Laine Welch: Limits, observers among reasons for quiet halibut start

Laine Welch

It was unusually quiet along the waterfront as the 2013 halibut fishery got under way last Saturday.

Most of the first fish landed go to Homer, Kodiak and Petersburg, and processors there said there wasn't the usual chatter.

Catch limits have been slashed again this year, the fleet is unhappy about having onboard observers for the first time, and processors are not getting much interest from buyers. The term heard a lot is "halibut fatigue."

High prices for halibut have shrunk processors' margins.

Last year's prices started out at near $6 a pound for larger fish in Homer and Kodiak, and at $7 a pound in Southeast. Within a few weeks prices dropped by 70 cents or more and then held fairly stable all season.

Alaska's share of the halibut catch this year is 23 million pounds, down 2.5 million pounds from last year. Every region except for Southeast is again dealing with big cuts, and the outlook for at least the near future is bleak. Meanwhile, the price to buy quota shares of halibut has reached $40 a pound in prime Alaska fishing regions.

Hatcheries boost harvests

Home-grown salmon are Alaska's largest crop -- but don't ever refer to it as farming. Whereas farmed fish are crammed into closed net pens until they're ready for market, Alaska salmon begin their lives in one of 35 hatcheries and are released as fingerlings to the sea. When the fish return home, they make up a huge part of Alaska's total salmon catch.

The state's annual Fisheries Enhancement report shows that last year's catches of 44 million hatchery fish were valued at $149 million at the docks, or 28 percent of the total value of the Alaska salmon fishery. That's down from 37 percent of the value in 2011 due to the lowest returns in a decade.

Statewide last year, hatchery fish made up 67 percent of the chum catch, 36 percent for pinks, 19 percent for coho salmon, 17 percent of the chinook and 6 percent of all sockeye salmon.

Prince William Sound has the most hatchery activity, accounting for 80 percent of the region's total catch last year, of which 88 percent were chums and 84 percent were pinks. Forty-four percent of the Sound's sockeye catch were from hatcheries and 5 percent of the cohos. In all, those fish were valued at $71 million, 63 percent of the Sound's salmon value.

Southeast, where 27 percent of the salmon catch is from hatcheries, ranks second for hatchery fish. Eighty-four percent of the fish were chums, 27 percent were coho, 21 percent were chinook, 12 percent were sockeyes and 1 percent were pinks. The overall value of hatchery fish was $72 million, or 42 percent of the Panhandle's value.

In Kodiak, hatchery fish made up 12.5 percent of the total salmon catch -- 25 percent of the chums, 22 percent of the coho catch, 14 percent of the sockeye salmon and 12 percent of the pinks. Hatchery fish contributed $6 million, or 13 percent of Kodiak's landed salmon value.

At Cook Inlet, just 1 percent of the sockeye catch is hatchery raised.

There are no commercial salmon hatcheries further west except for one sport fish program located in Fairbanks.

This year, more than 65 million hatchery produced fish are projected to return to Alaska.

Find a link to the Fisheries Enhancement report, halibut catches and other information at

Seasonal workers

It's tough to handle millions of pounds of seafood when an Alaska fishing town has a population of around 2,000 people. But seafood processing workers will be in short supply again this summer since the J1 Visa program was crimped two year ago.

That program was intended to bring foreign students to the U.S. as a cultural exchange program. Instead, it became a way for businesses across the country to bring in temporary workers. After widespread complaints in other states, the U.S. State Department banned the program's use in seasonal processing plants and other factory jobs. Alaska U.S. Sen. Mark Begich has introduced a bill called H2O that would let workers come to Alaska during peak fishing seasons.

"The good news is that I believe immigration reform is going to happen this year, so we now have a potential vehicle that we can insert this legislation," Begich said in a phone interview.

He stressed that the first priority would be given to local job seekers.

Laine Welch is a Kodiak-based fisheries journalist. Her Fish Radio programs can be heard on stations around the state.

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