« November 2006 Table of Contents
Prices have hit new highs, but cost hasn't yet put a
major dent in demand
By Lisa Duchene
November 01, 2006
In early September at Tom Douglas' Dahlia Lounge in
Seattle, the halibut entrée was served in a bamboo steamer over
bok choy, sprinkled with grated fresh ginger and thinly sliced
scallions and finished with a toasted-garlic oil. It was a
beautiful presentation, and, at $26, it cost a pretty penny,
Prices for fresh halibut, the second-best-selling fish
behind salmon at Douglas' four Seattle restaurants, soared to
their highest ever this season. Fresh halibut, f.o.b. Seattle,
opened for the season in mid-March at $5 to $5.30 per pound and
stayed mostly in the $4-to-$5 range through mid-September, when
it reached nearly $6 per pound, according to Urner Barry.
Some distributors say retail and foodservice buyers are
starting to back off due to high prices, but Douglas hasn't
shied away from halibut.
"I don't think it will top out," he says. "Just look at what
[consumers] will pay for Copper River salmon [more than $20 per
pound] or filet mignon [$18 to $22 per pound].
"As long as it's caught beautifully, packed properly and
delivered to market quickly, [halibut] has a lot of flexibility
in price," says Douglas.
The halibut fishery boasts abundant supply, an eight-month
season and solid resource management; the U.S. North Pacific
fishery is certified sustainable by the Marine Stewardship
Council. These factors, along with Alaska's branding muscle,
have helped the mild-flavored, white and flaky-fleshed flatfish
become a darling of white-tablecloth chefs and a popular
species among chain restaurants and grocery stores.
This fall, some felt the halibut market was nearing its
ceiling and feared that high prices will cut into halibut's
hard-fought market share. But not everyone is worried.
Halibut's share on the menu isn't going anywhere, says Laura
Fleming, communications director for the Alaska Seafood
"[Halibut] has established a permanent place on the menu,"
she says, "and consumers expect a lot of fine-dining
establishments to have it, just as they expect them to have
Chip Mezin, general manager at American Fish and Seafood, a
Los Angeles distributor, agrees. Despite the highest halibut
prices he's seen in his 20 years buying and selling seafood,
Mezin says demand is still quite strong.
"There are a lot of complaints out there because of high
prices," he says. "But there is not a decline in sales as a
result. It's still the best-managed fish, the finest fish and a
sought-after fish for foodservice and retailers alike."
But Bob Sullivan, president at Plitt Seafood, a Chicago
distributor, is seeing buyers back off. Sullivan estimates his
halibut sales volume is down 15 to 20 percent this year.
One supermarket buyer who typically purchases 50,000 pounds
of halibut fillets for the winter has dropped his order to
32,000 pounds due to the high price.
Sullivan has also seen a drop in his foodservice orders for
"You're seeing menu erosion," says Sullivan. "People who
used to have halibut on the menu don't have it anymore. It's
gotten a little pricey for them."
One West Coast distributor says two major retailers have
told him they will soon stop carrying fresh halibut and shrink
their winter order for frozen. Since late July, retail halibut
promotions stopped. Retailers have seen high shrink as
consumers balked at the price.
"Anytime you break $10 at retail, a product prices itself
So, how did prices get so high?
For one thing, demand for halibut has been quite strong
across the board, among chain restaurants and grocery
At Marie Callender's Restaurant and Bakery, halibut is often
a top seller among the half-dozen dishes on the summer menu,
says Nick Saba, director of food and beverage for the
family-style chain, which has 140 outlets in the West and
The chain's halibut dishes include pecan-crusted halibut or
halibut topped with a scampi mix of shrimp sautéed in garlic
and lemon sauce, both for $16.99. For $15.99, diners can choose
from three grilled-halibut preparations: with a lemon-pepper
seasoning, with Cajun seasoning or topped with an
artichoke-and-mushroom cream sauce.
Saba likes halibut because it holds up to many different
preparations. Wholesale prices have been "astronomical," but he
expects no changes to the chain's halibut-purchasing plans.
A dip in supply
On the supply side, there was a slight drop in the total
catch limit set by the International Pacific Halibut Commission
for the Alaska, Pacific Northwest and British Columbia halibut
This year's limit is 66.9 million pounds, compared to 73.8
million pounds for 2005. As of Sept. 19, the halibut fisheries
had harvested a total of 55.6 million pounds.
Traditionally, the fishery was derby style, with high
landings spikes that resulted in a glut of fish and the
freezing of much of the harvest. In the early 1990s, that all
In 1991, the Canadian fishery went to an individual vessel
quota system; in 1995, the Alaska fishery went to an individual
fishing quota system.
