Expert: halibut farming still a threat to fishermen

Posted: Thursday, March 08, 2001

JUNEAU (AP) -- Halibut farms haven't grown as quickly as predicted, but they are gaining ground and could eventually do to long-liners what salmon farms have done to trollers and other fishermen, an expert in the field says.

''I think its fairly certain in the next five years you wont have dramatic competition,'' John Forster, who authored a 1999 report on the emerging industry, told the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institutes board of directors on Tuesday. ''After that, all bets are off.''

Halibut is a promising prospect for fish farmers and their financial backers because adult halibut are resistant to common marine diseases and a single fish yields a lot of fillets, Forster said.

However, the big flatfish have posed challenges for Chile, Norway and other countries that successfully farm salmon, cutting into Alaska's wild fish markets.

The survival rate for pen-reared juvenile halibut is low -- sometimes as low as 3 percent, he said. That's the main reason the farmed halibut industry hasn't grown as quickly as Forster predicted two years ago.

However, it appears halibut farmers are moving beyond the problem and are now producing more juvenile fish today, Forster said.

''What were seeing is a much more steady and predictable increase in juveniles,'' said Forster, who has more than 30 years experience in commercial aquaculture.

Homer fisherman and board member Jamie Ross asked whether the farmed halibut industry could totally trounce wild halibut fishermen in the next 20 years, as salmon farmers have done to salmon fishermen.

''Absolutely,'' Forster said. And in 10 years?

''If people got their act together and started pouring out juveniles in the next few years, it could happen,'' Forster warned.

The prospect is grim for Alaska halibut fishermen who have watched salmon farms take over the world salmon market.

Once up and running, the farms produce huge volumes of fish that can be supplied fresh and filleted to order year-round. The increased supply has driven down prices for Alaska fish.

''It's going to be who can produce the product at the lowest cost and still remain viable,'' said Cordova fisherman Jim Kallander, board chairman of ASMI, the states seafood marketing arm. ''I have a huge investment in halibut fishing in the state of Alaska, so I'm concerned.

ASMI Executive Director Barbara Belknap said the agency doesn't have money for extra marketing for halibut. But she said its imperative Alaska fishermen take steps now to fend off the competition and ensure their place in the halibut market.

''They should nurture their relationships with buyers and focus on producing the highest quality product,'' she said.

Belknap also suggested the governor or Legislature convene a study group to figure out the best course of action.

''Lets look at it long-term -- what can we do now to be ready for this in 10 or 15 years instead of just watching it come as we did with salmon,'' Belknap said.

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