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Laine Welch: Prices up for halibut, black cod

Laine Welch

The basic laws of supply and demand are resulting in a nice payday for Alaska halibut and sablefish harvesters. Prices for both fish are up by more than a dollar a pound compared with the same time last year.

Fresh halibut has been moving smoothly and demand has been steady since the fishery opened in early March. That's according to a major buyer in Kodiak, where dock prices were reported at $6 a pound for 10- to 20-pounders, $6.25 for halibut weighing 20 to 40 pounds and $6.50 for "40 ups."

At Homer and in Southeast Alaska, halibut prices have yet to drop below six bucks a pound, local processors said. Dock prices in Homer last week ranged from $6.50 to $7 per pound "for very small loads."

In Southeast, halibut prices were $6.60/$6.40 /$6.10 per pound after reaching a high of $6.75 at Easter. Processors report "strong halibut catches and lots of nice fish." The fresh fish is being flown out almost daily from Southeast and distributed in small lots to markets all over the U.S. Alaska's total halibut catch this year is close to 16 million pounds.

The higher halibut prices are likely due to the slower pace of the fishery and less fish crossing the docks. Just over 3.5 million pounds had been landed statewide by May 2 out of a nearly 19 million pound catch limit. Top ports for halibut landings were Seward, Homer, Petersburg and Kodiak.

For sablefish, commonly called black cod, longliners are benefitting from "bare cupboards" and strong demand by buyers in Japan, where the bulk of Alaska's catch goes. Last year, holdovers in freezers pushed prices down 40 percent, to the $5 to $3 per pound range, depending on fish size.

Black cod is usually priced in five weights ranging from under 3 pounds to over 7 pounds. At Kodiak, the breakout was $6.75/$5.75/$5/$4.50 and $4. Sablefish prices at Homer were running between $4 and $7 a pound. Southeast processors reported prices at $5.30 to $7 a pound at the docks. Alaska's sablefish catch this year is about 24 million pounds. Most deliveries are going to Seward, followed by Kodiak and Homer.

Snails on acid

Argue all you want about climate change -- even a Toys R Us chemistry set will prove that the oceans are more acidic. Now a federal study has revealed its first findings on how corrosive oceans are affecting sea life -- and it points to big trouble for pink salmon.

NOAA announced recently the first evidence showing the high acid content in the Pacific Ocean is dissolving the shells of tiny free-swimming snails called pteropods. The tiny snails make up 45 percent of the diet of pink salmon; they also are a food source for herring and mackerel.

Researchers at NOAA's Pacific Marine Environmental Lab in Seattle said the percentage of pteropods with corroded shells has doubled in near shore areas since the pre-industrial era. Study co-author William Peterson said scientists did not expect to see pteropods affected to this extent for several decades. The number of snails with dissolving shells is likely to triple by 2050, he said, when waters close to shore are projected to be 70 percent more corrosive.

The problem stems from carbon dioxide being released into the air by human industry, which is absorbed by the ocean and becomes carbolic acid. When you combine the corrosion with increasing ocean temperatures, the entire marine mix is affected.

"With a 10 percent increase in water temperature, which is what most people fear in terms of climate change, there would be about a 3 percent drop in mature salmon body weight," said Bob Foy, director of the NOAA lab at Kodiak. "On the other hand, a 10 percent drop in pteropod production would lead to about a 20 percent drop in body weight. Obviously, the system is fairly dynamic, but the loss of pteropod population would be extremely detrimental to pink salmon."

Pinks make up Alaska's largest salmon fishery by volume and are second only to sockeyes in value. Last year's pink salmon catch was a record 219 million fish valued at $277 million at the docks.

Laine Welch is a Kodiak-based fisheries journalist. Contact her at msfish@alaska.com.


Laine Welch
FisheriesBy LAINE WELCH