The Alaska commercial fishing season kicked off in earnest this week with the tide rising.
Not the tide of the ocean, mind you, but the tide of the global economy which helped push the price of a headed and gutted Copper River king to more than $700 in a Seattle market.
Too few fish, too many buyers is how one processor assessed the entire situation.
Since the start of the year, the NASDAQ salmon index shows salmon prices up 50.93 percent. The index is driven by farmed Atlantic salmon which are marketed fresh year-round, but with the farmers controlling nearly three-quarters of the market these days, they set the standard for pricing.
That’s bad news for Alaska commercial fishermen when Norwegian, Chilean, Scottish and other farmers are flooding the market with salmon, but good news now with demand exceeding supply, which if you know your microeconomics, means prices only go up.
After the first opening of the Copper River gillnet fishery on Monday, first wholesale prices for sockeye salmon in Seattle were reported at $29 per pound for sockeye with kings going for $38 per pound.
Rarity’s added value
Marketed as the first-of-the-year salmon from Alaska despite limited troll harvests in Southeast Alaska delivering fish to market much sooner, the kings and sockeyes shipped south from the port of Cordova have gained significant notoriety as a coveted taste treat.
Some of this fanfare has, however, faded in the face of the pandemic. Seattle’s KIRO-TV which has traditionally made a big deal of the arrival of the first Copper River fish in that city was more subdued in its coverage this year.
“Some of the traditional fanfare of the arrival resumed this year after it was curtailed in 2020 due to the pandemic,” it said.
“Pilots of the Alaska Airlines Boeing ‘Salmon-Thirty-Salmon’ brandished a hefty Copper River king salmon as they exited the plane and held it up triumphantly.
“Part of the tradition includes the KIRO 7 reporter covering the story to kiss the salmon, and this year was no different. KIRO 7 reporter Ranji Sinha did indeed give the king salmon a quick peck.
“In past years, the Alaska Air pilots had also kissed the first fish, but this year they kept their masks on.”
Fortunately for Cordova fishermen, the limited media exposure did not appear to have had any effect on price. Pure Food Fish in the iconic Pike’s Place Market in downtown Seattle was asking $58.50 per pound for whole kings with a minimum purchase of 12 pounds.
With the average king gillnetted in the first opening of the fishery weighing 12.43 pounds, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, a whole fish would set a buyer back $727.16 at that price.
The minimum purchase of five pounds of filets was, however, available for only $392.50 at that going rate of $78.50 per pound.
Five pounds was almost exactly the weight of the average sockeye in the first Copper River opener with the catch lower than the usual low in the first 12-hour opening of the season.
The 358 boats that reported fishing hauling in 1,712 kings and 7,380 sockeyes, or about five kings and 21 sockeye per boat. High prices helped offset the low catches.
So-called “ex-vessel” prices paid Alaska fishermen tend to be about a third of the first wholesale, which would put sockeye at near $10 per pound on the dock in Cordova and kings over $12.50 per pound.
The total day’s catch of 21,281 pounds of king and 37,484 pounds of sockeye salmon, according to early Fish and Game reports, would be worth about $644,400 or an average of $1,800 per boat at those prices.
Prices, unfortunately for the fishermen, tend to come down as the season progresses while catches go up. Fishermen were back on the grounds today with everyone hoping for bigger catches.
Weak run to date
The Monday catch of sockeye was only about 30 percent of the 27,000 salmon that state fishery managers expected to see landed. It is still too early to tell whether that means the Copper River sockeye run is shaping as weak or a little late.
A sonar counter in the muddy, glacial river has counted only 190 fish gone upriver as of Tuesday – a fifteenth of the goal of almost 2,900 – but Fish and Game noted “only the north bank sonar has been deployed so far this season. Shore ice is currently preventing south bank sonar deployment.”
Late ice on the Copper River is often an indication of cold water temperatures that can inhibit the early entry of salmon. Fish and Game has forecast a return of 35,000 kings and 1.35 million sockeye to the Copper this year.
But the point forecast, as always, comes within a wide range. The sockeye harvest, according to state calculations, could go as high as 1.87 million or fall to 724,000.
Kings and sockeyes runs around the Gulf of Alaska have been in general decline for several years for unknown reasons. Fish and Game is projecting an Upper Cook Inlet commercial sockeye harvest of less than 60 percent of the 20-year average when that fishery kicks off in late June.
Statewide, the agency is expecting another monster harvest of more than 190 million salmon – far above the 100 million mark that was generally considered a successful season in the first three decades after statehood.
The huge forecast harvest is, however, largely being driven by the catch of high-value Bristol Bay sockeye and low-value Gulf of Alaska pinks. Together, they are expected to make up almost 84 percent of the statewide harvest.
Pinks are the bulk of the catch. The projected 124.2 million of them account for 65 percent of the forecast of salmon catch.
Around the Gulf of Alaska, about eight of every 10 fish caught in the commercial fishery is expected to be a pink or what Alaskans tend to call a humpy given the characteristic humpbacked shape of spawning males.
The smallest of the Pacific salmon, pinks have historically netted prices a sixth to eighth that of sockeye. Nearly all of those fish went into cans at one time, but larger pinks have in recent years increasingly been sold as filets which boosts their value.
How processors decided to proportion this year’s harvest of between cans and filets could prove interesting in light of the pandemic.
As National Fishermen, an industry tabloid, noted earlier this year, the 2020 “canned salmon markets were already starving for product in the preamble of the pandemic, and demand for canned salmon surged even higher as the world went into shutdown and stock-up mode. With limited canning capacity among processors and skeleton crews prepping salmon for fillets to be distributed fresh or frozen, the bulk of the harvest went into freezers in its H&G (headed and gutted) form. Some fishermen were forced to stop fishing until their respective processors caught up with huge volumes that had been delivered.”
Whether the demand for shelf-stable, canned salmon will continue as the pandemic eases or shift back to easy to grill filets is a question processors are weighing today in a hugely competitive market dominated by farmed salmon filets.
The big players
Mowi, one of Norway’s largest farmers, reported overall salmon sales up 20 to 25 percent in the first quarter of this year.
Mowi Farming harvested a record-high 125, 000 tonnes in the quarter, equivalent to 51 percent growth compared to a year ago. At the same time, cost was down by 9 percent, according to Intrado, a global newswire.
“It is very encouraging to deliver record-high first quarter farming volumes and reduction in production cost,” Mowi CEO Ivan Vindheim was quoted to have said. “The decline in cost is driven by large volumes and cost initiatives over time. Farming volume growth and cost competitiveness are pivotal elements in Mowi’s strategy.”
The company harvested 120,000 tonnes of salmon in that first quarter. That is about 74 times as much salmon as the 1,627 tonnes of sockeye expected to be harvested in the Copper River commercial fishery this year.
But the Copper River fish do carry a cachet that makes them, pound for pound, more valuable than Mowi’s farmed, Atlantic salmon.
The marketing of Copper River salmon is considered one of Alaska’s greatest business success stories.
“There can be no denying that among seafood lovers, Copper River is all but a brand name, one synonymous with quality,” food writer Barry Estabrook observed in The Atlantic a decade ago. “And 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.
“Savvy marketing has definitely played a role in Copper River’s success.”
Copper River salmon, some believe, are the best tasting salmon in the world. How long that belief lasts – with bigger companies with larger marketing budgets pushing the taste and value of their salmon – is an unknown.