Alaska’s first big, commercial salmon fishery of the season will open this week sans what has become the traditional Seattle fanfare.
With Seattle restaurants still in lockdown to slow the spread of the pandemic SARS-CoV-2 virus in Washington state’s largest city and social-distancing rules firmly in place, Alaska Airlines won’t be offering its usual public relations feast featuring delivery of a first-of-the-season Copper River king salmon to the Sea-Tac Airport.
Neither will there be any sort of “Copper Chef Cook-off” at the airport as has happened in some years past when top Seattle restauranteers battled “Iron Chef” style to see who can quickly turn a silvery Chinook into an award-winning meal.
Instead, Alaska spokesman Tim Thompson said, “there will be a socially distanced and masked opportunity to capture the first fish (on video) when it comes to land and is handed off to Trident Seafoods on Friday.”
Last year, Seattle KIRO-TV News reported, “the fatty fish got the red-carpet treatment, with the pilot carrying the first king salmon off the plane at Sea-Tac Airport for a quick photo shoot. As has become a recent KIRO 7 custom in the last few years, our reporter, this year Rob Munoz, kissed the first king salmon off the plane.”
For cinematic effect, a quick, masked handoff so as to maintain social distancing doesn’t quite measure up to a reporter smooshing the carcass of a dead fish, but the world is in the days of the search for a new normal in the wake of the worst global pandemic since the spread of the Spanish flu just over 100 years ago.
The pandemic now threatens to undermine one of the greatest branding coups in Alaska history.
“There can be no denying that among seafood lovers, Copper River is all but a brand name, one synonymous with quality,” Barry Estabrock wrote in “The Atlantic” magazine a decade ago. “…Fishermen receive nearly twice as much money for Copper River salmon than they do for fish caught in some other regions of Alaska, even though they are catching the same species, born in the same clean, glacial lakes and streams and maturing in the same cold, northern Pacific waters.”
The pageantry built around those first-of-the-season, fresh-to-market kings is part of the gimmickry that made the fish fly.
What the full implications of the mess COVID-19 has made of markets won’t be known until buyers start lining up – or not – for these fish.
Prices for first-of-the-season Copper River kings have historically been inflated by competition between high-end restaurants in major cities across the country. Many of these restaurants are now closed as major cities from New York to Chicago to Seattle.
New York City has been by far the hardest-hit community in the country, but Seattle – one of the first U.S. cities in which the pandemic erupted – has suffered as well. Seattle’s KOMO-TV news reported 7,046 confirmed cases in the King County area surrounding Seattle with 498 deaths as of Sunday. That’s about 50 times as many deaths as for all of Alaska.
Seattle and King County health officials on Monday told those using the local public transit system that they must wear masks at all times and ordered everyone to wear masks when inside businesses.
Seattle restaurants aren’t expected to open for at least another two weeks, and then they are to be limited to only 50 percent of their old seating capacity. There, as in Alaska’s largest city, some business owners sounded reluctant to reopen under those conditions.
Jennifer Petty, co-owner of an upscale restaurant in Queen Anne told Seattle Eater she couldn’t “envision reopening Eden Hill Restaurant at 50 percent capacity. We rely so heavily on it being full-on Fridays and Saturdays for at least one turn to be profitable; the remainder of the week is break-even at best. Without compromising the experience or drastically changing the concept, we don’t see it working.”
With the restaurants willing to pay top dollar for fresh Copper River kings shuttered, the consequences are likely to trickle back to the fishing grounds outside of the port of Cordova in the form of lower prices.
Prices for the fish have varied considerably over the years largely in relation to supply and demand.
A weak run of Chinook in 2017 sent prices soaring to $75 per pound in the Seattle retail market, and fishermen were getting paid more than $10 per pound at the dock in Cordova. Better returns in 2018 and 2019 brought the retail price down to around $50 to $60 per pound with prices falling as the season pushed toward June and harvest of both Chinook and sockeye (red) salmon increased in other fisheries.
The Pure Food Fish Market at Seattle’s Pike Place was Monday preselling Copper River kings whole at $52.50 per pound, but how long that price will hold up in what are looking to be economically tough times is hard to tell.
The Alaska Department of Fish and Game is predicting a return of 60,000 Chinook, 20 percent above the 10-year average, and a return of about 1.5 million sockeye, about 35 percent below the 10-year average.
Actual returns have sometimes varied considerably from the forecasts, but if the fish come back as forecast the abundance of kings coupled with the lack of restaurant sales would tend to bring prices down while the lack of sockeye might bring those prices up.
At least in a normal year.
“Local grocery stores are selling previously frozen sockeye for anywhere from $9.99 to 15.99 per pound, all coming from cold storage in Seattle from last year’s pack which is usually the norm,” a retired Copper River fisherman now living in the Puget Sound area said. “I do not know what amount of fish is still in storage….The Southeast troll fishery fresh king the last two weeks has been selling for $22.99-26.99 depending on where you shop.
“Concerning prices paid to fishers, I believe we will still see a decent price for the first couple of openers.”
After that, he added, all bets are off. Prices will depend on the volume of fish available and whether restaurants start to open.
If the “white table cloth restaurants are closed, the novelty will wear off within the first couple of weeks. If the fresh market dries up, then they will have to freeze the fish, and the value to fishers will go down. Can you believe freezing a Copper River king? That is unheard of. They have all been sold fresh at least for the last 20 years.”
Norwegian salmon farmers, who have always sold fresh as well, are unfortunately for Alaska fishermen in the same boat on this one, and with restaurants closed, they have been freezing more of their fish and moving it into retail markets, which puts more downward pressure on prices.
The Norwegian Seafood Council two weeks ago reported salmon export volumes were stable, but prices had fallen about 30 percent. Farmed fish these days dominate the market. About three out of every four salmon sold in the world are farmed.
Farmed Norwegian salmon sales to the U.S. had stabilized, Egil Ove Sundeheim, the Norwegian Seafood Council director reported, despite “the loss of the restaurant segment.” But Sundeheim noted the Norwegians are still having problems with a lack of flights between Europe and the U.S.
“There is no doubt that the shipping capacity places limits on the export ability to the United States,” he said.
Alaska processors should face no such problems at least on the West Coast. Alaska Airlines flights, like those of most other airlines, have generally been flying well less than half full between Anchorage and Seattle.
As the former Cordova fisherman observed, “you never know what is going to happen. All the tech workers are still making their $150- to $200-thousand-plus salaries in the greater Seattle area. The majority of the 20 million workers out of a job are restaurant, retail and clothing workers, who did not buy Copper River king salmon anyway.”
In the fishing business, optimism never hurts.