Anchorage Daily News
August 18, 2002
A NEW THREAT
Will fish farms decimate Alaska’s booming halibut fishery the way they did the salmon fishery?
By WESLEY LOY
CLARK’S HARBOR, Nova Scotia — Along the foggy, cove carved coast of Nova Scotia, the lobster rules. Commercial lobstermen pull rich hauls from the chilly Atlantic, and McDonald’s fetes the local delicacy with a McLobster sandwich on its menu.
But at tiny Clark’s Harbor, packed with picturesque fishing boats, another seafood favorite is coming on strong. And you don’t need a boat to catch it.
It swims in giant tanks in the basement of a dank and creepy building near the wharf. There are hundreds of thousands of them — halibut — in all different sizes, from guppylike hatchlings to palm-sized flatties to 180-pound lunkers.
Operators at this hatchery and a companion grow-out plant down the road at Woods Harbor pipe in purified seawater, feed the fish tiny shrimp or vitamin-fortified pellets, and wait for them to reach market size. The company, Scotian Halibut Ltd., expects to sell its second crop this fall in the Northeast United States.
‘‘It’s a lot cheaper to catch a halibut than to grow one,’’ concedes hatchery manager Melissa Rommens.
Making a market-ready 10-pounder takes two and a half years of breeding, feeding and praying.
But the owners are betting the operation will pay off eventually. And while local fishermen are too hooked on lucrative lobsters to pay much attention to Scotian Halibut, fishermen across the continent in Alaska are worried.
They have good reason, having already been whipped once by foreign fish farmers. This summer, the slow drowning continued at Alaska’s flagship red salmon fishery at Bristol Bay, where the total payoff to fishermen was only $25 million compared to more than $200 million a decade ago. The main culprit is huge new supplies of farmed salmon from countries like Chile, Norway and Canada, depressing global salmon prices.
Now, the aquaculture industry — the world’s fastest growing food producer, according to the United Nations — is aggressively starting to farm white fish like halibut and cod.
Alaska’s historic halibut industry, the world’s top producer, could be in for a shark attack.
Halibut long has been one of Alaska’s most important commercial species. Last year, 3,532 fishermen landed halibut worth $113 million, close to what salmon is expected to pay statewide this year.
In fact, times have never been better for halibut fishermen. The big flatfish are riding a population spike in the North Pacific, and fishermen are enjoying their best prices ever.
The spooky analogy is Alaska salmon, which also was riding high at the outset of the 1990s.
Then came the salmon farmers.
Some think halibut might be the next prey. ‘‘Can we stop that monster from coming out of the closet? I don’t think we can,’’ says Rob Wurm, a Seattle-based manager of some top performing Alaska halibut boats.
TIDDLYWINKS OR BUST
Peter Swim’s family has been in the fish business for more than 100 years. The seafood distributor’s office is in downtown Clark’s Harbor, the main community on Cape Sable Island, touted locally as the most southerly piece of ground in Canada.
In back of Swim’s office is the busy wharf and a nearby baseball diamond where kids play till midnight in the soupy fog. Across the street is the newly refurbished Seaside Heritage Center, a weathered building with soaring ceilings and a ‘‘widow’s walk’’ for fishermen’s wives to scan the horizon. Nova Scotia’s country music legend, Hank Snow, once played here.
There’s no movie theater in Clark’s Harbor, population 1,000, but plenty of stark, whitewashed Baptist churches.
At one time, the ocean off Cape Sable Island teemed with bottom fish, including halibut and cod — just as Alaska’s waters do today. But the Scotian stocks played out in recent years, and commercial fishermen say they’re limited to a paltry 500 pounds of halibut a week.
A few years ago, Swim, 45, put out some feelers on the idea of fish farming. Lobsters were booming, in large part due to the disappearance of predatory cod, but fish plants were closing for lack of fish.
‘‘There was really nothing left in the ocean for us to go after,’’ he says.
Before long, he got a call from an outfit called Fiske in Iceland. The company was a leader in the tedious science of hatching and rearing teensy baby halibut. Fiske and seven Canadian investors, including Swim, went halves on Scotian Halibut, sinking $10 million into the venture so far. The Canadian government helped, including a $317,000 interest-free loan in 2000.
The partners bought two shuttered plants that used to process fish and seaweed, and started making halibut four years ago.
Most farmers raise their fish in net pens anchored out in coastal waters, but some halibut farmers think indoors is best. Halibut need a steady water temperature, and waters off Nova Scotia often are either too hot or too cold, Swim says.
Land-based farming also allows Scotian Halibut to dodge the environmental rocks often hurled at aquaculture, including pollution from densely corralled fish and escapees mixing with wild fish, possibly spreading disease or skewed genetics.
Twenty people work for Scotian Halibut, feeding the fish, cleaning the tanks, and running a complex array of pumps and filtration gear that sustains the crop.
