After some ups and downs, U.S. halibut market favorable for Alaska fishermen in 2019

Mar 19, 2019

Pacific halibut.
Credit Rudy Gustafson

The U.S. Pacific halibut season kicked off Friday. Some of the first deliveries to Alaska ports are expected later this week and will set the tone for prices on the docks this year. Market conditions are expected to be more favorable for Alaska’s halibut fishermen and processors compared to last year.

Over the past five years, traditional buyers of Alaska-caught Pacific halibut on the East Coast have been increasingly buying more Atlantic halibut from Canada.

The increased competition left a ton of unsold product in West Coast processors’ freezers last year. The backlog slashed prices on the docks in Alaska nearly in half last spring, but fish economist Garrett Evridge said things are looking up heading into the 2019 season.

“It looks like over the past year or so the market has moved through that inventory,” Evridge explained. “So with that somewhat resolved combined with a bit higher quota, there are some reasons to be a bit more optimistic.”

Selling off that frozen product pushed prices back to about $6 per pound by the end of last summer, just below the historic highs fishermen saw in recent years.

Billy Sullivan owns Kachemak Bay Seafoods, a small processing business in Homer.  Sullivan told KBBI last year that he lost business in large markets like Boston to cheaper Canadian halibut, but he’s changed his tune. He said larger quantities of fresh halibut on the market and more palatable prices on both the east and west coast are actually a good thing.

“I’m actually here on the East Coast in Boston and there’s restaurants that are putting halibut back on the menu. It’s actually helping to grow the market and make it more stable,” he said.

Sullivan said there’s another benefit: increased demand for fresh fish may also make processors less inclined to freeze products and wait for higher prices, which is what led to last year’s price drop.

However, there are other competitors closer to home that those in the industry like Evridge are keeping their eye on.

“Russia is now the second largest producer of Pacific halibut. They surpassed Canada in 2013 and all of that volume is going somewhere,” he said.

Between 2009 and 2016, Russian fishermen more than doubled their landings of Pacific halibut. That product has the ability to find its way into the U.S. after it’s processed in China.

But Evridge explains that those Russian fish are comingled with other halibut products from around the world as they’re exported out of the country.

“We can look at U.S. import statistics and Canadian import statistics to try to get a sense of that volume, but our ability to track a pound of Pacific halibut that originated in Russia and flow to its final market is difficult at best,” Evridge said.

Sullivan said he’s seen frozen Russian halibut make its way onto the U.S. market over the years, but he adds that it’s never really been a competitor with domestically caught fish.

With increasing demand for fresh halibut in the Lower 48, he’s not worried about that changing.