Peek at potential 2024 catches this week; IPHC celebrates 100 years
As with other high-end Alaska seafoods such as salmon and crab, halibut also is facing tough market headwinds.
The 10-month Pacific halibut fishery ends on December 7 and less than three million pounds remain of the nearly 19 million pound commercial catch limit allocated for Alaska fishermen, who always get the bulk of the total harvest.
Overall, the combined commercial 2023 Pacific halibut catches for eight fishing regions throughout Alaska, Washington, Oregon, California and British Columbia totaled just under 25 million pounds, a 11.3% decrease from the previous year.
For all users, meaning commercial, sport, subsistence fishermen and halibut caught and discarded as bycatch, the total “removals” of Pacific halibut in 2023 were set at just under 37 million pounds, a decrease of 10.31% from 2022.
Halibut prices in the tank
The big flatfish are fetching some of the lowest prices since the Pandemic lockdown of 2020, said market expert Robert Reierson, CEO of Tradex.
For much of the season since it began in early March, halibut topped $7 per pound for fishermen and prices typically increase as the end of the fishery nears.
But that’s not the case this year and prices started to tank prior to September.
At Kodiak, recent prices were in the $4 to $4.50 per pound range, depending on fish size. It was even less at Homer, where fishermen got from $3 to $4.50 for their halibut, according to the weekly Fish Ticket by Alaska Boats and Permits in Homer.
Instead of going to market fresh and fetching higher prices, more Pacific halibut could be headed for the freezers until prices tick back up, predicted Reierson of Tradex in his weekly market bulletin. He blamed some of the market downturn on halibut imports originating from Russia and exported into the US from China.
“While Russian halibut is predominantly caught as bycatch, detailed information about its fishery remains largely undisclosed,” Reierson said. “However, given that halibut is not a staple in the diets of Russia or China, and considering that Chinese production largely relies on Russian halibut, a significant portion of the halibut production from both Russia and China is intended for the North American market.”
Two years ago the US imported more than 3 million pounds of halibut from Russia and China, Reierson added, noting that “since the onset of the war conflicts, US imports of halibut from these countries have significantly decreased.”
US imports of Atlantic halibut from east coast fisheries also have taken a bite out of the Alaska brand. Federal trade data show imports this year of nearly 7 million pounds of halibut from Canada valued at $120 million.
Status of the Pacific halibut stock
Fishermen and other stakeholders will get a first glimpse at potential catches for 2024 at the virtual Interim Meeting of the International Pacific Halibut Commission (IPHC) set for November 30 and December 1.
No “guess-timates” have circulated so far, but results of the annual longline halibut stock survey indicate that another decrease in catches is likely.
Based on the IPHC report “Stock projections and the harvest decision table for 2024-2026”, the probability of a reduction in coastwide catches at the current fishing level over the next three years is projected at 52/100. The absolute halibut spawning biomass in 2023 “is estimated to be lower than at any time in the last 31 years.”
Further, the modelled survey index of nearly 900 stations in 2023 “suggests that the stock distribution now shows the lowest proportion of the coastwide biomass in Biological Region 3 (Central and Western Gulf of Alaska) observed since 1992.”
The IPHC report added that “increased environmental/climate-related variability in the marine ecosystems comprising the Pacific halibut species range in Convention waters lead to little expectation that historical productivity patterns may be relevant for future planning. Specifically, it is unclear whether long-term productivity levels are likely to occur under continued climate change, or whether increases or decreases may be likely for critical life-history stages of Pacific halibut.”
IPHC celebrates 100 years
Next year marks the 100th anniversary of the International Pacific Halibut Commission, which was originally established in 1924 as the International Fisheries Commission. It followed the signing of the Convention for the Preservation of the Halibut Fishery of the Northern Pacific Ocean and Bering Sea, between Canada and the United States.
Each country has three commissioners on the IPHC to oversee sustained management of the Pacific halibut resource. The IPHC was the first regional fishery management organization of its kind and laid the foundation for all regional fishery management organizations active today.
The IPHC does not set halibut bycatch limits; that is done each year by the North Pacific Fishery Management Council (NPFMC).
Over the next 12 months, the IPHC will hold several celebratory events, including a formal reception at its 100th annual meeting at the Captain Cook Hotel in Anchorage from January 22 – 26 where the halibut catch limits for 2024 will be announced.