitting the dock on Monday when local buyers can contact their markets in the Lower 48.

That did not work out so well last season, when gale and storm warnings, heavy freezing spray and blizzard warnings covered much of the coast. There was minimal activity in the central gulf and three landings in southeast for 9,100 pounds by that Monday morning.

The season runs through Nov. 18.

State Rep. Alan Austerman, R-Kodiak, has introduced a bill in the Legislature that directs the Alaska Department of Fish and Game to begin collecting data on crew members.

Trying to compile data on crew members is a bit like herding herring, with deckhands from every corner of the world, some fairly skittish of government agencies, many who are transient and all who are self-employed. It has been tried before.

Last year a bill was set to go before the Legislature, but it languished when the United Fishermen's Association expressed concern that the burden of recording the data would fall on the skippers or boat owners, which could become very time consuming for setnetters with multiple sites or boat owners with several boats.

The new bill puts the burden on the crew member, and tasks ADF&G with handing out and collecting the surveys. It also lays out what information should be collected, such as days obligated to the vessel, fishery, and area and gear type fished.

The information is confidential.

There are about 20,000 deckhands employed in Alaska annually, and the state knows virtually nothing about them. Commercial crew member licenses just collect name, address and age, and some licenses get bought and never used. Other crew members try to slide by without purchasing a license, although most skippers require it.

In his sponsor statement, Austerman says, "We cannot determine whether an individual crewmember fished five days or 250 in a given year; whether he or she fished in a single salmon fishery or in seven fisheries across five regions of the state; on a single boat or on 10; or whether he or she fished a single year as an adventure, or is a 25-year veteran of the industry."

Austerman says the data could help state and federal regulators avoid "deleterious impacts" on a large labor force when implementing new regulations.

The overall idea is to provide the state with a picture of the economic impact of such a large workforce, especially on coastal communities. It also may help crew members avoid being left out of future rationalization programs.

The World Wildlife Fund has launched its fifth biennial International Smart Gear competition, aimed at rewarding inventors for finding ways to reduce bycatch.

Leading entries in the competition will be in the running for $57,500 (US) in prizes, including a $30,000 grand prize. The competition will be accepting submissions from March 1 to Aug. 31.

"WWF's goal with the Smart Gear competition is to inspire innovative ideas for environmentally-friendly fishing gear," said Dr. Bill Fox, vice president of fisheries for WWF-US.

"In addition to fishermen losing millions of dollars each year due to bycatch, many other species, including endangered marine life, are unintentionally and needlessly killed by antiquated fishing gear.

"This competition identifies real-world solutions so fishermen can fish 'smarter' — allowing them to maintain a commercially viable business while helping to maintain ocean health."

Since its launch in 2004, the Smart Gear competition has grown more and more competitive with the winning entries gaining traction with many fisheries around the world. Flexi Grids, which won in 2006, are now mandatory in blue whiting fisheries in the Faroe Islands, and are used in an increasing number of countries all over the world.

Alaskan Ace Callaway of Fairbanks designed a device that returns rockfish to the bottom without decompressing and dying, a 2006 entry that is catching on around the West Coast and Alaska. Callaway earned $10,000 in a recent contest from West Marine, a boating equipment supplier, for his design.

Called the BlackTip Catch & Release Recompression Tool, it clamps firmly onto the fish's jaw and is lowered by hand, downrigger or rod and reel. A weight, supplied by the angler, pulls the fish down until the device hits bottom and automatically releases.

Competition guidelines can be found at www.smartgear.org.

Cristy Fry has commercial fished out of Homer and King Cove since 1978. She can be reached at realist468@gmail.com.