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Mushy halibut not issue for Southwest fish, market practice may be

August 31st, 2012 | Hannah Heimbuch and Jim Paulin Print this article   Email this article  

As cases of mushy halibut syndrome continue to pop up in Southcentral Alaska, fish authorities have issued a request for fishermen to report cases of the condition when spotted.

So far samples in Southwest Alaska haven't shown signs of the disease, said biologists Melanie Pilon and Jaelee Vanidestine, though initial fishermen reports are still being processed. Pilon is the Unalaska port sampler for the International Pacific Halibut Commission, which regulates halibut fisheries in Alaska. Vanidestine is the Sand Point port sampler.

Fishermen of all areas should be on the lookout for the condition, though, which is thought to be caused by malnutrition. First recorded in 1989, the flesh-softening disease has been on the rise in the last two years.

The IPHC asks that any sport, commercial or subsistence catch that appears jelly-like when raw, or mushy and watery when cooked be reported via email to They also ask that date, location and depth of catch along with sex, size and stomach contents be included where possible.

"It's super localized here in the gulf right now," said IPHC Homer biologist Jessica Marx. "As far as we know it's really only showed in Kodiak, Seward (and) Homer."

The reports have also been largely from sport fishermen, Marx said, an indication that the disease is affecting fish closer to shore, in shallower habitat zones than those frequented by commercial operations.

Though the mushy halibut issue still carries more questions than answers right now, this may point to a problem with halibut food sources in the Southcentral habitats close to shore, Marx said. The Bering Sea — with high concentrations of nutrients and halibut food sources — isn't as likely to see a lack of halibut nutrition.

While the IPHC is still learning about the cause and locations of mushy halibut syndrome, issues of poor halibut quality of another kind were raised recently in Unalaska.

At an Aug. 18 informal meeting in Unalaska, Bruce Leaman, executive director of the International Pacific Halibut Commission complained of "real tired looking fish" in Seattle supermarkets.

Leaman said merchants are keeping the fish in display cases too long, at the expense of quality. Given the high retail between $19 and $20 per pound, the consumers deserve better, he said.

Leaman complained of seeing 12-day-old fresh halibut in stores in Seattle.

Leaman attributed the problem to changes in the industry caused by the individual fishing quota program which allows for longer fishing seasons, compared to the former 24-hour derbies that landed large quantities in much shorter period

The problem now, Leaman said, is that 85 percent of the IFQ halibut is shipped fresh. But back in the derby days, the exact opposite happened, and 85 percent of the derby-caught halibut was frozen. He estimated that about half the halibut he sees in Seattle stores "just looks tired."

Leaman spoke a meeting with fishermen and the local IPHC staff at the community center, while making his annual tour of halibut inspection operations around the state. While he said he's been to Unalaska in past years, he said his last three Aleutian attempts were aborted because of weather conditions that caused canceled flights from Anchorage to the Dutch Harbor.

Hannah Heimbuch can be reached at Jim Paulin can be reached at


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