September 20, 2012 | Vol. 39, No. 38

Fish Factor

Fish prices slip as operating costs skyrocket

Alaska fishermen are feeling the squeeze of lower prices at the same time that their operating costs continue to spiral upwards.

For halibut, in a reversal of trend and fortune, prices have dropped by 70 cents a pound in recent weeks. Dock prices usually peak from September until the halibut fishery closes in November, but that is not the case this year -- overstocked freezers and resistance from buyers have put a downward press on fish prices.

“Buyers simply aren’t buying,” said several Alaska fish processors. Prior to the start of the season in March, processors believed carryover halibut from last year would be sold out by May, but that didn’t happen. Now they are still holding the fish in freezers and selling it at a loss, while at the same time the high end fresh market has fizzled.

Prices at Kodiak were reported at $5.00, $5.40 and $5.80 per pound, depending on size. At Homer, halibut prices dropped as low as $5.25 but were up slightly to $5.40. Last year’s average Alaska halibut price for the season was $6.61 a pound.

Those prices still might seem high, but they don’t balance out when you factor in the millions of pounds in lost catch. Pacific halibut catch limits have been reduced by 40% in the past two years resulting in an Alaska take of just 24 million pounds for 2012.

So far 79% of the Alaska halibut catch has been landed with five million pounds remaining in the catch limit. Kodiak was the leading port for landings at nearly 3.7 million pounds, with Homer a close second with 3.6 million pounds. That’s followed by Seward (2.2 million), Dutch Harbor (1.7 million) and Sitka 1 million pounds).

The market also “stinks” for sablefish (black cod), said major buyers. As with halibut, freezers also are still full of sablefish from last year. An added downer -- most of the fish crossing the docks this season are small and Japan, the #1 customer for black cod, wants larger sizes. Sablefish prices were ranging from $2.25 for one to two pounders to $7.50 a pound for “seven ups.” Prices for large fish reached $9/lb earlier in the season. The sablefish fishery also ends in November.

Prices for Pacific cod also took a dip to between 32-35 cents a pound, down about a dime. That’s due to good catches in the North Sea, where cod has been rebounding for six years. That’s pulled Europe out of the buying equation for Alaska cod, there is less demand from China, and nearly all the catch is now going to US markets. Looking ahead – the cod catch next year in the Barents Sea off of Russia was increased 25% to 940,000 metric tons (over 2 billion pounds), the highest quota in 40 years.

Finally, Gulf pollock boats remained tied to the docks till September 12, although the fishery reopened Sept. 1. The trawlers wanted 18 cents a pound for pollock – the usual price is closer to 12 cents. The fleet settled for 15.5 cents before heading out.

Coral caution - Many of Alaska’s fisheries have been booted out of areas to avoid Steller sea lions, various bycatch – now corals loom as a red flag for traditional fishing grounds. A petition by the Center for Biological Diversity is asking the federal government to list cold water, deep sea corals as either threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act.

“This has great potential in the future to affect a lot of fisheries in the Gulf, the Bering Sea and in the Aleutian Islands,” said Denby Lloyd, Kodiak fishery advisor. “I and a number of industry observers see this as having the same potential as Stellar sea lions initially had in the early 1990s where it was speculative, and a side issue that soon became an extremely major issue and had dramatic impacts on fisheries,” he said at a joint Kodiak Island Borough/City meeting.

Alaska corals don’t form reefs like tropical varieties – instead, they grow into dense gardens and can live for hundreds of years. Scientists point to climate changes and ocean acidification as the biggest threats to cold water corals, Lloyd said – but as usual, fishing would bear the brunt of any restrictions.

“The only thing other than climate change that the federal government could control would be fishing activity. And it’s very similar to the results of the US Fish and Wildlife Service having declared polar bears as threatened. The cause of that was labeled as climate change, but the only thing that could be controlled was immediate human activity and therefore, polar bear hunting and import of trophies and things like that were the way the federal government exerted control. In this case it’s probably going to be fishing activity that is going to be the outlet for control if corals are declared threatened or endangered,” he explained.

All fisheries in federal waters (3 – 200 miles offshore) with bottom contact gear would be targeted if the corals are listed, said Linda Kozak, a Kodiak-based fishery consultant.

“This would be despite clear evidence that the fixed gear fisheries (longline, pots) have been fishing in these areas for many years with no impacts to coral. The Aleutian crab fisheries are targeting the same grounds they have fished for 20 years and their interactions with coral are extremely minimal,” Kozak said.

Lloyd added: “If the agencies are persuaded, people are projecting that in 50 years, there is great potential that the acid environment and the temperature environment are going to impact corals to the point of making them threatened or endangered.”

The North Pacific Fishery Management Council will discuss the coral issue at its upcoming meeting October 3-9 in Anchorage.

Salmon planners - Chinook salmon numbers have been declining steadily in major regions throughout Alaska since 2007. Governor Parnell announced in July the formation of a team of fishery scientists to develop a research plan for the disappearing kings.

The team was finally announced by the governor’s office. According to Wesley Loy’s Deckboss blog, it includes ADF&G fisheries scientists Eric Volk and Bob Clark, Andrew Munro and Steve Fleischman, fishery biologist Ed Jones, geneticist Bill Templin and Jim Fall from the subsistence division.

The U.S. Department of Commerce last week announced a disaster declaration for the Yukon and Kuskokwim rivers, and for the Cook Inlet region south of Anchorage, including the Kenai River. That means commercial fishermen will be eligible for disaster relief.

Eastside setnetters on the Kenai River lost nearly 90 percent of their annual income when the fishery was restricted and closed this summer. Ditto salmon fishermen at the Kuskokwim; the Yukon was closed completely to king salmon fishing. No one is sure what is causing the declines; most blame ocean factors.

The research team is drafting an analysis that will be discussed at a symposium next month in Anchorage.

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