Halibut catches sluggish despite high prices; charter ops beached “to protect the resource”

AK communities get clipped to protect halibut stock while trawl bycatch increases, per IPHC.

by | July 17, 2023

Meanwhile, 2022 trawl halibut bycatch increased by 32%

Landings of Pacific halibut in Alaska are down by more than one million pounds from the same time last year while dock prices remain high.

Meanwhile, most halibut charter operators are beached for much of the summer.

Reports from fishery managers show 7.8 million pounds of commercially caught halibut had crossed Alaskan docks by July 17, or 38% of the nearly 19 million pound statewide catch limit for 2023. That total reflects a nearly 12% reduction from the previous year.

Homer has so far held on to the top port for halibut deliveries since the fishery opened on March 10, followed by Seward, Kodiak and Juneau.

At all major ports, prices to fishermen started out high and have topped $5 to more than $6 per pound ever since, sometimes exceeding $7.

The high dock prices haven’t prompted many sales of shares of halibut that are held by more than 2,000 Alaska harvesters who fish from the Panhandle to the far reaches of the Bering Sea.

Sales of halibut quota shares stalled

“There continues to be very little movement in the quota market,” wrote Maddie Lightsey in the weekly Fish Ticket report by Alaska Boats and Permits in Homer.  

A scan of listings at numerous brokerages shows prices for halibut quota shares in Southeast Alaska (Area 2C) ranging from $48 to $66 per pound.

For the Central Gulf (Area 3A), the largest halibut fishing area, shares were being offered at $34 to $47 per pound. Prices for Western Gulf quota shares (Area 3B) were in the $28 to $38 range. For halibut shares along the Aleutian Islands, prices were listed at $10 to $19, and at around $12 per pound for the Bering Sea.

A somewhat gloomy outlook for the Pacific halibut stock is likely keeping a downward press on buying interest.

For this year, total halibut “removals” were reduced by more than 10% to just under 37 million pounds for all users.

That includes takes by commercial, sport, and subsistence fishermen as well as halibut caught and discarded as bycatch throughout eight fishing regions in California, Washington, Oregon, British Columbia and Alaska.

The bulk of the Pacific halibut catch always goes to commercial fisheries.

For 2023, that total catch limit was reduced to just under 25 million pounds, an 11.3% decrease from the more than 28 million pounds allocated to the commercial sector in 2022.

The catch numbers, called “mortality limits,” are set by the International Pacific Halibut Commission which includes three commissioners each from the U.S. and Canada. Since 1923, the IPHC has overseen the monitoring and health of the Pacific halibut stock.  

Big boost in trawl bycatch

Despite the drop in the Pacific halibut stock, the discard mortality of halibut taken as bycatch by trawl gear has increased substantially.

The IPHC report for 2022 estimates that more than five million pounds of halibut were discarded as trawl bycatch, a 32% increase over the 3.8 million pounds taken in 2021.

That has galled Alaska halibut charter operators in Southeast and South Central regions who find themselves tied to the docks on specific days each week per order of NOAA Fisheries in order to “protect the resource.” They also face restrictive halibut size limits and bag limits of one to two fish.

“For perspective, the entire 2023 halibut charter quota for South Central Alaska is 1.89 million pounds,” said David Bayes, owner of DeepStrike Sportfishing in Homer. “But year to date, statewide trawl has already reported over 3 million pounds of halibut bycatch, and the year is only halfway over. Trawl bycatch has massive negative impacts to coastal Alaskan communities.”

The Pacific halibut fishery opened on March 10 and will run through December 7.

No customers for halibut charter operators at Homer for two days each week

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About Laine

Laine Welch has covered the Alaska fish beat for print and radio since 1988. She also has worked “behind the counter” at retail and wholesale seafood companies in Kodiak and on Cape Cod.


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