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The Pacific halibut fishery opens on March 6, and increased catch limits, combined with a cautiously optimistic outlook for the near future, have fanned interest in buying shares of the popular fish.

In January, the International Pacific Halibut Commission boosted total halibut removals for 2021 by 6.5 percent to 39 million pounds for all users and as bycatch in fisheries of the West Coast, British Columbia and Alaska. That is higher than the total take for the past three years.

For commercial fishermen, the halibut catch limit of 25.7 million pounds is an increase of 2.6 million pounds over 2020. Alaska gets the largest chunk at 19.6 million pounds, and all regions except for the Bering Sea will see increased catches.

“People are thrilled to see that, hopefully, the tide has turned after catch limits for most areas have been declining for about the past 15 years. And they are happy to know they're going to see some more pounds on their permits this year,” said Doug Bowen of Alaska Boats and Permits in Homer.

“By all accounts the market looks like it is warming up,” agreed Lisa Gulliford at Permit Master in Tacoma, Wash. “Interest and flexibility from both buyers and sellers is always good news, and I am hopeful this trend will continue through the year.”

Optimism over the apparent better health of the halibut stock is reflected in the demand for purchasing shares of the fish that is pushing up prices, Bowen added.

It’s nowhere near the levels in 2017 when quota share prices in the Central Gulf of Alaska, for example, were at $65 or more per pound and now are closer to $45. Quota shares at Southeast that topped $70 are listed in the $45 to high $50 range per pound.

The increase in halibut catches is one part of the equation — the other is what the fish will bring at the docks.

“We were seeing some decline in values even before the pandemic hit, with increased imports from the east coast of Canada and halibut coming in from Russia and even farmed halibut showing up in Costco from Norway,” Bowen said. “So there's more competition in the marketplace. And then the pandemic didn't help with all the restaurants closed and the cruise ships tied up.

"Even with all that, we still saw pretty decent prices last year. In Homer, we probably averaged $4.50 a pound for the whole season. Considering the pandemic and the hit to the economy, that was probably a pretty good price. And we're hoping to see a good price again this year.”

Federal data show the annual average ex-vessel (dock) price for halibut has been decreasing since 2016. The price to Alaska fishermen in 2020 averaged $4 per pound and the value of the fishery totaled just under $62 million. That compared to an average dock price of $5.30 per pound in 2019 and a fishery value of more than $87 million.

Meanwhile, another good sign, Bowen added, is that boat sales are “brisk.”

“I don't know whether you could find a stronger vote of confidence in investing into these fisheries by buying a boat or buying quota,” he said. “So yeah, there's definitely some optimism in the fishery in spite of this pandemic that's going on in the background. It's very encouraging.”

The Pacific halibut fishery this year also was extended by one month to December 7.

Commission launches survey of halibut stakeholders

The International Pacific Halibut Commission is conducting a major study of how Pacific halibut is being used, with a stakeholder survey aiming for an assessment of the economic impact of the halibut resource in Canada and the United States.

The survey seeks information from halibut users in commercial, sport charter, subsistence and processor sectors. It measures economic impacts from hook to dinner plate, employment and incomes, household prosperity and contributions to regional and national economies — known more broadly as multiplier effects.

“So per dollar of landed fish, how much economic activity is generated and how much of this translates to wages and to the national GDP. (GDP is Gross Domestic Product, a measure of the U.S. economy and its growth.) That encompasses effects on wages, but also effects on profits by the businesses that are supported by the commercial or recreational fisheries,” said Barbara Hutniczak, IPHC lead economist for the study.

The survey also looks at regional spillovers to other areas.

“For example, a vessel that is fishing in Alaska and benefiting from the Alaska-based halibut resource might in the wintertime be serviced in Washington State. So in this case, the economic effects will also be in Washington state because the marina where this vessel is serviced will have additional economic activities,” she explained.

The confidential survey includes four main sections on vessel activities, revenue and quota use, labor information and vessel operating expenses. Hutniczak said responses are accepted on a rolling basis and the information will be updated continuously.

“I would like to encourage stakeholders to provide the information that will benefit all the sectors and show the potential of each sector in terms of supporting the local communities and economies and various other aspects that can be highlighted through your responses,” she said.

There is a link to the survey at the commission’s website, and Hutniczak can be contacted directly for questions at [email protected] or 206-552-7693.

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Laine Welch has covered the Alaska fish beat for print and radio since 1988. She has also worked “behind the counter” at retail and wholesale seafood companies in Kodiak and Cape Cod. Click here to send her an email.

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