‘Jellied’ halibut spreading

Good year for malnourished fish is bad news for fishermen

Posted: Tuesday, March 07, 2006

This week commercial fishermen geared up their boats to kick off the opening of the halibut fishery and soon will be followed by sport and charter boat fishermen, all in hot pursuit of this sweet, flaky-fleshed bottom fish. But not all halibut will be welcomed onboard charter boats or into the fish market.

After last year’s halibut season, charter boat fishermen are increasingly on the lookout for the jellied halibut, a sickly fish fishermen prefer to throw back if they identify it before slicing it open, said Perry Flotre, a charter boat operator out of Ninilchik.

“When you bring it home it doesn’t look good,” he said. “It’s like Jell-O.”

Flotre, one of the first people to report finding a jellied halibut to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game last summer, said last year he saw about 20 to 25 jellied halibut, approximately eight times the number he is accustomed to seeing.

Scott Meyer, a fisheries biologist for Fish and Game in Homer, said after two years of receiving jellied halibut reports in 1998 and 1999, he did not recall receiving any additional reports again until last year.

In 2005 Fish and Game recorded data for 10 jellied halibut reports, but probably received approximately 20, Meyer said.

“It seemed confined to Cook Inlet as did all the previous reports in 98 and 99,” he said.

Most of the jellied halibut reported came from central Cook Inlet, and a few came from lower Cook Inlet.

Sample studies made in 1998, 1999 and 2005 suggest the lethargic fish with flabby or jellylike flesh are suffering from malnutrition and not parasites, said Ted Meyers, a fish pathologist for Fish and Game.

Although anecdotal, other observations made in 1998 appear to support this conclusion.

In 1998 fishermen reported a significant decrease in forage fish numbers around Cook Inlet and the Seward and Homer areas, according to a Fish and Game pathology report on the jellied halibut samples.

Most jellied halibut are small, 20 pounds or less, and the Homer area reportedly serves as a nursery for young halibut that feed primarily on forage fish.

Fishermen also reported finding young halibut stomachs that were mostly full of small crabs, a less nutritional source of food for halibut.

Although jellied halibut are sometimes difficult to recognize when they are alive, Flotre said he has identified three distinguishing features. On a jellied halibut, the bones on the underside of the fish and the scales on its back are more predominant than they would be on a healthy fish, and jellied halibut also tend to be skinny, he said.

The jellied halibut sometimes are confused with another diseased halibut fishermen wish to avoid. The chalky halibut is more common than the jellied halibut, but its affliction remains more mysterious.

The flesh of a chalky halibut is characterized by its bright opaque white color, but the flesh of the fish does not become chalky until after death and might not show signs of chalkiness for hours or even days after the fish has died.

Research conducted by the International Pacific Halibut Commission has linked the chalkiness with a buildup of lactic acid. This and other evidence suggest that the chalky fish are exposed to some sort of sublethal stress before death and that water temperatures may play a role.

But research, including study done outside of IPHC, has revealed little additional information about the condition, said Steve Kaimmer, a fishery biologist with IPHC.

“We know what it does, we can describe it, but we don’t know how or why,” he said. “It’s a frustrating project because you would think that we would be able to figure it out, but we didn’t.”

Although safe to eat, chalky halibut is hard to market and costs the halibut industry millions in lost revenue, according to IPHC.

The percent of landed halibut that becomes chalky remains low. In Alaska approximately 1 to 2 percent of the halibut, measured by weight, become chalky, Kaimmer said.

And although the increased number of jellied halibut found in 2005 creates some concern, the overall number of jellied halibut also appears to remain low.

“I don’t think it’s a big cause for alarm ... but we want to keep on top of it,” Meyer said.

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