Commentary

The magical $73 salmon

Alaska oil prices have now crept so low it is being reported a commercially caught king salmon is worth more than a barrel of crude oil, but 49th-state fishermen can only dream this sort of pricing true for the state’s salmon catch as a whole.

“Alaska Fish Factor” says that “the winter kings being caught by Southeast Alaska trollers are averaging 10 pounds each with a dock price of $7.34 a pound, according to state fish tickets. That adds up to $73.40 per fish, compared to less than $25 per barrel of oil.”

Along with early season Copper River kings and sockeye, troll-caught kings delivered fresh from the Panhandle to restaurants around the world throughout much of the year are the most valuable of Alaska fish and unique in pricing. Most of the state’s commercial fishermen would kill for $7.34 per pound.

The average price per pound of all Alaska salmon for 2015? About 40 cents.

Yes, you read that right. Forty cents, meaning the average 10-pound Alaska salmon was last year worth about $4. That’s a fraction of the cost of a barrel of oil even at today’s deflated prices.

Overall, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, the nearly 1.1 billion pounds of salmon landed in Alaska in 2015 was valued at $414 million. Specialty fish — troll-caught winter kings, first-of-season Copper kings and sockeyes — bring high value, but most Alaska salmon don’t.

The Copper season opened this year with sockeye going for $5.15 a pound, making the average 6.5-pound fish worth about $33.50. But by season end, the average price for the year was down to $2.01, making the average Copper River sockeye worth about half as much as a barrel of oil.

Still, compared to other Alaska salmon, that was a great price. The reality was that the average salmon was worth about one-fifteenth the price of a barrel of oil. At the average 2015 salmon price, the average commercially caught salmon would need to have weighed 62.5 pounds to be worth as much as a barrel of crude at $25. Salmon of that size are rare.

Alaskans can only wish that the prices paid for troll-caught salmon in Southeast Alaska during the winter were the norm for the state’s salmon fishing industry. If the $73.40 fish were representative, the state could start to tax fish like oil and help close the $3.5 billion budgetary shortfall facing its oil-financed government.

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3 replies »

  1. Realizing the value of our fish resource is the first step to giving “more consideration to managing for maximum economic yield”. Downplaying its value, or claiming it is “silly” to think we might supplement oil revenue with fish revenue is certainly not a step in that direction. I suspect this is a sore subject with those unfriendly to commercial fishing, since any step toward realizing more state revenue from commercial fishing highlights the importance of this industry to our entire state rather than just the coastal communities dependent on it. As for state funding of commercial fishing being a net loser – direct revenues are not everything, and the economic benefit to Alaskan individuals and communities is enormous. I suspect you are referring to the ISER report that included many commfish expenditures which also greatly benefit the subsistence and sportfishing community/industries as well as the tourism industry, but this was not factored appropriately.

    I’d say that the first steps to changing “that thinking” is to acknowledge our fish resource as hugely valuable, to support Alaska’s sport AND commercial fishing industries, and to find ways both can help our state through these tough fiscal times while using more than a simplistic measure of state revenues to judge the importance of our industries.

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  2. Good points Craig. Of course, the 40 cents figure includes gazillions of pinks and the offensively low price of Bristol Bay Sockeye last year. I’ve heard you claim that you think our salmon resource should be managed for the economic benefit of Alaska – a wise concept. This article could have been quite persuasive had it contained some ideas to that end on out how to increase the value of our salmon. As it is, your piece reads as nothing more than a partisan anti-commercial fishing response to an interesting point made by Laine Welch – with a quick sleight of hand to include all salmon rather than Kings, as she spoke. Dockside prices for Kings last summer were $4.50/lb. At that, even a jack was worth more than a barrel of oil. Why should we only wish that our fish were all worth what winter trollers are being paid? Why not instead motivate people to work towards making that a reality? Welch’s point still stands, and you could have done so much more with it…

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    • Thanks for reading, Todd. It wasn’t meant as a treatise on how to maximize the value of Alaska salmon, though it might be a good idea for someone to take a shot at writing that piece. It was meant to point out that any suggestion we can supplement oil revenue with fish revenue is silly. We can’t. As the figures in the ADF&G link showed, our most valuable fish — the king salmon, you mention — averaged 10.65 pounds at $3.01 in 2015. So the AVERAGE king, not some “jack,” was worth three-quarters to half of a price of a barrel of oil which traded at $40 to $60 for most of the summer. Some 474,000 kings (a number near maximum sustained yield) were sold for a total value of about $15.2 million. Even if we taxed them at 100 percent, which would be ridiculous, the $15.2M write down on our $3.5 Billion deficit wouldn’t even be noticeable. As for Welch’s point, I’m not sure what it was. The “fish more valuable than oil” appeared to be nothing but a tease aimed at attracting people to a story which mainly lobbied for maintaining state funding for commercial fish management and enforcement which is a net loser for the state. We should have fixed that long ago. Just as we should have been working to maximize value a long time ago. We could fish in different ways and do that, as economist Gunnar Knapp has on occasion suggested, but we don’t because the state has never given consideration to managing for maximum economic yield. If you have any idea on how to change that thinking, I’d love to hear them.

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