This year in coastal Alaska, March 19th is the much anticipated opening day of halibut season. Prior to opening day, there is a frenzy of activity down
on the docks as fishermen change over from cod to halibut gear. Halibut is caught with traditional longline gear which consists of a main ground line
or longline which is rigged with baited hooks attached at intervals using a shorter line or gangion and a snap hook. I’ll explain in more detail further
down in this blog.
The International Pacific Halibut Commission (IPHC) regulates halibut quotas for all of Alaska, British Columbia, Washington, Oregon and California. The
IPHC sets the season opening and closure dates plus the catch limits for each geographic area. Each catch area has a different quota assigned based
on the results of fishing surveys conducted the previous year. This year the quotas are up in many areas for the first time in several years as surveys
have shown the halibut stocks have increased over previous years.
Commercial halibut fishing is different than many other fisheries because the fishermen own Individual Fishing Quotas or IFQ’s. In 1995, the National Marine
Fisheries Service or NMFS, implemented the IFQ program for sablefish and halibut. This whole quota share matter can get very complicated, so I will
try to make sense so you can understand a little bit better about the ins and outs of commercial halibut fishing and what it really takes to deliver
halibut and black cod from our fishermen to your table.
Quota shares are use privileges that were issued to qualified fishermen who owned or leased a fishing vessel during the years 1988 – 1990. The actual number
of quota shares initially issued was based on a rather complicated formula. The number of pounds each fisherman has available each year varies as their
percentage of the total catch changes based on the overall total quota for each catch area. I hope I haven’t lost you!
Now comes the interesting part and a component of this IFQ program that sets it apart from many other fisheries such as cod or salmon fishing. Halibut
quota shares are transferable, so they have a monetary value. This value is determined by several factors such as catch area and the type of boat or
vessel class associated with the fishermen. Recently, some individual halibut quota shares have been on the market for upwards of $60 per share. Because
fishermen own their halibut quota, they are able to shop their fish around and sell to the highest bidder. The dock price is market driven, so when
there is very little halibut, the price increases and then drops when there is an abundance of supply. Halibut prices have risen steadily over the
past ten years, but have stabilized the last three or four years.
One of the positive changes that occurred after IFQ’s were implemented was that the “race for fish” ended. Pre IFQ days, halibut operated as an “Olympic”
fishery. Simply, a 24 or 48 hour opening period would be announced and when the time came, everyone raced out and caught as much fish as possible,
regardless of the weather or the price. This resulted in serious vessel accidents and as a former Coast Guard pilot, I can remember several rescues
during these short openings when boats went out into the worst weather and risked everything just to fish in that short window. I recall one particular
rescue that occurred literally within 15 minutes of the noon opening in Sumner Straits in South East Alaska.
A small fishing boat began taking on water and called for a rescue. We happened to be in the area and within minutes our crew hoisted aboard the skipper
and his wife and then we heard groans from the crew in the back as they wrestled a giant basset hound up into the helo. While all the action was in
the back of the helo, we sat up in the cockpit and watched the boat slide under the waves for good. One other aspect of the Olympic style fishery is
that racing for fish didn’t allow for market timing, so processors and buyers were often forced to freeze halibut and with the short burst openings,
couldn’t offer a steady supply of fresh halibut throughout the year.
So, back to the docks and fishermen ….. on the back decks of halibut longliners, crews are going through their gear
and discarding old or rusty hooks and replacing with new hooks. They attach the hooks to the gangions and load the longline gear and hooks into tubs,
ready for baiting. Since we are still nine days away from the opening, it is too soon to bait the hooks. Most fishermen cut up squid because it stays
on the hook longer, although some still use herring. Because herring is so oily, it requires salting which helps it stay on the hook longer. That is
usually done in advance. Some fishermen use octopus because that also stays on the hook longer, while some use small Pollock, mainly because it is
the cheapest bait.
Four or five years ago, there was considerable strategy and intrigue surrounding the opening day of halibut season. Restaurants, high end grocery stores
and fishmongers all wanted to have the “first” fresh halibut of the season. Getting the first fish to market required planning between the fishermen
and the buyers . Fishermen would commit to delivering their loads within 24 or 48 hours with the understanding they would have the guaranteed highest
dock. Halibut boats would sprint to the grounds and then race back with the first load which was quickly offloaded and trucked down the Alaska/Canada
Highway or shipped out on Alaska Airlines all across the country.
Today, while there is still interest in getting the first fish to market, many fishermen don’t go out on the opening for the “big price” but wait for
the price to settle and then pick and choose their fishing trips based on price and weather. That said, there is still a great degree of interest
and excitement about delivering the first fish and at Kodiak Fish Market, we are looking forward to offering the first fresh halibut. We are now
taking orders, so reserve your fresh halibut now – the quantities are limited:
Place your order at firstname.lastname@example.org.
In our next blog, we will introduce several of our favorite Kodiak halibut fishermen and let you meet the crew who deliver some of the finest fresh halibut to our docks. We will also look at how halibut is caught and handled and then what happens once it is delivered to the dock.
I didn’t discuss sablefish or black cod in this post, even though black cod season opens at the same time as halibut season and is also an IFQ fishery. I’ll touch on that on the next blog and include a black cod recipe favorite from Shannon, one of our Kodiak Fish Market friends.
All the best
Kodiak Fish Market
PS: While you are waiting for the fresh halibut, here are two recipes from Cooking Light to peak your interest in our Alaska halibut. You can order our premium frozen halibut fillets today at: http://www.kodiakfishmarket.com/fresh-alaskan-seafood/alaska-halibut-buy-alaska-halibut-online/halibut-buy-halibut-online
For more recipes try: http://www.cookinglight.com/food/recipe-finder/halibut-recipes