The company shipped about 100,000 pounds of mature halibut to market last fall, mostly to New York where it probably landed in upscale restaurants and grocery stores, Swim says. The company plans a second shipment this November and December.
Local commercial fishermen, locked in on lobstering, generally yawn over Scotian Halibut. ‘‘It’s more or less an experiment,’’ says Ronald Waybret, before casting off aboard his 43-foot boat, the Lady Becky, to catch halibut and cod.
Well, it’s clearly more than that. With its massive tanks and a finishing warehouse big enough to hold a jetliner, the operation looks more like a fish factory than an experiment.
Yet Swim and finance director Hugh Snow — no relation to Hank — insist that Scotian Halibut is no threat to Alaska’s halibut industry, so long as the North Pacific’s abundant, free wild stock remains healthy.
They say their expensive operation could never make enough halibut, which grow slower than salmon, to steal the markets. They’re cagey on production costs, but a consultant’s report done for Alaska three years ago cited a range of $1.85 to $2.21 per pound.
Even the company’s minimum target production of 500,000 to 600,000 pounds a year is minuscule compared to Alaska’s wild catch, which this year could reach 62 million pounds.
‘‘What we’re talking here is tiddlywinks,’’ Snow says. ‘‘There’s probably individual fishermen who catch more.’’
But what if lots more halibut farmers want to play?
A FISH FRENZY
Inside Scotian Halibut’s cavernous hatchery, it’s dark, cold and calm. Halibut, denizens of deep water, like it that way. Tap their tanks and fish lolling on the bottom, sometimes two and three deep, can go into a fit called swarming.
Rommens, the hatchery manager, prefers they avoid that stress and concentrate on grubbing and growing.
The hatchery uses a couple hundred large halibut caught from the wild as breeding stock. Workers trick them into spawning three times a year by manipulating light and water temperature to mimic the seasons.
After hatching, the tiny halibut larvae look like ordinary fish, except for their clear bodies and luminescent eyes, and are ready for their first feeding. They eat tiny brine shrimp called Artemia, also raised at the hatchery, until they can be weaned onto formula feed.
Feeding the little ones was a major industry hurdle. Halibut larvae are only a tenth the size of salmon youngsters, and much more delicate. Even now, scores of halibut larvae die and the threat of bacterial infection like vibriosis is a constant worry. Visitors at Scotian Halibut must don white rubber boots, step into endless vats of disinfectant and wash their hands over and over with squirts of AlcoSCRUB.
Rommens says the hatchery vaccinates the fish but avoids the use of antibiotics.
At about 90 days old, the little fish go through a bizarre metamorphosis. Their bodies begin to lie down flat, and the eye and nostril on the downside migrate over the head to join their counterparts on top. The halibut are no bigger than a quarter at this point, but well on their way to becoming what would look to most Americans like giant, freak flounder.
Later, hatchery workers cull out the best fish and shunt the runts, or ‘‘zoo fish’’ as Rommens calls them, to Tank 13 where they will languish indefinitely. ‘‘We don’t have the heart to kill them,’’ she says.
As the halibut get larger, they move into progressively larger tanks, some bigger than swimming pools. They eat pellets made of ground fish parts, vitamins and grain. Unlike the babies, these big fish are tough as Frisbees, Rommens says.
The goal is to make fish year-round, especially during winter when little or no halibut is caught in the wild. But Scotian Halibut is young and is still filling its tanks with new litters of fish, Rommens says.
There’s little difference between Atlantic and Pacific halibut, though the latter get a bit bigger and reputedly have flesh that’s less firm.
Halibut is one in a slew of white fish species farmers are trying to raise, says John Forster, an aquaculture expert in Port Angeles, Wash. They include tilapia, catfish, red drum and cobia, plus two species of great commercial importance in Alaska: Pacific cod and black cod, also known as sablefish.
None offers a perfect blend of good taste, fast and easy growth, and high fillet yield, says Forster. He predicted in a 1999 report for Alaska that farmed halibut production would exceed the wild catch, as with salmon, possibly by 2010.
Today, farmed halibut output is puny compared to Alaska’s wild catch. Leading halibut farmers like Norway and Scotland have shifted their focus to cod, which are depleted in the North Atlantic.
But halibut remains a tasty target for growers who see a ‘‘salmon-size opportunity’’ in white fish, Forster says.
THE ALASKA WAY
Most of the world has embraced fish farming, but Alaska remains an island of dissent.
Besides the Norwegians and Scots, government and university scientists and private farmers are growing halibut and cod in Maine, Washington and on both coasts of Canada. Even Hawaii wants to raise halibut, using cold ocean water pumped up from 3,000 feet and juvenile halibut from the Scotian Halibut hatchery at Clark’s Harbor.
