Farmers winning


As Alaska’s short-lived salmon season creeps toward a harvest of 200,000 tons – led by low-value pink salmon – Norwegian farmers are reporting sales of more than 100,000 tonnes of farmed salmon in July alone.

Along with this came record profits for the farmers.

“Measured by value, this July is the best ever for Norwegian seafood exports,” Tom-Jørgen Gangsø, director of Market Insight and Market Access with the Norwegian Seafood Council said in a media statement. “Salmon continues its growth trajectory from June, while we have also experienced a sharp increase in exports of snow crab and king crab.”

The volume of exports was up 10 percent over July 2020, according to the Norwegians, and the value increased by 24 percent.

The latter is good news for the Alaska salmon fishing industry, given that farmed salmon now dictate market prices. The latter is bad news for the Alaska salmon fishing industry, given that farmed salmon are continuing to increase market share in the prime market for salmon filets.

As the production of farmed salmon continues to grow – it was reported to be already at 75 percent of sales in 2017 – the idea that Alaska wild salmon is inherently “better” than farmed salmon, and thus deserves a higher price, becomes harder and harder to sell to mass markets.

And that problem is only compounded by a slow but steady movement toward recirculating aquaculture systems (RAS) in the farming business. Those farms raise their fish in filtered water that eliminates the possibility of environmental contaminants that can affect both wild and net-penned fish, and negates the need to treat net-penned fish with antibiotics to protect them from disease and sea lice. 

Superior Fresh, a Wisconsin-based company that has been a leader in small scale RAS, now markets its fish this way:

Meanwhile, it challenges the idea that wild salmon are better by conflating open-ocean and nearshore netting of salmon.

“Both purse seine nets and gillnets are non-selective, meaning they capture anything that becomes caught in them, including protected species and marine mammals,” the website says. “Species that are frequently caught include bottlenose dolphins, humpback whales, and sea turtles. While it is sometimes possible to extricate and release these creatures in time for them to survive, they are often injured or even killed by the sheer weight of the catch or as a result of injuries sustained as they struggle against the net. Globally, commercial fisheries were responsible for the deaths of 650,000 whales, dolphins, and seals each year throughout the 1990s.”

Dolphin and whale deaths in Alaska salmon fisheries, either from direct capture or entanglement in lost gear, are rare. And National Marine Fishery Service data would indicate few seals are caught in salmon fishing gear although it appears some are still illegally shot. That was once a somewhat common practice among commercial fishermen who thought of the seals as competitors for salmon but has now all but disappeared.

Nonetheless, the marketing pushback against wild fish can only be expected to increase as competition for sales grows in a salmon market witnessing ever-higher volumes of farmed production.

West Coast Salmon AS, a Norwegian company, is now in the process of building a RAS farm in Nevada designed to ultimately produce 60,000 tonnes of salmon per year.

For comparison’s sake, this year’s forecast harvest for commercially caught sockeye salmon in Upper Cook Inlet came in at 1.6 million fish or about 3,600 tonnes. The catch is now at 1.2 million and expected to come in a little below the forecast.

It is a tiny blip on the international scale.

The Norwegians reported “103,100 tonnes of salmon were exported worth NOK 6.9 billion (approximately $781 million) in July.”

Marketing struggles

Consolidation among major Alaska salmon processors and the departure of Marubeni, the Tokyo-based Japanese conglomerate that was for decades a major player in the 49th state, are signals of the problems facing processors trying to make money off Alaska salmon the old-fashioned way.

This has led some fishermen to try running their own small processing operations, and a few seem to be finding success selling Alaska slamon using the boutique wine model pioneered in California and now spread widely across the U.S. West.

“Straight to the Plate,” a Girdwood-based operation, stresses “small catch quality,” a personal relationship with customers, and good, old-fashioned wholesomeness to sell their salmon.

“By directly marketing our catch, we can ensure our customers get high quality salmon and full transparency in their purchase. In turn, we as local fishermen, cultivate a more sustainable business, get to keep more from the sale of our own fish, and contribute to the growing awareness of our food supply chain, keeping our health in our own hands,” it says. 

Unfortunately, its business is based on the sale of sockeye salmon, a Gulf of Alaska (GOA) species that is struggling as smaller and far more prolific pink salmon swarm the North Pacific Ocean. 

The northeast GOA harvest of sockeye looks to be on track for a harvest of under 3 million fish this year, according to Alaska Department of Fish and Game numbers. The pink salmon harvest for the same region has already topped 32 million and is still growing.

The state reported a harvest of 1.9 million pinks in just the Aug. 1 opening of the fishery in Prince William SoundThe harvest forecast predicted a catch of 124.2 million pinks for the season with about 65 percent of those caught along the northeast Gulf Coast. 

The fish are averaging under three and a half pounds in weight. The market preference for salmon filets is for those coming from fish of three to six kilograms (near 6 to 13 pounds), according to the NASDAQ Salmon Index. 

