Farmed halibut seen outside of Seattle  Credit: Bill Sullivan

The Pacific halibut fishery opened on March 14 amid little fanfare and flattened markets.

The first fish of the eight month season typically attracts the highest prices and is rushed fresh to high-end buyers, especially during the Lenten season.

But that’s not the case in this time of coronavirus chaos, when air traffic is stalled and seafood of all kinds is getting backlogged in global freezers.

Alaska’s share of the 2020 halibut catch is about 17 million pounds for nearly 2,000 fishermen who own shares of the catch.

Ten days into the fishery fewer than 70 landings were made totaling just over 332,000 pounds and, as anticipated, prices to fishermen were in the pits. Some processors in Southeast Alaska were not buying halibut due to no ferries to haul the fish; others were buying small amounts on consignment. Many fishermen were simply opting to not go fishing.

Initial prices already have dropped from last week’s first landings which at Homer were posted at $4.20 – $4.40 per pound.

Kodiak prices were at $3.25 for 10-20 pounders, $3.50 for halibut weighing 20-40 pounds and $4 for “forty ups.”

Prices ranged from $3.75-$4.00 at Yakutat and $3.50 “across the board” at Wrangell, according to Alaska Boats and Permits in Homer.

The highest halibut prices of $4.50, $4.75 and $5.00 were reported at Southeast ports that have regular air freight service, although they were expected to drop by $1-$2 per pound, a major buyer said.

The average statewide price for Alaska halibut in 2019 was $5.30 a pound and $5.35 in 2018.

Most of Alaska’s halibut goes into the U.S. market where in recent years it has faced stiff competition from up to 8 million pounds of fresh Atlantic halibut, primarily from eastern Canada.

And although Russia has banned purchases of U.S. seafood since 2014, increasing amounts of halibut caught by Russian fishing fleets are coming into our nation. Trade data show that two million pounds of Pacific and Atlantic halibut were imported to the U.S. over the past year through January 2020, valued at nearly $6.7 million.

Also newly appearing on U.S. shelves: farmed halibut fillets from Norway retailing at $9.99 a pound near Seattle.

Early prices for sablefish, which also opened on March 14, were trending downwards. Prices below are from Alaska Boats and Permits in Homer.

3-19-20  KODIAK <2 .30, 2-3 1.30, 3-4 2.10, 4-5 2.75, 5-7 4.50, 7 UPS 7.00
3-18-20  PETERSBURG <2 .30, 2-3 1.00, 3-4 1.50, 4-5 2.00, 5-7 4.25, 7 UPS 6.00
3-21-20 SITKA <2 .40, 2-3 1.35, 3-4 2.10, 4-5 2.75, 5-7 4.75, 7 UPS 6.50
3-19-20 YAKUTAT <2 .40, 2-3 1.30, 3-4 2.20, 4-5 2.80, 5-7 4.50, 7 UPS 6.50