While the Alaska Department of Fish and Game was celebrating what it claims as another “record” season for commercial fishermen in remote Bristol Bay, a company rooted in Denmark was forging ahead with its salmon “Bluehouse” at the opposite corner of the continent in Homestead, Fla.
Atlantic Sapphire plans to bring its first salmon to market by the end of the year, Seafood Source reported Thursday, and it has purchased 80 acres adjacent to its existing property with plans “to expand production capacity to 220,000 metric tons annually by 2030.”
Bristol Bay, according to Fish and Game figures, produced about 173,000 metric tons this year. That was not a record, but it was the second-highest harvest in history.
That is true and not true depending on how it is viewed. The $306.5 million is a record if one ignores inflation. It is far from a record if inflation is considered.
Three decades after the heyday of Alaska’s commercial fisheries, Bristol Bay gillnetters were this summer getting $1.35 per pound for sockeye, National Fisherman reported. That’s 65 cents less than what they were paid 31 years ago when a dollar was worth twice what it is worth today.
Given that sockeyes are the most valuable salmon in the Bristol Bay catch, the price disparity with other species is even greater.
The farmers invade
Alaska banned fish farming in 1990, thinking it could hold down global supply and keep prices high. As with so many other efforts to control the free-market amoeba, it didn’t work.
Instead the then-tiny business of farming salmon in Norway popped out into a global juggernaut. Today, more than 70 percent of human-consumed salmon comes from fish farms, and the farmers show no sign of backing off their push for dominance.
Norway hopes to increase its production by five or six fold by 2050, and Norway isn’t the only player in the game anymore. The Chileans, the Scots, the Kiwis, the Aussies, the Japanese and even the Chinese are now farming salmon.
A lower 48 fishing friend – someone well familiar with West Coast wild fish of all sorts from Alaska south to Oregon – confessed the other day that about all that is eaten anymore at home is Costco farmed salmon.
The use of antibiotics to control sea lice and diseases has been the big rap against farmed salmon along with accusations that natural waste from the fish swimming around in the net pens of farms can contaminate waterways.
Farmers have countered that with the argument these problems can be solved by locating farms in areas with tides that disperse waste, but a growing segment of the fishing business – as illustrated by Atlantic Sapphire – has suggested a better idea:
Recirculating aquaculture systems or RAS for short.
RAS farms have no need for antibiotics to protect the fish since they are insulated from natural pathogens, and the wastewater from the farms can be used for fertilizer. Atlantic Sapphire with its massive “Salmon City” just northeast of the Florida Everglades is the biggest player in this country, but it is not alone.
Superior Fresh – a Wisconsin company that looks to be the microbrew beer model for future, small-scale salmon farms – this summer announced a $10 million expansion of its joint RAS salmon farm and greenhouses.
“With millions of dollars in financial backing from Todd Wanek, the CEO of Ashley Furniture, and his wife, Karen, this is where a team of experts schooled in the minutiae of aquaculture and hydroponics uses water from the fish rearing process to grow vegetables year-round on floating mats. It’s all certified organic with no pesticides, growth hormones or other additives,” the Wisconsin State Journal reported.
“Aquaponics is a combination of aquaculture and hydroponics. Water in which fish are raised is then used to fill greenhouse tanks to grow plants. The fish waste provides nutrients for the plants, and the water recirculates between the tanks.
“Like hydroponics, aquaponics systems require less land and water than conventional crop production methods, increase growth rates and allow for year-round production.”
Fish of the day
That “year-round production” is a problem for Alaska salmon producers who can only provide seasonal products in a market where most of the world’s top chefs believe fresh is best when it comes to just about any sort of fish.
Add to this the ability of RAS farms to control what the fish are eating – who knows what wild fish might eat? – and the marketing problems for Alaska wild only grow. Stir in the economic muscle tied to the size of the farmed fish these days, which translates into dollars available for advertising, and Alaska fisheries face a future that looks a lot like that which strangled the newspaper business.
Technology changed the game, and a business model once extremely profitable became hard to sustain.
Alaska’s wild salmon fisheries aren’t going to go away. Apparently thanks to global warming, Alaska has this decade been enjoying an unprecedented average, annual salmon harvest of about 180 million per year. These are volumes never seen in northern history, and the volume of fish, especially of pink salmon, is such that there is still money to be made for processors even if prices for Alaska salmon remain stagnant.
But the future does not look bright.
The price of Alaska salmon was long ago capped by prices paid for the farmed fish that own the market, the “premium market” where Alaska wild salmon once held an edge is shifting, and the farmers just keep increasing production.
Alaska catches might be able to keep creeping upward despite historical precedents indicating harvests of 200 million salmon per year, as again this year, are not realistic. But even if that happens, Alaska market share is destined to decline.
Exactly what the Alaska Legislature feared when it banned fish farming 29 years ago is coming to pass. Unfortunately, it’s hard to see the warning signs amid all the hype about Alaska being awash in salmon.