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Top Species: Halibut

Quota issues continue to challenge buyers of this popular species

By Joanne Friedrick
June 05, 2012

Size matters. And when it comes to halibut, which are smaller for their age than they were 20 years ago, it is impacting the exploitable stocks and putting the market into a downturn.

Halibut is unique in that it can adapt to its surroundings to survive as a large species or as a small one, says Peggy Parker, executive director of the Halibut Association of North America based in Bellingham, Wash. “It has the highest elasticity of any species on earth,” she notes.

Scientists are currently studying why halibut were larger than average for many years prior to the 1970s, but are no longer growing to the same sizes at a mature age. 

“There are a lot of individuals in the ocean,” says Parker, “but they aren’t large enough to meet the 32-inch limit.” 

Because the total biomass is good, she says, it may be necessary to explore some options, such as lowering the size limit to increase the take. “But we need to know what is causing (the size change) first,” she adds.

This year’s total catch limit for Alaska and British Columbia is 33.5 million pounds, down from 41 million pounds in 2011. The season began on March 17, says Parker, and through April 15 there were 2.551 million pounds caught in Alaska and almost 600,000 pounds in British Columbia, accounting for about 9 percent of the total catch limit.

In addition to the size-change issue, Parker says Pacific halibut has to compete for food with the Arrowtooth flounder, which has exploded in volume. Ecosystem management is important, says Parker, and means managing other species, such as the flounder, so both it and the halibut can survive.

Suppliers face challenges

For those who deal in halibut, the smaller quotas have certainly had an impact on availability and its price.

Sara Daniels, domestic fish division manager for E&E Foods in Seattle, says the quota cut has presented some supply issues.

There are two ways to get the fish out of Alaska; some ports are connected by road and yet others are accessible only by air.

With a limited and competitive supply market, says Daniels, companies that can transport via roads at a lower cost are able to pay more for the fish. This puts
processors that have to rely on air freight at a price disadvantage, she says.

E&E, which sells to distributors, has been paying $7.50 to $8.50 a pound for its halibut, which arrives via air. 

Customers are getting used to higher prices, says Daniels, who adds there is also a price discrepancy of 25 cents to 50 cents a pound between 10/20s and 20/40s. There are a lot of 10/20s leftover in freezers, she adds. The supply of halibut, albeit small, has been fairly steady, so the market hasn’t fluctuated as much this year as in the past. “We haven’t seen the big days yet,” Daniels notes.

Even with prices that are higher than other species, Daniels says, “people are champing at the bit for fish because of the lack of supply out there.” Two years ago, when prices first rose, there was a lot of resistance, she says. “Now distributors are more resigned to the price.”

The issues with supply of West Coast halibut can be felt in Rhode Island, where Peter Bruno, sales manager at Great Northern Products, is dealing in Atlantic halibut.

He says demand for frozen halibut is down, and with species such as salmon, swordfish and striped bass around, customers are less interested in halibut.

White tablecloth restaurants are looking for fresh and prices reflect that, with frozen in the high $8s to low $9s per pound vs. $10 to $10.50 for fresh. 

Farmed halibut from Prince Edward Island and Norway is also impacting the demand for frozen product, says Bruno.

Even though the halibut season begins in March, Bruno says “we don’t get going with it as a targeted species until May.” 

One of Great Northern’s Atlantic halibut customers was Whole Foods Market, which announced in April that it was discontinuing the species from its stores because of sustainability issues with the species. “It will affect our business,” says Bruno, adding, “everybody who turns their back on it, because of price or other issues, drives down the price.”

But prices aren’t likely to fall too far, says Bruno, because if U.S. customers aren’t willing to pay the market price for halibut, other markets will. “It’s a world economy these days and just because you won’t pay the price, don’t expect it to go way down.”

Instead, he says, they find export markets for it, such as Korea, China and Japan and even the Baltic states. “We’ve never really exported Atlantic halibut, but we’ve had requests from Europe and Asia,” he says.

A ’specials’ species

At the 4 Olives restaurant in Manhattan, Kan., Chef/Owner Scott Benjamin likes to feature halibut on his menu because it is “relatively familiar to people” compared to some of the other fish he can choose from.

Benjamin also likes halibut because it is seasonal in its fresh form. “You can’t run it all the time. From a marketing aspect, it’s a get-it- while-you-can item.”

Halibut is also easy to work with, he says. Ideally, Benjamin buys whole fish that he can work with himself. “But when it starts hitting 200 pounds, you can’t go through (a whole fish) fast enough.”

With a flavor profile that is stronger than some other fish, Benjamin says halibut allows him to pair it with some bolder flavors, such as a red wine court bouillon. Unlike milder fish, he says, it takes various preparations ranging from seared to broiled to grilled. “It would be a shame to fry it, but you could,” he adds. He has also steamed it and poached it, “and even used the sous vide on it.”

When halibut is in peak season, 4 Olives will feature it for a month. Otherwise, says Benjamin, he’ll do a halibut special and can go through 30 to 40 pounds on a weekend.

In land-locked Kansas, getting local fish isn’t an option, so he focuses on featuring fish from American waters. “We do about 50 percent of our business in fish and seafood,” he says. “It didn’t start out that way, but now people come here for fish.”

The price of halibut isn’t too bad right now, says Benjamin, and the quality-to-price ratio is very good. Thinking about when he’ll work with it next, Benjamin says it will probably be warm outside, “so I’ll do a light preparation. I’m a fan of steaming, so maybe I’ll do steamed halibut with white tequila, cilantro, butter, shredded carrot and red onion.” 

Contributing Editor Joanne Friedrick lives in Portland, Maine


Find other SeaFood Business articles with halibut here.

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