Unloading frozen squid bait at Ballard, WA Credit: International Marine Industries

Unloading frozen squid bait at Ballard, WA
Credit: International Marine Industries

Baits are critical to fishermen’s catches for nearly every kind of gear. As with catches, bait supplies also can have ups and downs.

“Over the years things have changed, they’ve gone back to some baits over the years, they’ve stuck with some, they try to find what is the new and upcoming best thing and get ahead of the curve. That’s what we try to do.”  

Justin Hackley is vice president of sales and marketing for International Marine Industries in Newport, Rhode Island, a global bait provider for over 30 years.  Alaska is one of its biggest customers and for decades it was east coast herring that kept Alaska fleets fishing – until a better alternative surfaced.

“Whether it be halibut or black cod longlining, or pot bait for Dungeness and opilio and king crab, and pot cod. What happened was a cheaper alternative came around – Pacific sardines caught off the coast of Astoria. That fishery produced nice big fatty fish – fat content at 18 percent, way higher than you can get out of east coast herring. “

 But the Pacific sardine fishery closed three years ago, and Hackley scrambled to find another bait alternative. He says it took some convincing, but last year Kodiak fishermen and processors agreed to bite.

“Pacific saury is the new up and coming bait that last year we just got them to take and it’s been quite successful.”

 Now saury is feeling pressure from increased demand from the food market and shortages of other popular bait fish worldwide. That’s pushed up prices to Alaska fishermen.

 “You used to be able to get saury in the low 50[s and high 40s cents per pound. Toward the end of last year paying 80 to 85 cents a pound in Seattle. “  

Likewise, bait prices for squid at Dutch Harbor jumped from 85-90 cents to $1.35 a pound from a year ago. Bigger boats can use up to ten and a half million pounds of bait a year!  Hackley has sourced some baits in Alaska – one gaining traction is pollock.

“Pollock has taken the place of herring really – I used to sell a lot of longline herring to halibut guys and now everyone seems to want pollock more and more now.”  

In terms of using Alaska herring for longline bait, Hackley says the fish are either too small or too big, but they would be good for pot boats. Keeping ahead of the curve is critical in his line of work and a challenge is getting fishermen to give it a try.

“You always gotta try and stay one step ahead of the curve so you can go to fishermen and say we don’t know what’s going to happen with this fishery for the next year or two so we’ve got to start looking at some other things and be prepared. So we can bring stuff in and say try it. While there is still plenty of this other bait ,  try it to make sure we have something to fall back on. I think that’s the most important job for us.”

Hackley credits Alaska for its sustainable management practices and believes he’ll have a good customer long into the future.

“I think fish is going to be there for a long, long time and as  long as that’s happening and there are people out there fishing and there’s pots and hooks going in the water I’m gonna be there throwing frozen bait at ‘em.”