Elsewhere, catfish rivals cotton as Mississippi’s top crop. Tobacco is making way for shrimp farming in Kentucky and Tennessee. Three years ago the Department of Commerce adopted a policy to boost aquaculture production from $900 million annually to $5 billion by 2025. Globally, since the mid-1980s, aquaculture has soared to nearly 30 percent of world fisheries production and more strong growth is expected, the United Nations says.
Alaska allows some shellfish farms, but the Legislature banned finfish farming in 1990, just as global salmon farming was about to rocket. Many commercial fishermen demanded the ban, saying salmon farms could pollute, infect or genetically scramble wild stocks.
Farming advocates said the fishermen just wanted protection from competition.
Now the competition is eating them alive. World salmon consumption has surged but the farmers, not Alaskans, have captured most of that demand. Meantime, with so much new salmon around, prices for all producers have sagged to the extent that many Alaska salmon fishermen are in a financial crisis.
The story couldn’t be more different for Alaska’s halibut fishermen — for now, at least.
Halibut is one of Alaska’s grandest commercial fisheries. Starting in the late 1800s, sailing ships and then steamships laden with small dories, tough fishermen and hemp lines dangling with hundreds of hooks hauled in millions of pounds of the big flatfish off Alaska and British Columbia. Rail cars hauled iced halibut east to places like Chicago and Boston, big U.S. hubs that still absorb most Alaska halibut.
In 1995, the race for halibut and black cod off Alaska ended when the government assigned individual quotas. That allowed hyper-competitive seasons that had tightened to as little as 48 hours a year to relax and lengthen to eight months as each fisherman chose for himself when to catch and sell his fish.
Now, most of the fish flows steadily into lucrative fresh markets instead of all in a wad into giant freezers, and dock prices to fishermen have jumped from around 70 cents a pound in the racing days to $2 and even $3 a pound now. On top of that, the Pacific halibut stock is sustaining some of the largest catches ever.
BRACING FOR BATTLE
‘It’s fantastic times for halibut,’’ says Nicholas Delaney, one of the top Alaska halibut and black cod harvesters. He owns shares in six boats and, more importantly, rights to catch 326,000 pounds of halibut annually and 264,000 pounds of black cod. Those rights could fetch millions of dollars if he sold right now.
In fact, some fishermen say privately they already have sold out, figuring their assets were at grave risk from an impending explosion of halibut farming.
Delaney, 52, who lived 25 years in Kodiak before moving to Seattle, worries about a panic for the exits but says he can’t bail now after a lifetime of fishing and owning boats.
He prefers to look at the halibut industry’s strengths relative to the state’s salmon debacle. Because the halibut fleet went to the tradeable individual quotas, it has greatly consolidated and is efficient now compared to the salmon industry, which remains gridlocked with far more boats than are needed to catch the available and increasingly low-value fish.
Also, the salmon farmers exploited the fact that fresh salmon from Alaska, once the world’s main source, was available only during the summer runs. Fresh Alaska halibut is available now for eight months, and that might act as a bulwark against the farmers, Delaney says.
Yet fishermen are worried. Many fishermen are leaning on the Seattle-based International
Pacific Halibut Commission, a joint U.S.-Canadian panel that regulates halibut catches off Alaska, British Columbia and the West Coast, to extend the halibut season even longer and to come out against halibut aquaculture.
Some fishermen also want a self-imposed tax on halibut landings to allow the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute to boost halibut promotions.
On Tuesday, Canadian and U.S. fishermen plan a summit in Seattle to talk about how to fight the farmers. ‘‘We can learn a lesson from salmon,’’ says Bob Alverson, manager of the Fishing Vessel Owners’ Association, a Seattle-based trade group of halibut and black cod harvesters.
FISH FARMING — A NATURAL
That the sea would be farmed seems a no-brainer. How many cows, pigs and chickens are hunted in the wild and sold in restaurants and supermarkets?
Nova Scotia, with a deep tradition of commercial fishing, is now aggressively chasing aquaculture. This summer the province signed a deal with the Canadian federal government to solve environmental challenges and build an industry that already is worth more than $30 million.
‘‘This is an ideal industry for Atlantic Canada,’’ says Brian Crowley, president of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies, a think tank in the Scotian capital of Halifax.
‘‘It’s based in coastal communities where jobs are scarce, it’s not seasonal, it’s high-tech, and it meets a growing market demand worldwide.’’
At Scotian Halibut, hatchery manager Rommens goes about her work with quiet confidence. She learned to raise fish at Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans.
‘‘There’s always going to be a market for wild fish,’’ she says. ‘‘But people are incredibly interested in this. They want to buy juveniles. They want to learn about halibut aquaculture.’’
Tell her the halibut is an ugly fish and she replies: ‘‘No! For one thing, they smell like money. Anything that smells like money can’t be ugly.’’