The season now runs from mid-March to mid-November, and the
more consistent supply has resulted in most fish being sold
Yet the frozen market is still substantial. Frozen, battered
halibut is found in the retail frozen-food case, says ASMI's
Fleming. In both retail and foodservice channels, frozen
boneless, skinless halibut portions are increasingly popular,
What really helped drive up the market this year, says
Sullivan, was last year's shortage of frozen halibut.
Processors found themselves without enough halibut in last
year's off-season, between mid-November 2005 and mid-March
2006, so processors who sell frozen halibut bought loads of it
this season to make sure their freezers would be well-stocked,
It happens every four years or so, he explains. "People get
short the winter before, so the frozen market is hot the next
summer, and it jumps up prices on you a little bit," he
Chalky fish a concern
Adding to concerns about market erosion, another effect of
high prices has been buyers' frustration over a "chalky"
condition that can ruin the appearance of the halibut flesh.
The fish is safe to eat, but unattractive.
Steve Kaimmer, biologist with the IPHC, explains that the
fish releases lactic acid into the flesh, changing its acidity
level and altering the texture.
Chalky fish is hard for buyers to detect. The pH changes
from 12 to 20 hours after death, and the chalky flesh occurs
later. Thus a chalky fish can seem perfectly fine the day after
Overall, less than 2 percent of the halibut harvest is
estimated to be chalky, but about 5 percent of the catch off
Washington and Oregon can be affected, says Kaimmer.
"It's small, but noticeable. If you bought chalky fish, you
lost money on it," he notes.
Jon Speltz, VP and buyer at Wild Salmon Seafood Market in
Seattle, is well aware of how a chalky fish bites into his
bottom line. A normal halibut with firm, translucent flesh,
sells for $13.99 in his retail case. A chalky fish sells for
about $4.99 a pound. "Chalkers," as Speltz calls them, cause
greater frustration now because the loss is greater.
"When you're paying $6 a pound for fish instead of $2 or $3
a pound like we used to, then it's a huge issue all of a
sudden," says Speltz.
He's tempted to drop halibut altogether, due to the high
prices. It's a nice fish, but not so nice that it's worth $16
to $17 a pound, he says.
But Speltz's customers expect to find halibut at his fresh
fish market on Seattle's Fishermen's Terminal. His customers
also expect to find wild fish, given the term "wild" in the
store's name, so Speltz isn't likely to turn to farmed halibut,
even when it becomes more available. He suspects other buyers,
"There are enough unhappy [halibut] buyers out there that
the marketplace is poised to welcome farmed halibut," he
Limited farmed supply
Since the 1990s, Marine Harvest, part of the world's largest
fish-farming company, has raised halibut in Hjelmeland in
The company produces about 1,200 metric tons of the total
1,800 metric tons of farmed halibut produced globally each
year, says Magnus Skretting, managing director of coldwater
species for Marine Harvest, with headquarters in Amsterdam.
About 250 metric tons of that production is going to the United
States, he says.
Marine Harvest markets farmed halibut heavily during the
wild fishery's off-season as a small (2.2 to 22 pounds), luxury
fish. It sells to high-end chefs and retailers in Norway, the
United Kingdom, Sweden and the United States.
"This will never be a [farmed] salmon story," says
Skretting. "[Halibut] will be a story with a limited
production. You will never reach the [same] volumes [as] salmon
due to the fact that [halibut is] very expensive to produce.
That's why it will stay at 3,000 to 5,000 metric tons.
"Maybe in 10 years' time, [the industry] can produce 5,000
metric tons, but not more than that. It will not be a
Next year's farmed-halibut production is projected to reach
2,000 metric tons, industry-wide, with Marine Harvest
accounting for 1,300 metric tons.
Farmed halibut can reach annual production of 20,000 metric
tons without disturbing the market for wild Pacific or Atlantic
halibut, according to a Marine Harvest market analysis, says
For now, wild halibut is the dominant supply source, though
future landings are expected to drop a bit.
Catches have been about 73 million pounds annually, while
long-term, sustainable yield is estimated to be about 65
million pounds, says Bruce Leaman, executive director of the
IPHC, which will make a recommendation for next year's catch
limit at its annual meeting Jan. 19.
Large year classes from the 1970s and 1980s are starting to
pass out of the fishery, so the stock is declining, says
Leaman. Recruitment between the 1980s and mid-1990s was below
Since then, biologists have tracked strong recruitment
years, but that productivity has not yet shown up in the
fishery. Fish appear in the catch at about eight years.
"Generally, the trajectory of the stock is down somewhat,"
says Leaman. "We expect that to stabilize as these new recruits
come onto the fishery over the next several years."
So don't expect any bargains in 2007 for halibut, just a
fine, palate-pleasing fish that will be in good supply for a
long time to come.
Contributing Editor Lisa Duchene lives in Bellefonte,