Sky-high prices

A Copper River king salmon/Craig Medred photo

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.

There was a short story sans the usual video.

“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.

Copper River sockeye were a comparative bargain at a mere $49.50 per pound for filets and $44.50 per pound for a whole fish with a minimum purchase of five pounds.

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.

Both of those numbers are well below the 10-year average with kings down almost a quarter and sockeyes 37.4 percent below the average. 

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.









20 replies »

  1. I’m sorry to everyone who has commented above me. But you are all wrong on your assessments of the best tasting AK salmon. Area M has the best tasting salmon hands down. Beautiful blue back, silver bellied salmon. Not your river soaked, muddy filled, sandy fleshed, spawned out salmon. GROSS!! Everyone knows that a salmon starts dying when it hits a river. Right? So your pretty much eating rotting flesh. Best salmon in the world are caught by Area M fishermen, cape fishermen, best in the State. They don’t wait at the mouth of a river, where they know they’re gonna show up and call themselves fishermen. When your out on the Pacific Ocean having to find the fish, that’s fishing. My credentials? I hail from a commercial fishing g family that has fished in AK for over a100 years. Everything from salmon, crab, herring. Cod shrimp, haulibut and everything in between. I’ve eaten salmon from every area of this fine state. Are M is hands down the best. Plucked fro the Pacific Ocean, not a river.

  2. Appropriate time for this to become public knowledge:

    MailOnline US – news, sport, celebrity, science and health stories

    The first-ever genetically modified salmon is going to be on dinner plates in the US soon – and it won’t be labeled

    Genetically modified salmon is going on sale in the US after delays related to COVID-19

    The salmon is headed to restaurants and take-away services in the Midwest and East Coast

    It will not be labeled as genetically modified, AquaBounty Technologies CEO said

    The salmon was raised at a farm in Indiana and grow twice as fast as wild salmon

    The fish has received pushback from environmental advocates for years

    Major retailers such as Costco, Kroger, Walmart and Whole Foods say they don’t sell genetically modified or cloned salmon and have to label them as such

    The salmon are marketed as disease- and antibiotic-free and with a reduced carbon footprint

    By Chris Ciaccia For Dailymail.Com and Associated Press

    Published: 16:36 EDT, 27 May 2021 | Updated: 13:11 EDT, 28 May 2021

    The first-ever genetically modified salmon will soon appear on dinner plates in the US after it was cleared for consumption, according to the biotech company that developed the product.

    The salmon will head to restaurants and take-away dining services in the Midwest and East Coast and will not be labeled as genetically modified, AquaBounty Technologies CEO Sylvia Wulf, the company behind it, said.

    So far, the only customer to announce it is selling the salmon is Samuels and Son Seafood, a Philadelphia-based seafood distributor.

    Major US retailers such as Costco, Kroger, Walmart and Whole Foods have said they don´t sell genetically modified or cloned salmon and would need to label them as such.

    These salmon, which grow faster than those born in the wild, are raised at an indoor aquaculture farm in Albany, Indiana. They are modified to grow twice as fast as wild salmon, reaching market size – 8 to 12 pounds (3.6 to 5.4 kilograms) – in 18 months rather than 36.

    The Massachusetts-based company originally planned to harvest the fish in late 2020, but Wulf said the delay was a result of demand and market price for Atlantic salmon brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.

    ‘The impact of COVID caused us to rethink our initial timeline … no one was looking for more salmon then,’ she said. ‘We’re very excited about it now. We´ve timed the harvest with the recovery of the economy, and we know that demand is going to continue to increase.’

    AquaBounty Technologies CEO Sylvia Wulf (middle) is seen posing with genetically modified salmon from the company’s indoor aquaculture farm on May 26, 2021, in Albany, Indiana

    The first batch of bioengineered Atlantic salmon eggs in an incubation tray at AquaBounty Technologies’ facility in Albany, Indiana

    Although finally making its way to dinner plates, the genetically modified fish has been met by pushback from environmental advocates for years.

    The international food service company Aramark in January announced its commitment to not sell such salmon, citing environmental concerns and potential impacts on Indigenous communities that harvest wild salmon.

    The announcement followed similar ones by other major food service companies – Compass Group and Sodexo – and many large U.S. grocery retailers, seafood companies and restaurants. Costco, Kroger, Walmart and Whole Foods maintain that they don´t sell genetically modified or cloned salmon and would need to label them as such.

    The boycott against AquaBounty salmon has largely come from activists with the Block Corporate Salmon campaign, which aims to protect wild salmon and preserve Indigenous rights to practice sustainable fishing.

    ‘Genetically engineered salmon is a huge threat to any vision of a healthy food system. People need ways to connect with the food they´re eating, so they know where it´s coming from,’ said Jon Russell, a member of the campaign and a food justice organizer with Northwest Atlantic Marine Alliance. ‘These fish are so new – and there´s such a loud group of people who oppose it. That’s a huge red flag to consumers.’

