Fish Factor: Catch decline, crab prices, and gear for women

Alaska halibut is facing strong headwinds that have dampened the value of the catch shares needed to go fishing. Increasing imports of Atlantic halibut from eastern Canada, reports of several million pounds of halibut holdovers in freezers, speculation of reduced catches again next year, and dock prices down by $2 or more have caused a “major readjustment” in the market for individual fishing quotas (IFQ), according to Alaska brokers.

“That definitely dims enthusiasm for buying quota, and prices have come down quite a bit from last year,” said Doug Bowen of Alaska Boats and Permits in Homer. “The stuff that was trading at $65-$66 per pounds last year is down between $50 and $55.

“Normally, as soon as the halibut catch limits are set the available quota is gone instantly. That’s not the case this year,” agreed Olivia Olsen who operates Alaskan Quota and Permits in Petersburg.

Alaska’s total halibut catch limit for 2018 was set at 17.5 million pounds, a 10 percent drop from last year.

Both brokers said that halibut stakeholders were “blindsided” when halibut catches were slashed again after a small uptick in 2017.

“Last year folks were having good fishing and seeing better looking fish,” Bowen said. “A lot of people thought that maybe the trend of declining size at age that we’ve been struggling with for a dozen or so years had rounded the corner and maybe the stocks were rebuilding. Of course, that’s not what happened.”

Every year biologists with the International Pacific Halibut Commission (IPHC) survey 1,500 stations from Oregon to the far reaches of the Bering Sea from May through September. The 2017 results showed that total survey catches were down 23 percent from 2016, and halibut weights declined by 10 percent. The biggest drop stems from a lack of younger fish entering the halibut fishery, explained IPHC scientist Ian Stewart, adding that the nine to 18 year old fish year classes that have been sustaining the recent halibut fishery are not being followed up by strong recruits.

“For 2018 and especially projecting out to 2019, we are moving out of a fishery that is dominated by those relatively good recruitments that started in 1999 and extended to 2005. It appears we are going to have an increasing number of relatively poor recruitments from at least 2009 and 2010,” Stewart said.

“A lot of people were caught flatfooted by the survey results that showed a significant reduction of recruitment coming into the halibut fishery,” said Bowen.

Even more ominously, this year’s catch limits were reduced by half of what fishery biologists recommended.

“People are waiting for the other shoe to drop next year. That’s definitely another negative affecting IFQ values,” Bowen said.

Halibut quota shares in Southeast Alaska fetch the highest prices, reaching $70 in recent years. Catches there were slashed 15 percent to just 3.5 million pounds this year, a figure that does not mesh with what fishermen are seeing on the grounds.

“Last year they all reported that the halibut were thick in the shallows and deeper waters in Southeast and the Central Gulf also looked good. People were excited and feeling really happy. No one expected big cuts,” Olsen said. “And so far this year they are reporting awesome catches. It’s really demoralizing.”

While fishermen are always willing to err on the side of conservation, Olsen said many are questioning the outcomes and believe that the “coast wide science is out of whack.”

“They’ve lost confidence in the system,” Olsen said. She recommended that halibut scientists should use the data in fishermen’s logbooks to improve their stock assessments. And for the Southeast region, Olsen suggested that local fishermen who are familiar with the waters should be involved in the summer halibut surveys “instead of chartering a boat and crew from Canada.”

Roughly 2,000 Alaskans hold quota shares of halibut; most are located in Southeast Alaska.

Crab wrap

The season’s last delivery of snow crab crossed the docks last week, wrapping up the 2017-18 Bering Sea crab season until the fall.

“Most of the guys had a difficult time catching their snow crab and it was really spotty. Some landed on the crab and filled up fast and went home. The weather wasn’t good and a few boats lost windows,” said Jake Jacobsen, director of the Inter-cooperative Exchange which negotiates prices for the bulk of the 50 to 60 boat fleet.

Fishing for bairdi Tanner crab, which ended in late March, was “no problem across the board,” Jacobsen said. “They caught the crab easily and there seemed to be a lot around.”

Price negotiations for snow crab and Tanners are just getting underway, but the outlook is good. “We will probably get the second highest price ever for snow crab, and certainly our bairdi price will be good,” Jacobsen said. The highest Alaska snow crab price was $4.98 a pound in 2011. Tanners in recent years have paid out at around $3 a pound. A price also should be finalized any day for red king crab from the Bristol Bay fishery which ended in mid-November, but Jacobsen said it “will be right up there.” The highest red king crab price was last year’s $10.89 a pound. Attention turns now to the next Bering Sea crab season which begins in mid-October. At a time of declining crab stocks, the outcome will hinge upon results of the summer surveys.

“If you go by last year’s results, there is certainly a strong possibility of further quota reductions,” Jacobsen said. “We’re hoping for some uptick in the stocks, but I don’t think anyone is overly optimistic.”

Jacobsen said the biggest concern among crabbers is the warming of the Bering Sea and the northward migration of the crab stocks.

Grundens for gals

Walk down any fishing dock and you will see the Grundens logo on gear from head to toe. For decades, fishing men and women all over the globe have relied on the bright colored, industrial grade rain bibs and jackets to help protect them in the stormiest of weather.

But there was one problem; the unisex line of clothing was a tough fit for women. “Either the sleeves are too long or they are too big in the shoulders. It was really just uncomfortable and cumbersome for women to wear,” said Eric Tietje, Grundens Global Product Director. “Women would send us emails saying ‘we love your gear and we wear it all the time, but it’s built for guys.’”

It was a women’s social media group that turned their wants and needs into results.

“A group of women got together and formed Chix Who Fish to really make themselves heard. They convinced retailers that they are a market that is unserved,” he said.

The Chix prompted Grundens to produce the first line of gear designed specifically by and for the women who wear it. The result is called Sedna Gear and the new line has prompted positive responses.

“One thing we’ve heard loud and clear from women is that creating this product validates what they do in the fishing industry,” said Tietje. “They told us ‘you guys are recognizing us and that means something.’ And it has made a difference for the women, because they are able to do their jobs more efficiently.”

“We view these bibs and jackets as equipment, not just as pieces of clothing,” he added. “How well it works and functions makes a big difference in how well they can do their jobs.”

• Laine Welch is a Kodiak-based journalist who writes a weekly column, Fish Factor, that appears in newspapers and websites around Alaska and nationally.

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