Alaskan fishermen aren't the only ones noticing the rise of Atlantic halibut

May 17, 2018

Pacific halibut on the F/V Vigor.
Credit Rudy Gustafson

As prices and demand for Pacific halibut have fallen in Alaska, commercial fishermen say a new Canadian competitor is to blame. Since 2012, Canadian imports of fresh Atlantic halibut have grown roughly 60 percent.

Historically, Atlantic halibut has not competed with its close relative on the West Coast since New England and Canadian fishermen overfished stocks in the late 1880s. But as the catch continues to grow north of the border, fishermen in New England are working towards restarting a fishery in U.S. waters.

That could have a serious impact on Alaska’s halibut industry.

Atlantic halibut seems to have been on the tip of the commercial fishing industry’s tongue in Alaska as imports from Canada continue to carve out a significant slice of the New England fresh halibut market.

Prices on the docks in Alaska have fallen about $2 per pound, and there’s a surplus of halibut in the freezer from last year that isn’t selling.

Doug Bowen works with Alaska Boats and Permits, a vessel and fishing permit broker in Homer. Bowen and others in the industry say both are a result of Pacific halibut losing out to Canadian fish.

“So it’s a kind of a new world order in the ex-vessel prices, and it might be something that we’re going to be dealing with for some time,” Bowen explained.

But Alaska’s fishing industry is not the only one noticing the growth of the Canadian Atlantic halibut fishery.

“A lot of those boats are fishing on the U.S.-Canadian line and having very good results, and it’s been going on for a while,” Mike Russo said, a New England-based commercial fisherman. “Frankly, New England fixed-gear boats are missing out on this opportunity.”

Russo has been trying to strum up support for an industry halibut longline survey in U.S. waters.

Russo said the Atlantic halibut Canadian fishermen are catching are the same fish U.S. fishermen are seeing more of as they target other species.  

“Somebody is going to make us prove it, but I believe that’s what would bear out,” he said. “Those fish don’t know political lines on a chart.”

Information on Atlantic halibut stocks in the U.S. is minimal. There are no extensive abundance surveys, and federal fishery managers don’t actively manage the stock as a commercial fishery. Fishermen are only allowed one fish per trip as bycatch.

Chris McGuire works with the Nature Conservancy in Massachusetts, which is trying to collect information on the valuable bottom fish. He’s been working with fish biologists and management officials to see if what U.S. fishermen like Russo are saying is in fact true.  

“We’re working with commercial fishermen to do biological sampling of halibut to determine age and size at maturity. We’re some DNA sampling from that,” McGuire explained. “In a separate part of that project, we’re doing a little bit of pop-up satellite tagging to figure out where the fish we see off of New England go over the course of a whole year.”

McGuire is working with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada to satellite tag the fish. That will help determine whether Atlantic halibut on both sides of the border should be treated as one stock, which is how Pacific halibut are managed by the International Pacific Halibut Commission.

Richard McBride is a fisheries biologist with NOAA Fisheries Greater Atlantic Regional Office. McBride teamed up with McGuire and New England fishermen to collect biological samples from the halibut they’re catching.

“I mean if we’re really to manage them as a renewable resource, we want fish to spawn at least once in a quality way and maybe have the potential to spawn more than once,” McBride said. “That’s the kind of thing that really accelerates the rebuilding.”

All of this fervor around Atlantic halibut could be another significant blow to Alaska fishermen and fish buyers, who have historically controlled the market on the East Coast. But both McBride and McGuire say it could be another five to 10 years before U.S. fishery managers have enough information to start an Atlantic halibut fishery.

Still, those in the Alaskan fishing industry like Andy Wink, a fisheries analyst, say depending on how things shake out, a U.S. Atlantic halibut fishery could maintain that new world order the Alaskan fishing industry is currently coping with.

“I guess the question there is whether it adds total supply or not – if they essentially get a cut of the Canadian halibut fishery,” Wink said. “It’s a domestic fishery, so it’s much more likely to go domestic, but it doesn’t have nearly the impact as if you’re talking about adding TAC (total allowable catch) onto the Canadian TAC.”

If scientists find that Atlantic halibut along the East Coast belong to one stock, setting up an internationally managed fishery in U.S. waters could push the process down the road.

Wink said, even if New England Fishermen are able to start fishing in five years, the Alaska fishing industry’s more immediate concern is still the growing number of truckloads filled with Atlantic halibut from Canada.