ANCHORAGE (AP) -- If you haven't heard -- and that seems unlikely -- the halibut harvest began Thursday, so fresh flatfish from local grocers and fishmongers awaits.
Compared with the hoopla that comes with the arrival of the red salmon in the Copper River, the greeting of the first halibut is more subdued but certainly no less anticipated by Alaskans, who have manifold methods of cooking the recipe-amenable fish.
The longer harvest time has spoiled locals to a certain degree because the fishing fleet wrenches fresh halibut from the depths eight months of the year. Only a few years ago, the fleet had to go out during government-mandated openings despite price or weather. The result was tons of fish hitting the docks at once, and handling was problematic.
The longer harvest, though, also comes with a price. Literally.
Terry Gardiner, former Alaska legislator and president of NorQuest Seafoods Inc. of Seattle, said consumers are paying more for halibut, but in return they're getting better product.
''Now, each fisherman can operate as his mood and the weather suits him,'' said Gardiner whose company buys halibut at Ketchikan, Cordova, Petersburg, Chignik and Adak. As a result, ''a steady supply of high-value, fresh halibut is available.''
And although some halibut is still frozen, he said, the quality is better because the pace of the fishery is more sane.
A longtime fisherman out of Kenai, Drew Sparlin, agrees.
He called the old 24- and 48-hour openings ''the derby days,'' when the fleet would go out regardless of sea conditions. These days, though, Sparlin picks his windows, and with good reason.
''Normally, this time of year, if you expect any volume, you have to fish deep water'' because the halibut have laid their eggs early in the year and still roam hundreds of fathoms down.
''If you have a 40-foot boat like I have, you don't want to be playing around in the Seward Trench'' at this time of year, said Sparlin. So some of the smaller boats stay home until mid- to late April, when the winter weather calms and the black cod start moving toward shallow water with hungry halibut on their tails.
For the most part, the fish in stores today come off ships than can handle the rough water rather than smaller boats with skippers more willing to sit back for reasonable conditions.
This year, another reason for waiting is a price that crews think is less than desirable.
Kevin Hogan, who runs a halibut auction site on the Internet, wrote on his site: ''The scuttlebutt for this year falls short (of last year's price) by approximately 15 to 20 percent.''
The Homer buyer said last year's price averaged $2.66 per pound once the season was in full swing. It started out about $3.23.
Hogan cites a 7 percent increase in the amount of fish allowed to be caught, fish still in freezers from last year and a predicted increase in what insiders call ''chalky'' fish.
Jessica Stack, general manager at Hogan's Auction Block Web site, said ''chalky'' refers to the flesh being more opaque than translucent.
''It definitely has a different texture. It has a high acidic level and has a lot of extra water, so it turns flaky when it's cooked.''
She said the flesh tastes the same but doesn't have the firmness or eye appeal that better fish have. She said scientists are studying why more chalky fish are showing up each year.
As a result, some buyers are leery. Saturday morning after the Thursday opening, the fishing boat Automatic returned to Homer with 3,000 pounds on board and sold the catch for $2.78 to $2.80 per pound, with the bigger halibut bringing the 2-cent bonus.
That evening, the price dropped to $2.50. By the next day, it fell to $2.25, nearly a dollar less than the price for last year's early returns.
''It's definitely a volatile market,'' Stack said.
What does this mean to consumers? Rob Winfree at 10th & M Seafoods in Anchorage said the news is good. The dollar drop from last year will be reflected in the stores -- or at least in his store.
As a matter of fact, he thinks the price will continue to slide.
''We've been hearing prices around two dollars. And I think it's going to drop more.''
He's selling whole fish -- from Homer, Seward and Kodiak -- minus heads and entrails for $4.25 per pound, fillets at $7.95, steaks for $6.25 and the coveted cheeks for $7.95.
So if Winfree's crystal ball is right, those prices will likely come down as the summer wears on. Halibut fans should be in for a good year.
He also said that, because of the inventory from last year remaining in freezers, ''this will be a good year to move halibut to the Lower 48,'' where in previous years buyers have been reluctant to pay premium prices.
Thus, not only will Alaskans who don't fish for a living reap the benefits of the low prices, so will more Outsiders.
But all halibut fans should not only look their fish in the eye for clarity; they should take a look at the flesh to make sure it has that translucence Alaskans have come to expect over the years. Stack, at the Auction Block, said that's particularly true in the later months of July through September, when water temperatures are warmer.
Peninsula Clarion ©2013. All Rights Reserved.