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Prices for commercial halibut shares reach jaw-dropping level

As Alaska's iconic halibut fishery wraps up this week, stakeholders are holding their breath to learn if the catch limit might ratchet up slightly once again in 2017. Meanwhile, prices for hard-to-get shares of the halibut catch are jaw-dropping.

The halibut fishery ends Monday for nearly 2,000 longliners who hold halibut IFQs (Individual Fishing Quotas). The Alaska fishery will produce a catch of more than 20 million pounds if the fleet reaches its limit. Last year, the halibut haul was worth nearly $110 million at the Alaska docks.

For the first time in several decades, the coast-wide Pacific halibut harvest numbers increased this year by 2.3 percent to nearly 30 million pounds. Along with Alaska, the eight-month fishery includes the Pacific Coast states and British Columbia.

Halibut populations may be stabilizing and recovering after a long decline that has upped the ante for catch shares. The fact that the dock price again hovered in the $6- to $7-a-pound range all season has fanned interest. That's particularly true in Southeast Alaska.

"Fishermen say they're seeing some of the best fishing they've ever seen in their lives there, bigger fish, better production and you see that reflected in IFQ prices," said Doug Bowen of Alaska Boats and Permits in Homer.

Quota shares are sold in various categories and the asking price for prime Southeast shares has reached $70 per pound.

An average quota share is for 5,000 pounds, making the sale price $350,000.

IFQ asking prices for shares in the Central Gulf, Alaska's largest halibut fishing hole, also have increased to $60 a pound, according to several broker listings. But the buying there is not as aggressive as in the Panhandle.

"They took a 5 percent cut — the only area in the entire coast that didn't stay the same or have an increase," Bowen said. "There is still quite a bit of concern about the resource there."

Halibut shares in the western Gulf of Alaska sold for a record $48 a pound, Bowen said. Shares in regions of the Bering Sea were listed mostly in the mid-$20 range.

Keith Pearson, left, pushes a halibut as the Auction Block Company crew offloads fish from a boat, Aug. 9, 2016. The fish are sorted by size, iced and boxed for moving. (Anne Raup / Alaska Dispatch News)

The halibut fishery falls under the stewardship of the International Pacific Halibut Commission, which has set the annual coast-wide catch limits based on surveys since 1923. Stakeholders will get a first glimpse of recommended catches at an upcoming IPHC meeting Nov. 29-30 in Seattle.

On a related note: Linda Behnken of Sitka has received a presidential appointment as a commissioner to the International Pacific Halibut Commission. Behnken has been a commercial fisherman for more than 30 years, and since 1991 has been executive director of the Alaska Longline Fisherman's Association.

 

A fishy expo

For 50 years, the Pacific Marine Expo has been the most popular West Coast trade show for anyone who makes his or her living on the water. It's even bigger this year.

"We are going to be 522 companies strong and 90 of them are brand new to the show," said Denielle Christensen, the expo director. "It just continues to grow."

New to the show floor are 11 safety workshops, a job fair and a fishermen's lounge.

Seminars include selling your own catch, emergency crew duties, marine connectivity, salmon habitat and the importance of bait. The event also features National Fisherman magazine's popular fishermen of the year competition and Highliner awards.

It runs Nov. 17-19 at the Century Link Field in Seattle.

 

Monitoring cod caught in pots

Boats that catch cod with big pots are getting closer to making electronic monitoring a reality. That's due to a steadfast push for three years by the Homer-based North Pacific Fisheries Association (NPFA) and Saltwater, Inc. of Anchorage, a leader in data collection since 1988. The monitoring systems can replace or augment onboard observer coverage that can cost boat owners $400 a day.

Armed with funding by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, the partnership proved that pot cod is a fishery that fits the bill because of the way the fish is brought on board.

 

The effort to determine whether video cameras aimed at the catch could be cost-effective and clearly show what's coming aboard began in 2013.

"From 2013-2015 we had up to five boats and 13,000 pot hauls," said Nancy Munro, Saltwater founder and president. "Saltwater data reviewers were able to identify 99.6 percent of the more than 55,000 catch items to a species or a species group level. It was like, wow, this works. That really caught the managers' attention."

To get required weights of both catch and discards, the fishermen devised measuring grids on their sorting tables and Saltwater created a digital ruler that snaps nose-to-tail images of the fish, along with software that calibrates each to length and weight.

On the basis of that work, federal managers gave the go-ahead for the pot cod fleet to begin EM pre-implementation starting Jan. 1.

Boats are needed to test out electronic monitoring systems. All costs will be covered by the grant money. Questions? Contact Saltwater, Inc. or the foundation.

 

Awards up to $3,000

American Seafoods Co. is again offering grants totaling $38,000 for community projects that address hunger relief, safety, housing, research, natural resources and cultural activities. The majority of awards range from $500 to $3,000 per organization. The deadline to submit applications is Nov. 16. The awards will be announced by a community advisory board on Dec. 1.

Contact Kim Lynch at kim.lynch@americanseafoods.com or 206-256-2659.

Laine Welch is a Kodiak-based commercial fishing columnist. Contact her at msfish@alaskan.com

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