Story last updated at 4:47 p.m. Thursday, October 17, 2002

Halibut earning fishermen premium prices
Sepp Jannotta
THE HALIBUT MARKET has hit record highs as the 2002 season enters its home stretch. Fishermen are reportedly getting an unprecedented $3.10-$3.12 a pound for their catch. The reason for the strong prices can be attributed to halibut's prestige in the U.S. fresh and frozen markets as well as to the unfortunate events of last fall, when the Sept. 11 attacks and a soft economy seriously eroded prices. Boats that had held onto a larger share of their quotas for fall fishing ended up getting hit hard. "Last fall, after Sept. 11, everybody that had waited got hurt," said longliner William Hankins. "The prices were horrible." Buyers were losing out on much of the typical restaurant business that fuels the fresh market, said fish buyer Eric Olson. "It hurt a little bit, of course, and we were all real nervous," Olson said. "But it all worked out OK. The restaurants weren't selling much, but the grocery stores were selling a bunch of fish because the prices were so low people could afford buying halibut."

MANY HOMER FISHERMEN apparently took the lesson of last fall's dismal prices to heart because this spring, as the Pacific halibut season opened with prices in the neighborhood of $2.50 a pound, the Homer fleet hit the Gulf of Alaska hard. The season started so fast and the weather was so favorable that soon the docks were awash in flatfish and prices had tumbled below $2 a pound by the time fishermen began to focus on the salmon season. "That's the fastest start to the season in any year since IFQs started," Hankins said. But by the time salmon season geared down and the longlining fleet began to turn back toward halibut, prices had rebounded substantially. Olson said fishermen were getting $3 a pound by the first of September. It's a simple matter of supply and demand, he said. With the bulk of the Alaska fleet's 59 million pounds of Halibut already accounted for by summer solstice, the fish buyers were having trouble meeting the demands of their Lower 48 distributors. For the fishermen, the record prices have meant an unexpected boon, especially for those fishermen who for one reason or another kept a larger portion of their quota for the fall. Hankins said he had caught approximately 120,000 of his 200,000 pounds early. "Did I know this spring it was going to happen? No," Hankins said of the record prices. "Would I have held onto more fish? Yes. I think everybody would have done that." No matter who caught what and when, the fishery is nearing a close, with only 3.7 million fish, about five percent of the total, remaining for Alaska fishermen. Hankins said he made his final delivery earlier this month. "It was a nice cap for the year," Hankins said.

THE QUESTION on a lot of minds is whether the precedent of $3-plus prices will hold true for next season. Hankins said he thought there would be some overlap from this year's strong finish. "People have shown what they are willing to pay for halibut," he said. "I think that's always a good sign." Olson said he's not so sure, saying he thought that the current price was too high. Some of the outcome will likely depend on whether the nation's economy continues to recover from its recession. Another big factor will be what action the International Pacific Halibut Commission decides to take with catch quotas. Olson said he'd been hearing murmurs about a catch reduction.

RED KING CRAB is the first target of Western Alaska crabbers each fall, and as has been case in recent years the guideline harvest level is low enough that the fleet will probably wrap up the fishery within three or four days. There are 242 vessels registered for the Bristol Bay red king fishery, which kicked off at noon on Tuesday. The state Department of Fish and Game has set the GHL at 8.6 million pounds. Last year's quota had been 6.6 million pounds and the fleet was done fishing in about three days, the shortest season in the history of the fishery. The 2001 harvest, which exceeded the GHL by a million pounds, was still one of the smallest on record.

TAKU FISHERIES, a Juneau fish processor, was forced to wait last week for 100,000 pounds of frozen black cod stranded in Seattle to be shipped to Asia, according to a report by the Juneau Empire. The holdup was a result of the labor dispute that led to a lockout of longshoremen at 29 West Coast ports. "We don't have a perishability issue, but it is quite a nuisance and it could be more than a nuisance shortly," Eric Norman, general manager at Taku Fisheries, told the Empire. Relations between the West Coast International Longshore & Warehouse Union and the Pacific Maritime Association, which represents the shipping companies, have been tense for months, over worker benefits and the implementation of computer technology which dock workers say could cost jobs. On Sept. 27, Pacific Maritime and terminal operators locked out members of the longshoremen's union, saying they had been engaging in a work slow-down. The union agreed to a 30-day contract extension and was ready to return to work last Wednesday. But the shipping lines did not accept the federally brokered deal. Finally President Bush intervened to end the lockout, ordering the Justice Department to issue an injunction ending the lockout.

LUCKILY for Taku Fisheries, the black cod season is mostly over, and the crab season is a few weeks away, Norman said. The cod is frozen, so it can wait to get to market, he said. Unlike the Southcentral cities, most of the Juneau retail goods, including perishable foods, come twice a week by barges owned by Alaska Marine Services and Northland Services, two companies that do not employ union members. Representatives of Safeway, Alaskan & Proud market and Superbear told the Empire that they have seen no effects on grocery shipments.