Alaska & Pacific / Blackcod & Halibut

Fleet makes do with value of flatties;
B-cod pot option hard on small boats

By Charlie Ess

Harsh weather, small quotas and strong market demand kept prices healthy for North Pacific halibut and blackcod fishermen through April. In other developments, the North Pacific Fishery Management Council adopted new regulations that will allow longliners to convert to fishing blackcod with pots in the Gulf of Alaska.

Longliners who headed to port to deliver fresh halibut between storms were greeted with prices ranging from $6.25 to $6.75 per pound in Seward, according to Bob Alverson, manager of the Fishing Vessel Owners Association in Seattle.

“Prices on halibut spiked for a while, depending on the weather,” says Alverson, adding that prices were closely on par with the range from $5 per pound to $6.50 per pound that fishermen received last year.

“We seem to be getting prices that are a little bit better than last year on the bigger fish and a little less on the small fish,” he says.

The season opened on March 14, and the halibut fleet fishes on an 
Alaska quota of 17.14 million pounds this year, according to data from the NMFS RAM website. That’s up slightly from the 15.95 million pounds of 2014, but the stock abundance and the resulting quotas remain low in comparison to the 40.28 million-pound quota of 2010.

As of April 28, the fleet had landed 2.89 million pounds, or about 19 percent of this year’s quota.

Blackcod prices began with a bang. Fish 7 pounds and up fetched $8 per pound at the docks, with the splits running at $6.85 for 5 to 7s, $5.50 for 4 to 5s, $4.75 for 3 to 4s and $3.75 for 2 to 3s. Last year’s spread through the weight categories ran from $4.90 to $6.75 per pound.

Though the yen to the dollar remained weaker this year than last, with a monthly average of 119 to the dollar through April, inventories from last year had apparently moved through markets, and buyers were hungry for fresh product. Last year in April the yen traded at 102 to the dollar and was at 97 in 2013.

“I heard that product has moved pretty well,” says Alverson.

Other significant developments for blackcod include provisions that allow the fleet to use pots instead of longline. The pot idea has been a topic of discussion for years as a method of reducing predation on longline gear by sperm and killer whales. By some estimates, the whales may be stealing 40 percent of longline revenues from some vessel owners, whose recompense is to set more gear and burn more fuel to catch their share of the IFQs.

The pot provisions didn’t come without controversy. Though all sides of the industry agree that whale predation has been an increasing problem since the 1980s, mixing the two types of gear along the steep underwater slopes in the Gulf of Alaska could pose problems, particularly to longliners, whose gear is relatively frail compared to the lines used to connect strings of heavy metal pots.

“The 1-inch poly commonly used between longlined pots has a breaking strength of 18,000 pounds,” says Linda Behnken, executive director of the Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association in Sitka. “Breaking strength on the 3/8-inch groundline commonly used by longline boats is 3,600 pounds. In any conflict, it’s obvious that pots will win.”

Behnken and others testified in favor of phasing in pots gradually over the next few years in the Western Gulf area; however, the council elected to allow pots, but with limits of 300 per boat in the Central Gulf of Alaska and 120 pots per boat in the Southeast and Western Yakutat harvest areas.

Gearing up for pots will hobble some boat owners in terms of capital investments. By some estimates, retrofitting a vessel and buying pots could come with a price tag of around $200,000. According to Behnken, boats 40 feet long or less account for 90 percent of the blackcod fleet in the Gulf of Alaska.

* * *

Northeast / Scallops

Industry’s advocates push for access

to 3 million scallops in closed areas

By Kirk Moore

The Northeast scallop fleet mounted what appears to be a succeeding campaign to access parts of northern Georges Bank where there are large amounts of mature scallops.

But the New England Fishery Management Council put off a final decision for a couple months, as it juggles results from a sophisticated computer model defining critical fish habitat and the needs of New England’s embattled fleets.

The New Bedford, Mass.-based Fisheries Survival Fund and others in the scallop industry offered their proposal at the April 22-23 council meeting in Mystic, Conn., after weeks of informal discussion among fishing and environmental groups and the Northeast regional office of the National Marine Fisheries Service.

It was tense going in — NMFS Regional Administrator John Bullard had already warned the council in an emphatic April 16 letter that some proposals would not pass muster with the agency.

“After a decade of development, the council may be poised to take actions that significantly weaken, rather than improve, essential fish-habitat protection in New England,” Bullard wrote. He expressed particular concern about plans to open parts of Georges Bank and the Gulf of Maine, where Bullard said council proposals could reduce protected areas by 26 percent.

From the time of that letter “up until five minutes ago,” there were nonstop negotiations to finally resolve the habitat plan, said council member John F. Quinn.

“Nobody’s getting all of what they want,” he added.

The council backed off from earlier possibilities for opening more area around Cashes Ledge, the rugged Gulf of Maine bottom and kelp forest. But environmental groups were still unhappy with the possibility of opening Georges scallop areas.

It would be “a massive scale-back on essential fish habitat on Georges Bank,” said Peter Shelley of the Conservation Law Foundation. The purpose of the habitat plan is “not to optimize the scallop fishery; it’s to protect essential fish habitat,” he said.

Scallop industry advocates contend most of the closures are obsolete and can be reopened without harm to groundfish. Most date from 20 years ago, and there’s better information now about where the important fish habitat is located, according to the Fisheries Survival Fund.

There is protection inherent in the rotational management plan for scallops, which moves the fleet between areas, said Ron Smolowitz, a member of the Fisheries Survival Fund and a Cape Cod fishing gear designer who has helped the industry reduce bycatch.

“I haven’t heard of anyone shutting down Iowa because it has rich soils,” Smolowitz said. With an estimated 3 million pounds of scallops in those closed areas, a $700 million resource is going unused, he said.

“These are the same areas we’ve been talking about for 10 years. There’s no crazy new concept here,” said Andrew Minkiewicz of the Fisheries Survival Fund. The most vulnerable groundfish areas will still be protected, he noted.

The council won’t have a final amendment to send to NMFS until June, as the scallop and offshore lobster fleets discuss how to avoid gear conflicts around Georges.

Scallop prices were $12 to $15 a pound going into 2014, with a 1,000-pound trip-limit reduction to 12,000 pounds for limited-entry vessels. At the end of April 2015, U-10 to U-20 scallops were bringing from $10.50 to $12.50 in Massachusetts, as U-10s and U-12s touched $17 a pound, according to National Marine Fisheries Service market reports.

Overall tightening supplies had dealers warning customers of continued high prices to come, with the start of the New England fishing year May 1 and the Gulf of Maine cod quota going down from 1,550 metric tons the previous year to 386 metric tons.

That’s expected to result in price increases for other species, too, as groundfish crews become increasingly constrained. By late April, prices for larger cod, haddock and monkfish were already headed for $3 territory in the New England auctions.


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