Halibut and Sablefish Season Update
Sablefish and halibut make up less than 2 percent of Alaska’s total commercial harvest tonnage but typically account for 18 - 20 percent of total statewide ex-vessel value. The IFQ longline fisheries for halibut and sablefish opened March 6 and through mid-May the pace of landings is slightly above the five-year average for both halibut and sablefish.
Alaska IFQ and CDQ halibut and sablefish quotas are in a trend of modest but steady decline in recent years. The halibut quota peaked in 2003 at nearly 62 million pounds and has since declined 32 percent, to 42 million pounds in 2010. The sablefish quota peaked at 39 million pounds in 2004 and has since declined 34 percent, to 26 million pounds.
2010 Halibut Quota
The Total Allowable Catch (TAC) for Alaska’s IFQ/CDQ halibut fishery is 42 million pounds in 2010, a continuation of the six-year declining trend. Alaska’s statewide halibut TAC peaked at nearly 62 million pounds in 2002 and 2003 but in 2005 began declining significantly, by two million to four million pounds per year. The statewide quota of 42 million pounds in 2010 represents a 32-percent reduction from the peak of 2003.
In discussing the recent halibut quota cuts, it is important to consider historical perspective. Alaska’s halibut fishery dates to the early 1900s and has been managed by the International Pacific Halibut Commission since 1923. The U.S./Canada treaty that established the Commission was the first in the world to deal with conservation of a deep-sea fishery resource.
We examined 60 years of catch records from 1950 to present and found that with the exception of a 14-year period from 1971 - 1984 when catches were low (average 22 million pounds), Alaska’s halibut harvest typically ranges between 40 million and 55 million pounds and rarely exceeds 60 million pounds. The most recent 30-year average is 48 million pounds.
Since 1950, there have been only seven years when the Alaska halibut harvest and/or catch limit was over 60 million pounds. Four of those years were in this decade; 2001 thru 2004. Considering the historical perspective, it can be fairly said that the recent halibut quota cuts represent a return from unusually high quotas of the early 2000s to levels more typical of the normal, historical range of the fishery.
Spring 2010 Halibut Landings
Through May 14, landings of Alaska IFQ halibut totaled 11 million pounds, 27 percent of the Total Allowable Catch (TAC) for the season, slightly above the five-year average for mid-May, 25 percent. Most Alaska halibut landings (70 percent) occur in the 5-month period between May and September. There is no distinct spike within that period, although June is normally the strongest landings month.
While mid-May 2010 landings are up just slightly from the five-year average, they are up substantially from Spring 2009, presumably in response to improved ex-vessel prices. Halibut prices softened significantly in 2009 and Spring landings that year were slow as harvesters apparently waited for the market to improve.
Market conditions improved significantly in 2010, pushing ex-vessel prices back up to the $5/lb range. Tough weather conditions in the early season kept landings volume down initially and pushed prices well above $5/lb. As weather improved and landings increased in April, prices dropped into the upper end of the $4 range and thru May appear to have settled there on steady landings volume.
While the 27-percent share of TAC landed this Spring is slightly above average, the poundage available to the marketplace has declined substantially as a result of ongoing quota cuts. The total poundage landed thru mid-May (11 million pounds) is down from 16 million pounds for the same period in 2004 and 2005.
2010 Sablefish Quota
Like the halibut quota, the allowable catch of sablefish has been declining slowly but steadily from its recent peak. The 2010 TAC is 26.2 million pounds, down from the 15-year high point of 39.6 million pounds in 2004.
The statewide IFQ sablefish quota is split among six major areas, four in the Gulf of Alaska and two more including the Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands, collectively referred to as BSAI. Sablefish quota changes in the Gulf of Alaska tend to translate directly to actual harvest, as virtually all the available quota in those areas is harvested. Fishing conditions are much more difficult in the BSAI and half or more of the BSAI quota typically goes un-harvested. Adjustments to the BSAI quota accrue to actual market supply at about half the rate of the quota change.
(for a larger view of this chart, click here.)
There are fisheries on the Southern population of sablefish in BC Canada and in the West-coast states, but these produce a relatively modest volume, less than one-third of the market supply. The Alaskan fishery on the Northern sablefish stock produces most of the market supply.
The sablefish market is sensitive to supply and with the ongoing supply reduction, prices have increased at a slow and steady pace commensurate with the quota cuts in Alaska. Ex-vessel prices for sablefish are reportedly at or near record levels, approaching $4/lb on round-weight basis.
Spring 2010 Sablefish Landings
Landings of IFQ sablefish through May 14 totaled 9.1 million pounds, 37 percent of allowable catch for the 2010 season. This is just slightly above the five-year average landing share of 36 percent through mid-May.
Unlike the steady landings of halibut, sablefish landings have a distinct peak in the Spring. May and June typically account for 45 percent or more of the year’s total sablefish landings.