Homer Alaska - Seawatch

Story last updated at 10:29 PM on Wednesday, May 4, 2011

High price for halibut meets with resistance

With the halibut season 20 percent over, fishermen in area 3A, the central Gulf of Alaska, have landed over a quarter of their quota, and prices are still going strong, partly because the fish have been coming in sporadically, according to Kevin Hogan, owner of the Auction Block in Homer.

This week buyers have paid $6.95 per pound straight, no size splits. Last week some fish more than 40 pounds went for $7.25 per pound.

Some buyers in Dutch Harbor have been paying $6 per pound straight, which Hogan called "phenomenal."

"It's a little scary," he said, "because we might be pricing ourselves out of a market."

Hogan acknowledged people were saying that last year when halibut sold for around $5 to $5.50 per pound.

However, there has been some resistance to the high prices.

"The buyers are meeting resistance from their customers, and there have been some buyers that have walked away from the market," Hogan said. "There's enough to keep it up and going, but I would say that about a third of the people we would normally count as being active have just folded their tents and said 'we're not playing.'"

Retail markets are seeing some push-back on the price, according to Dannon Southall at 10th and M Seafoods in Anchorage. He has halibut fillets for sale at $19.95 per pound, which has affected sales.

"(Sales are) not as good as in the past," he said. "There definitely is a fair amount of resistance to it. It's tough paying $20 per pound for it."

Southall said the situation is hard for everyone.

"They're taking away from the fishermen's quota, the fishermen are having to pay ($5 per gallon) for gas. People are getting to the point where they're saying 'whoa, this is way too much money.'"

Southall said that he's pretty sure the price is at the limit of what people will pay.

"We're still selling some, but not like we were at $14 or even $16 per pound."

The high price for halibut is driving the sales for less expensive fish such as Pacific cod.

"The focus on other groundfish has definitely increased," he said. "Especially the cod because it's a cheaper costing fish but you're not giving up anything in quality."

Southall said that even some of the more expensive species such as rockfish are seeing increased sales, which at $8.95 per pound in his retail store is still $11 per pound below halibut.

Hogan and Southall agreed that the drop in the quota was at least partly the reason for the high prices. Statewide the quota is down 25 percent, from 40.3 million pounds in 2010 to 30.4 million pounds this year. Area 3A is down 28 percent, from 20 million pounds in 2010 to 14.4 million pounds this year.

"A 28 percent cut in the quota is pretty significant," Hogan said.

He also noted that the 28 percent cut is hard on more than just the fishermen. Buyers and processors also feel the pain with the decreased volume.

"We've got the same expenses with less product," he said. "We're hurting for sure. If they had shortened the season up it would have helped, but they didn't."

NOAA, the Oregon Sea Grant program, and the University of Oregon have teamed up to publish a "Tsunami Awareness" pamphlet to help fishermen and other boat owners decide what to do in the case of a tsunami warning. While it is generally targeted at boaters on the West Coast, it has useful information for Alaskan fishermen.

The pamphlet points out that the key to knowing what to do in the case of such a warning is knowing what kind of earthquake generated the warning, whether it was distant quake or a large local quake.

How far away the earthquake occurred is important in determining how long it will be before a potential tsunami. Tsunamis travel at around 400 miles per hour.

In the case of a distant earthquake, the pamphlet says that if you are at sea when the warning is announced, you should head for water 50 fathoms or deeper, and monitor your radios for specific instructions from port authorities or the Coast Guard. Consider that you will be at sea for an extended period of time. Tsunamis of varying size continue for up to 12 hours.

If you are in port, your choices are to haul-out and leave, leave your boat moored and evacuate the inundation zone, anchor upriver, or head out to sea. The four factors in your decision should be the length of time before the tsunamis strike, local ocean and river characteristics, car and boat traffic, and the speed at which your vessel can travel.

In the case of a local earthquake, which will give a short amount of reaction time, already being at sea may give you the best chance. Head for deeper water, and be prepared to be out at sea for at least 12 hours.

If you are aboard your boat in port, it states that most ports are in areas with fill material and soil types that make the local impact worse. The Big One will be devastating. You need to duck, cover, and hold on until it ends. After the shaking, you will have 15 to 25 minutes to get to a site (at least) 50 feet above sea level. Do not return to or travel through the inundation zone for 12 hours. If you are just under way or in the bay, you may not have time to get to 50 fathoms at sea. Your choice is to run aground and get to high land, or speed upriver (not a choice in most Alaskan ports).

There are some other worthwhile tips in the brochure. You can find it at www.pacificfishing.com/Resources/TsunamiAwareness_031611.pdf.

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