DILLINGHAM — On a hot day in early June, deck boss Christian Villani holds up a small halibut, or "chicken." But he says it's nothing compared to their biggest fish this season, which weighed about 112 pounds.
Andy Straley runs the two-boat fleet. Besides selling halibut at the docks in Dillingham, they also sell directly to distributors, making the last wholesale transaction; currently they have accounts set up with two in Anchorage.
According to Straley, this approach allows small-scale fishermen to improve the quality of their fish without an exorbitant cost to consumers.
"We're the fishermen harvesting the fish, selling the fish at an integrated level," Straley said. "We're going right to the last wholesale. We're not going all the way to the retail. We're trying to do a volume-in at the last wholesale, skipping all
the brokers and all the distributors in between."
Straley and his crew process fish on their boats; one is a licensed Department of Environmental Conservation processing plant. Straley says the direct market approach requires the small fleet to prioritize sanitation and careful
handling of the fish to avoid gaping, bruising and unnecessary exposure to bacteria.
"You're producing a finished food product," he said. "It all starts with the sanitation of the boat, and keeping everything clean. And then not damaging the fish, whether it be halibut or salmon, don't tow on your gear."
This approach is time-consuming. But Straley says that direct marketing could be a way for small fleets to double a season's profits – and not just for halibut.
"I've got friends that direct market out of Dillingham, and they sell their fish for $24 dollars a pound on the East Coast, doing this same thing," Straley said. "I've got friends who run jig machines, and they're doing really well on the other
bottom fish – the sea bass and the yellow eye rockfish, the commonly called red snapper. Because they're direct marketing and they're producing a finished product and they're taking it to Anchorage, which is an additional step,
they're getting $3 a pound instead of 35 cents. So they're able to make substantially more money by selling their fish themselves."
Straley sees direct marketing as a way for halibut fishermen in Bristol Bay to reach a larger market. He says there is more than enough demand, the problem now is supply.
"Currently we have way more market than we have available product, but as we grow, we're going to bring on the guys that are currently our crewmen," he said. "We're going to pick up some of these out-of-date boats that aren't really
good for the general fishery, and rig them for those guys to direct market their halibut and salmon. As long as we can maintain the quality of the product we will continue to grow."
The fleet is expected to fish halibut for at least another week, with some participants likely continuing until the end of June.