    Wulf said she´s confident there’s an appetite for the fish.

    ‘Most of the salmon in this country is imported, and during the pandemic, we couldn´t get products into the market,’ Wulf said. ‘So, having a domestic source of supply that isn´t seasonal like wild salmon and that is produced in a highly-controlled, bio-secure environment is increasingly important to consumers.’

    AquaBounty markets the salmon as disease- and antibiotic-free, saying its product comes with a reduced carbon footprint and none of the risk of polluting marine ecosystems like traditional sea-cage farming carries.

    Despite their rapid growth, the genetically modified salmon require less food than most farmed Atlantic salmon, the company says. Biofiltration units keep water in the Indiana facility´s many 70,000-gallon (264,979-liter) tanks clean, making fish less likely to get sick or require antibiotics.

    The FDA approved the AquAdvantage Salmon as ‘safe and effective’ in 2015. It was the only genetically modified animal approved for human consumption until federal regulators approved a genetically modified pig for food and medical products in December.

    In 2018, the federal agency greenlit AquaBounty´s sprawling Indiana facility, which is currently raising roughly 450 tons (408 metric tons) of salmon from eggs imported from Canada but is capable of raising more than twice that amount.

    But in a shifting domestic market that increasingly values origin, health and sustainability, and wild over farmed seafood, others have a different view of the salmon, which some critics have nicknamed ‘Frankenfish.’

    Part of the domestic pushback revolves around how the engineered fish is to be labeled under FDA guidelines. Salmon fishermen, fish farmers, wholesalers and other stakeholders want clear labeling practices to ensure that customers know they’re purchasing an engineered product.

    USDA labeling law directs companies to disclose genetically-modified ingredients in food through use of a QR code, an on-package display of text or a designated symbol. Mandatory compliance with that regulation takes full effect in January, but the rules don´t apply to restaurants or food services.

    Wulf said the company is committed to using ‘genetically engineered’ labeling when its fish are sold in grocery stores in coming months.

    In November, U.S. District Judge Vince Chhabria in San Francisco affirmed that the FDA had the authority to oversee genetically engineered animals and fish. But he ruled that the agency hadn’t adequately assessed the environmental consequences of AquaBounty salmon escaping into the wild.

    The company argued that escape is unlikely, saying the fish are monitored 24 hours a day and contained in tanks with screens, grates, netting, pumps and chemical disinfection to prevent escape. The company´s salmon are also female and sterile, preventing them from mating.

    ‘Our fish are actually designed to thrive in the land-based environment. That’s part of what makes them unique,’ Wulf said. ‘And we´re proud of the fact that genetically engineered allows us to bring more of a healthy nutritious product to market in a safe, secure and sustainable way.’

  3. My family has eaten a lot of Alaskan salmon over the past 40 years. Most of our fish came from a fishwheel above Chitna, with some dipnetted in Fish Creek near Wasilla or the Kenai, and some from Bristol Bay. Predominately reds, with a some kings and a few silvers. In our opinions, CR kings are the very best tasting, with CR reds right behind. BB reds are not as tasty, but still a good meal. Kenai reds are farther down the taste scale, and Fish Creek reds trail them, though Fish Creek silvers are surprisingly good.

    And yes, I can tell the difference in origin by taste. So can my wife. We’ve done a few “blind” tests over the years to demonstrate that.

    • You must have a very good palate. I’ve done a lot of blinding tastings for people without telling them what they were getting. The results were interesting.

      • Stayed with a family one semester that ate wild fish and game the year round. Everything from game birds to deer, caribou, moose, sheep, and elk. The wife was probably the best game cook ever. Her squirrel pot pies and stuffed elk flank were to die for. She would always say, “I don’t know how you guys can eat that wild meat. I can’t stand it”. Unbeknownst to her, his butcher friend would cut steaks,roasts, burger, from the wild game and stamp “beef” on some packages for her. Same with the game birds and fish. I actually believe she never knew. On the other hand, she may have been fooling us……….

  4. King salmon truly is my very favorite food and I would give up even the best dark chocolate for a lovely Traeger cooked piece of Copper River King. Every year we receive direct from Cordova a freezer box of king salmon from a family member there who commercial fishes. From my perspective Copper River King is gold and worth the price. Fishing is dangerous and I am happy when those that toil in the waters have a great season.

    Years ago we used to limit out on the Deshka and also had a Yukon King connection. Anymore unless you can hit 10th and M or Sagayas at the right moment, or somehow find someone direct marketing or have family in the industry, fewer and fewer Alaskans ever have king salmon outside of a restaurant. It is really sad.

