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St. Paul halibut fishery gains ground

January 21st, 2011 | Rose Cox Print this article   Email this article  

Innovations at work in St. Paul have halibut fisherman poised to take advantage of the nation's huge appetite for halibut.

St. Paul Island in the Pribilofs has a new, one-of-a-kind harbor that will begin to serve its local halibut fleet in summer 2011. An investment in equipment to add value to the catch is already paying off, and its marketing plan includes major chain restaurants as far away as the East Coast.

The 2010 season brought in 811,000 pounds of halibut, for a total net production of 647,000 pounds. About 30 percent of the catch, nearly 200,000 pounds, was portioned

and vacuum packed fresh for sale to restaurants and seafood distributors, said Steve Manley, controller for the Central Bering Sea Fishermen's Association. CBSFA is the nonprofit community development group that manages St. Paul's CDQ and IFQ fisheries and its fishermen's cooperative.

"Our goal is to get as close to the end-user buyer as possible in as premium a market as possible," he said. "It's two years into our portion program, and we made a big step between year one and year two. We plan on making another step this coming year."

Local fleet, community benefits

Aleut fishermen on St. Paul Island have fished halibut as a subsistence food for generations. After the U.S. government ended the commercial fur seal harvest in 1983, the Corps. of Engineers with the City of St. Paul as the sponsor built a boat harbor. The local tribal entity, Aleut Community of St. Paul, helped residents build a fleet to fish halibut commercially and established a plant to process the catch.

By 1992, when the Community Development Quota (CDQ) program was put in place, St. Paul was already home to a successful fishing operation.

The Halibut and Sablefish Individual Fishing Quota (IFQ) program implemented in 1995 further strengthened the local industry by allocating 50 percent of the halibut in management Area 4C to the CDQ communities of St. Paul and nearby St. George.

Nearly a quarter of the St. Paul's 400 or so residents work in the halibut fishery, harvesting the CDQ and IFQ allotment. They are boat owners, skippers, crew members, deck hands, onshore hook baiters and crane operators.

In the early '90s, halibut sold to the local processing plants brought between 70 cents and $2 a pound. In 2010, local fisherman earned $4.80 a pound for their ex-vessel catch, up from $2.91 in 2009.

CBSFA established a halibut co-op in 2003 to maximize prices paid to its members, who are all fishermen that live in the community. The fleet includes 16 boats ranging from 18 to 46 feet long, with the standard being 32 feet, said Jeff Kauffman, vice-president of CBFSA.

The dollar value for the 2010 catch was about $3.8 million, Manley said, paid directly to local fishermen through the CBSFA Halibut Cooperative.

"The halibut market was really hot this past season, I don't know how much hotter it can get," said Phillip Lestenkof, local halibut fisherman and president and CEO of CBSFA's board of directors. "But when you compare it to eight years ago, it has become very lucrative to the average fisherman."

The halibut co-op purchased $450,000 worth of portioning and vacuum packing equipment two years ago to add value to its prized fish. The local fleet delivers its catch fresh to the docks every night, where it is hand-filleted at the local Trident plant, portioned into 6- or 8-ounce servings and individually vacuum-packed before being frozen and boxed with the CBSFA logo for shipment.

It's about as close as you can get to fresh halibut.

"It makes an incredible product, people love it," Kauffman said.

In 2008, CBSFA and its subsidiary, Multi-Species Development Holdings, LLC, built the F/V Saint Paul, a 58-foot halibut and crab boat to fulfill any CDQ and IFQ quota that isn't caught by the local fleet during a season. In 2010, it landed 201,389 pounds of halibut IFQ and 41,181 pounds of CDQ for the co-op, Kauffman said. CBSFA also owns significant portions of four other fishing vessels.

Last year, CBSFA partnered with the local tribe to build a $320,000 search and rescue boat to aid the local fleet, and pumped nearly a half million dollars into community programs.

Harbor design is "leading-edge"

St. Paul is a tiny dot in the Central Bering Sea, just 40 square miles of land hundreds of miles north of the Aleutian Islands. The Arctic ice pack can come down and fill the whole harbor at times during the winter, Kauffman said.

The new small boat harbor at St. Paul includes a unique marina that can be deployed for the summer halibut season, then dismantled and stored for winter.

"With the conditions at this site, there's no way you could leave something in the water that could survive," said Jesse Ellenz, general manager of Bellingham Marine Northwest Division. "One local said 'We get an average of three hurricanes a year here, but nobody reports them.' "

The Ferndale, Wash.-based company designed, engineered and built the mooring facility for the new harbor. St. Paul's remote location and harsh environment made for a number of unique challenges.

Without access to local materials, the facility had to be pre-fabricated, sized and barged to the site. The structure had to be safe and ultra-sturdy, since it's virtually impossible to get replacement parts to St. Paul in a timely manner, Ellenz said. It also had to be easily removable.

Ellenz said there's not another one like it in the country.

"We've done a lot of docks, but we've never done a system like this," Ellenz said. "Right now, they're on the leading edge."

The $6 million facility includes a 160-foot dock and a second dock that is 260-feet. They are held in place by giant concrete anchors buried in the harbor, instead of pilings. Chains from the dock to the anchors hold everything in place.

In addition to local small boats, the harbor can accommodate the 58-foot halibut and black cod vessels that transit through St. Paul.

A trial installation of the mooring facility before winter set in went well, and the harbor will begin serving the fleet in June.


WHAT: Central Bering Sea Fisherman's Association Small Boat Harbor

WHERE: St. Paul Island, Pribilof Islands

COST: $20 million total; $14 million for dredging and rock work in the harbor; $6 million to purchase, ship and install the mooring facility

FUNDING SOURCES: CBSFA, mooring facility; City of St. Paul, harbor

OWNERS: Central Bering Sea Fisherman's Association owns the mooring facility and manages the small boat harbor.

DESIGN: Bellingham Marine designed, engineered and built the mooring facility.

GENERAL CONTRACTOR: Dutra Group, Calif., rock work, dock assembly, installation

SUBCONTRACTORS: No subcontractors

WHY: To provide a dock for the local halibut fleet and other fishing vessels up to 58 feet long.

WHEN: The harbor will be used for the first time in 2011 during the halibut season, June to September.


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