The smaller fish are typically canned or ground into fish meal for use in various products, including dog food. Salmon dog food has become an increasingly popular consumer product in the U.S.

Canidae Sustain, a Texas-based company, is now selling a product it promotes as rich in “responsibly sourced wild-caught Alaskan Salmon.” Wild-caught is the common description used for the state’s hatchery pink salmon.

Depending on the year, these Alaska farmed salmon, which the hatchery operators prefer to call “ranched salmon,” make up anywhere from a quarter to a half of the state’s pink salmon harvest.

The 2020 Alaska Salmon Fisheries Enhancement Annual Report from Fish and Game reported the 22.5 million pinks caught in the commercial fishery last year comprised 38 percent of the total pink harvest.

“Pink salmon are the most economical to rear because they have a short rearing time – one winter in the hatchery – and have the shortest life cycle of Pacific salmon, two years,” the report noted. “This means pink salmon provide a quick return on investment and provide the highest economic return for the production costs.”

Alaska banned net-pen salmon farming three decades ago, but it is among the world leaders in the net-free salmon farming of short-lived pinks.

Some scientists have suggested this could be adding fuel to a pink salmon boom that has crowded ocean pastures to the detriment of sockeye, Chinook (king) and coho (silver) salmon, but state fishery managers say there isn’t enough data to draw any definitive conclusions.

And in the short term, the pandemic helped revive sales of the primarily pink canned-salmon. Canned sales jumped as Americans living, working and eating at home search for shelf-stable products that would help them limit how much they ventured out.

The increase in canned sales is not, however, expected to last. And the other outcome of the pandemic was to push the farmers, who dealt largely in fresh salmon, toward sales of frozen fish that compete directly with the Alaska catch that must be frozen due to the short, high-volume, fishing season.








9 replies »

  1. The easy solution for Alaska is on land fish farms that use geothermal energy in areas where it is available like Nome.
    The geothermal heating can be piped in the floor under the fish tanks and would help keep heating costs down.
    Alaska is a premiere destination since we have an abundance of clean available water, something which many farming communities in the lower 48 lack.
    The only problem is politicians on both sides of the aisle in AK cannot seem to see past any sort of development other than oil & gas.

  2. It would appear construction of aquatic farms are banned without a permit from commissioner. Under the Alaska statues attached in this thread . Somebody call their legislators and get ground based fish farming legslized already. Talk about economic stability opportunities! . Anyone notice the odd similarities of names and actions. Joeseph Biden name similar to Joseph Stalin. Joeseph Biden “we have created the greatest voter fraud organization” Josesph Stalin roughly stated “ he who controls the vote counting matters more than he who votes” then Fauci acts like a medical Facist . Oddly Fauci’s father or grandparents came from Italy one of the primary birth places of facism . Just saying its all kind of entertainingly odd.

      • Section 16.40.100 (d) is the one that explicitly bans Atlantic Salmon. Totally off subject, but the section just above 16.40.100 is Sec. 16.40.060 and deals with elephants.

        16.40.060 Elephant permit.
        The commissioner may issue a permit, subject to reasonable conditions established by the commissioner, to possess, import, or export an elephant. A permit may be issued only to a person who proves to the satisfaction of the commissioner that the person
        (1) intends to exhibit the animal commercially;

        (2) possesses facilities to maintain the animal under positive control and humane conditions; and

        (3) maintains personal injury and property damage insurance in an amount established by the commissioner.

        They make statutes for everything…import and export of elephants in Alaska. Turns out Maggie the elephant just died this week.

    • The way I read it aquatic farming is farming done on or in the water, more specifically salt water. Whereas farming on land using water as the growing medium is an entirely different subject. The logistics involved in farming on land using water as the growing medium in Alaska isn’t exactly favorable…cost of power, heating, shipping, labor, etc. However the cost of water in certain parts of the state would be very favorable, since using water as your growing medium might seem to favor areas with a plentiful water supply.

      • Start embracing small GenIV nuke power and you’ll have all the heat you need to run onshore RAS. Cheers –

      • steve o , actually the logistics for aquatic farming in alaska are adequate. if we capitalize on opportunity. We burn off gas at the slope anyway . Natural gas is abundant. We need a gas line for other projects anyway. ( out of state sale ,the diesel dependent remote villages, our large state population centers,future industry ect ) alaska has a major issue with empty containers and nothing to back haul in trucking industry and barges. Fish could be moved out of state for pennies on the dollar for enterpriseing companies especially if it was on a predictable farm basis . Not even counting our natural potential for energy production via other natural means. We are in an energy abundant state. The time is ripe for profits from aquatic farming. If labor costs are a problem then just operate like other companies and ship in foreigners. In state hire protection laws were foolishly struck down so we might as well take advantage of outsourced labor. Our economy must diversify and reduce dependence on the mercurial federal government. Alaskans don’t need to be standing with their handout . I vote we loosen up unnecessary restrictions and get to work.

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