  5. James, Delta stocks are represented in the CR fishery catch from day 1. I know this to be 100% true. They will predominate the return later but are still being caught right now. After an inside cleanup, what fish do you think are being caught in the ocean far from shore? It’s fish that will enter the Copper days and weeks later, if they are not already heading to PWS or Cook Inlet. I I know this fishery very well James and you know me. I’m not a hater, I’m an honest realist who likely values the resource more than most.

  6. James, why do you always resort to name calling and a mean spirited reply to people who respectfully disagree with you? Reasonable minds can differ without the need to be rude.

  7. James, I have commercial fished both in PWS and BB for Sockeye, eaten a lot in both areas and could not tell any difference between them. Many Sockeye travel nearly a couple hundred miles when they enter the Kvichak. I have not noticed any difference in body fat between them and those that travel far less when going up the egigik River. I believe it is just a very clever marketing strategy coupled with early demand outstripping supply that results in their early high pricing.

  8. Yep James. Those Eyak Lake sockeye have to literally fight their way to their distant spawning grounds. Even the mighty Eyak River dam can’t stop them! And How those delta stocks make it upstream a few thousand of yard past tidal influence is a wonder if nature! It’s upriver stocks of Copper River king salmon that have the deserved reputation. The rest is selling sizzle, not steak. Reds on the delta can make it to their spawning systems in 24 hours.

    • Are you not aware, that Eyak Lake sockeye run timing, starts around middle of June and is also, a very small part of total CR sockeye return. The Delta stock run timing, is middle of June thru end of July

      I would guess, from your comments, that you have not eaten many CR sockeye, harvested during May 15th-June 15th. One of the best salmon, I have eaten, besides CR & Yukon chinook

      Early run CR sockeye and chinook (starting around May 1st) are all headed upstream for many miles, reason why both species are high in oil content, compared to other salmon in AK

      Fact of life, though I guess haters have to hate, no matter what

      The salmon harvested from the Copper River, over the next couple of weeks are all part of different run timing, though are still considered early run CR fish. Contact ADF&G CDV 907 424 3212, if further info, is needed

  9. Estabrook was incorrect, the fish are not the same, since Copper River & Yukon salmon have the longest distance to spawning grounds, they have different amounts of oil in their flesh.
    It is all about the oil, the more miles traveled, the more fatty oil needed. Reason why BB short run sockeye, has nowhere near the tasty flesh, of either CR or Yukon.

    • James,

      How many of the BB reds are hatchery salmon, last time I counted it was exactly 0. The Kenai has some hatchery reds, but other than that I don’t think many of the UCI reds are hatchery. How many of the Copper River reds are hatchery salmon?

      CR reds and kings are a marketing and branding success story, since they are historically the first Alaskan salmon to market in any kind of numbers.

      • My comment was about early run CR sockeye and chinook, which are full of oil and some of the best tasting salmon in AK. These early run CR salmon are not hatchery stock

        BB, Kodiak & Chignik, have short run sockeye, due to closeness of spawning grounds, from salt water. No fat fish or 2% fat fish. That was my point, period. I apologize, if you did not understand my comment, though it seems like you have bigger fish to fry.

        Why not list your name, or are you one of the fish pundits, that trolls this blog?

        The Gulkana sockeye hatchery, on the CR, has a run timing of June 15th thru August 1st. Small % of total CR harvest by commercial fishery. Good % of return, is harvested by upriver users ie: subsistence fish wheels, sports, subsistence and personal use dip nets

        Once again, contact ADF&G CDV for any needed info

      • James,

        Oh, I must have missed the part of your claim where you specified the early run from the late run and where the hatchery fish came in to the equation. Maybe you can show me where you said that. Sorry, but I guess that must have been the part I didn’t understand on your comment where you talk shit about other Alaskan salmon while promoting your hatchery tainted product…see it’s a two way street, except I have no financial interest in the conversation.

        By the way, do you have any studies to back up your claims of fatter CR fish?

        The problem I have with your comment is that you are casting aspersions at other Alaskan salmon and yet you are trying to paint the fishery you make money off of as the superior product (without proof), while disregarding facts. There are actual wild salmon runs with absolutely zero manmade hatchery stock that you bad mouth. How do I know your early run salmon aren’t hatchery fish in a system stocked with hatchery fish? Seems like neither you or the CR marketing team really care about that minor detail as long as the cash flows…

      • Uh oh Craig, now you gone and done it! Now we have facts and numbers to look at. It seems like farmed Atlantic salmon with a higher fat content are superior to even the copper river salmon, or maybe just the hatchery copper river salmon, or maybe they are only superior to those who like super fatty fish, is it possible that taste is subjective? I didn’t see and 0% or even any 2% fat salmon on that list, maybe I have to hot smoke it to get to that percentage?

        Interesting that cohos generally ranked higher than reds.

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