Pacific halibut catches for 2018 won't decline as severely as initially feared, but the fishery faces headwinds from several directions.
Federal fishery managers announced just a few days before the March 24 start of the halibut opener that commercial catches for Alaska will be down 10 percent for a total of 17.5 million pounds.
The industry was on tenterhooks awaiting the catch information, which typically is announced by the International Pacific Halibut Commission in late January. However, representatives from the U.S. and Canada could not agree on how to apportion the halibut catches in fishing regions that stretch from the West Coast and British Columbia to the Bering Sea.
"The Canadians felt there was justification in the survey and commercial fishery data that, in concert with a long-held position that the IPHC's apportionment scheme was not accurate, supported a higher catch limit. They were also opposed to the slow pace the U.S. has taken in reducing its bycatch of halibut in the Bering Sea," said Peggy Parker of Seafoodnews.com.
The impasse put the decision in the laps of federal managers at NOAA Fisheries in Washington, D.C., who were pushed to the wire to get the halibut catch limits and regulations on the rule books in time for the fishery start.
Adding to the halibut drama are reports of hefty holdovers of fish in freezers, and competition again from Atlantic halibut from eastern Canada.
Prices for Alaska halibut are typically very high for the season's first deliveries and then decrease after a few weeks. Last year they started out topping $7 per pound to fishermen at major ports. Prices remained in the $5-$6 range for the duration of the eight-month fishery, prompting a push-back from buyers who complained of "price fatigue" and switched their sourcing to less-expensive Atlantic fish.
How that scenario plays out this year remains to be seen, but the combination of fish inventories and availability from elsewhere will likely provide a downward push on Alaska halibut prices.
Here is a breakdown of Alaska commercial halibut catches in millions of pounds by region:
Area 2C/Southeast: 3.57m, down 15.2 percent
Area 3A/Central Gulf: 7.35m, down 5 percent
Area 3B/Western Gulf: 2.62m, down 16.6 percent
Area 4B/Aleutian Islands: 1.05m, down 7.9 percent
Area 4CDE/Bering Sea: 1.58m, down 7.1 percent
Seafood is Alaska's largest export by far, usually totaling more than $3 billion annually. Of that, $300 million is exported to over 100 countries, with China being the top customer.
It's too soon to tell how Trump's nearly $60 billion in tariffs with China will affect Alaska's seafood sales, but it will likely result in some backlash. Tariffs are taxes on imports that make them more expensive to consumers.
"In general, access to international markets is a huge deal for Alaska and anything that restricts trade is generally a negative for the seafood industry," said Garrett Evridge, a seafood analyst for the McDowell Group. "Often when the U.S goes down this road, other countries will reciprocate with the same industry. If China reciprocates with tariffs, that will raise the cost of all seafood products in those markets."
Evridge pointed to Trump's pull-out last year of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which would have been the world's largest trade agreement, with 11 countries covering 40 percent of the global economy.
Alaska seafood was set to net a big benefit from the TPP with lowered or zeroed out tariffs on seafood.
Currently, the tariffs across the partnership countries range from 3.5 to 11 percent.
For Alaska pollock roe and surimi, for example, 4.2 percent tariffs going into Japan would have immediately gone to zero, said Ron Rogness of American Seafoods Company.
Tariffs on Alaska sockeye salmon — now at 3.5 percent — also would have been zeroed out. For other salmon species, the import tax would have been gradually reduced and eventually eliminated.
The tariffs on king and snow crab, herring roe and frozen cod also would have ended immediately upon TPP passage.
In another trade imbalance, the U.S. continues to import millions of dollars in seafood from Russia, even though that country placed a continuing embargo on purchasing seafood and other goods from the U.S. in 2013. Russian purchases of Alaska seafood totaled at least 20 million pounds of mostly pink salmon roe and pollock surimi annually, valued at $60 million, according to the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute.
Through June of 2017, the U.S imported 36 million pounds of seafood from Russia valued at nearly $267 million.
According to NOAA Fisheries trade data, so far this year imports to the U.S. from Russia total nearly 4.2 million pounds valued at more than $23.5 million.
That includes 185,000 pounds of frozen sockeye salmon valued at nearly $700,000; over 375,000 pounds of red king crab valued at more than $6.6 million and nearly 1.3 million pounds of snow crab worth $4.3 million.
Interestingly, the data show the U.S. imported 142,000 pounds of "Alaska" pollock fillets, valued at more than $87,000.
Salmon ballot initiative
Last week nearly 42,000 signatures were verified by the state Division of Elections from all 40 Alaska voting districts to put the "Yes for Salmon" question before Alaska voters, surpassing the minimum number of signatures required in every district.
The ballot initiative aims to require state agencies to update Alaska's salmon habitat protection laws for the first time since statehood in 1959.
But the measure has some hurdles to cross before it goes to the voters.
First, an April 26 hearing before the Alaska Supreme Court will decide if the initiative is constitutional.
"We are extremely confident that the court is going to side with us and move this to a vote of the people," said Ryan Schryver, director of the Stand for Salmon campaign.
Opponents to updating the habitat laws — Stand for Alaska is the name of one — claim the laws are sufficient as they stand.
A legislative fix (HB 199, the Wild Salmon Legacy Act) also is before Alaska lawmakers.
"We are not putting all our eggs in the legislative basket," Schryver said. "Juneau has not proven to be an effective place for policy change to happen so we are going to continue to pursue the ballot initiative option."
If it passes the court, and if the Legislature ends its session on time, the issue could be decided by the August primary.
By law, 120 days must pass between a session adjournment and the ballot box. If the session is extended by one week or more, it will move the vote to the November general election.