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.
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.”
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 Sound. The 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.”
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.