Business/Economy

Alaska commercial halibut fishermen get big boost in catch limit

More Pacific halibut will be going to market this year due to an overall boost in harvests for the West Coast, British Columbia and Alaska. The coast-wide limit of 31.4 million pounds reflects a 5.1 percent increase and, for the first time in decades, not a single fishing region faces a decline its allowable catch.

The heartening news was released Friday by the International Pacific Halibut Commission, overseer of the stocks since 1923.

Halibut catch limits are determined by summer surveys at more than 1,200 stations from Oregon to the Aleutians. In 2016, the results showed the stock had remained stable over a span of three years, although the fish remained small for their ages.

Alaska always gets the lion's share of the Pacific halibut catch and a take of 22.62 million pounds this year adds up to an extra million pounds for longliners who hold quota shares of the fish.

The good news has been dampened somewhat by a potential delay to the March 11 start of the fishery due to a bureaucratic freeze by our new president.

On Jan. 20, Donald Trump issued a memo to all federal departments and agencies to freeze new or pending regulations until his administration has time to review them.

That includes rules for running the federally managed Pacific halibut fishery.

Also potentially stalled is the use of pots to catch sablefish, or black cod, in the Gulf of Alaska. That gear was OK'd starting this year by federal advisers to prevent sperm whales from snatching the fish from hooks.

"The National Marine Fisheries Service is working to determine the impacts of the executive order on our Alaska region rule-making actions," said Rachel Baker, with NOAA's fisheries management in Juneau.

Here are the 2017 halibut catch limits for Alaska, provided by the Halibut Coalition:

Southeast Alaska: 5.25 million pounds, a 6.1 percent increase;

Central Gulf of Alaska: 10 million pounds, a 4.2 percent increase and a reversal from last year when limit was cut 5 percent;

Western Gulf: 3.14 million pounds, a 15.9 percent increase;

Aleutians: Flat at 1.39 million pounds;

Bering Sea: 1.70 million pounds, a 2.4 percent increase.

Salmon squeeze

A rising tide lifts all boats and a global shortage of farmed salmon is increasing fish prices across the board.

"We're looking at several years of either lower or constrained supply growth for farmed salmon. That is important because farmed salmon production has typically grown around 5 percent a year over the last 20 years," said Andy Wink, senior seafood analyst with the McDowell Group.

The farmed salmon shortfall stems from a double whammy. Tens of millions of fish have been lost in Chile due to an ongoing virus caused by toxic algae in warming oceans. At the same time, sea lice are ravaging fish farms in Norway with increasing frequency and intensity. Norway is the world's biggest farmed salmon producer, with 33 percent of the global production, just above Chile's 31 percent. Last year, Norway's exports fell by 5 percent.

Sea lice are the farmed Atlantic salmon industry's most expensive problem, costing around $550 million in lost output each year. Fish farmers also are coming under increasing criticism for the thousands of tons of antibiotics and/or pesticides they use to control the outbreaks of disease and parasites in the cramped salmon net pens.

The farmed salmon shortfall has pushed prices to record highs. Twice last year, spot prices of Norwegian fish for export approached $21 per pound, according to the Nasdaq Salmon Index.

Limited supplies of wild salmon also continued to strengthen prices. Tradex Foods reports 4- to 6-pound sockeye salmon are holding steady in the $3.60-$3.75 per pound range.

And despite the abundance of salmon fillets, wild sockeyes continue to move steadily at $6.75 to $7 per pound at retail counters, "largely influenced by the lack of chum and pink salmon in the market," Tradex said.

"Expectations across the board for 2017 wild salmon pricing right now seem strong," it added.

Fishing facts

United Fishermen of Alaska has released its latest popular Fishing Facts highlighting the seafood industry's economic importance to each fishing town or region in Alaska as well as West Coast states. UFA is the nation's largest commercial fishing trade organization, representing 33 diverse groups ranging from small skiff operators to big at-sea processing and crab boats. Find the fact sheets at www.ufafish.org.

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

Laine Welch | Fish Factor

Laine Welch is a Kodiak-based journalist who writes a weekly column, Fish Factor, that appears in newspapers and websites around Alaska and nationally. Contact her at msfish@alaskan.com.

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