The Alaska commercial salmon season is long over and fading fast from memory, but the salmon business is still rolling along in Norway with record sales.
The Norwegian Seafood Council started the month reporting seafood sales to date of NOK 108.8 billion (approximately $12 billion) or NOK 1.6 billion more than the annual, record sale of 107.2 billion in 2019.
Norwegian fishing interests appear to have rebounded nicely from the pandemic-reduced sales of 2020.
Their seafood sales were driven by a new monthly record for farmed salmon in November. The council reported:
- 127,000 tonnes of salmon worth NOK 8 billion were exported in November.
- Export volume increased by 19 percent.
- Export value increased by NOK 2.3 billion, or 40 percent, compared with November last year.
The reported tonnage translates into about 280 million U.S. pounds, or to break it down into Alaska-size terms about 80 million pink salmon or about 56 million sockeye salmon.
Sockeye were reported to be smaller this year, however, and if you believe the McKinley Research Report of 4.5 pounds per fish, the Alaska equivalent to Norway’s November exports would be about 62 million sockeye.
The statewide, season-long harvest of sockeye this year, according to Fish and Game, was just under 57 million, which provides some idea of the scale of market differences here.
What Alaska produces in the form of prime market salmon in a year, the Norwegians produce in a month. It takes them closer to three months to match Alaska’s odd-year production of pink salmon, but then the Norwegians don’t seem all that interested in producing salmon to put into cans.
Canned salmon is a low-value product. Alaska pink salmon harvests of about 161 million fish this year accounted for about 69 percent of the total salmon catch, according to Fish and Game, but were worth only $178.8 million or 28 percent of the value of the entire harvest.
Do the math there, and you’ll see pinks sold for about $1.11 per fish. That was about 64 percent of the value per pound for sockeye caught in Cook Inlet, according to state reports.
Copper River chinook salmon, meanwhile, opened the season with a price of $19.60 per pound for Cordova commercial fishermen. At that price, it would have taken the harvest of about 176 pinks to match the value of one, 10-pound king.
There are obvious reasons the Norwegians are not in the pink salmon business.
Not that all is perfect in the world of net-pen salmon farming. The farmers face environmental and contamination problems.
The Seafood Watch at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, a leading advocate for the sale of healthy and sustainable seafood, just this week added a long list of farmed salmon to its list of seafood to be avoided.
It cited the overuse of chemicals in Chilean farms, problems with sea-lice in some Norwegian farms, escapes in some Scottish and Norwegian farms, and more.
But it also upgraded some farmed salmon from its “avoid” list to its “good alternative” list, and its recommendation for “best choice” salmon didn’t change much.
Salmon produced in indoor tanks with treated water continue to dominate the best choices. The only wild-caught fish that made the list were those harvested with “lift nets,” a form of fishing gear used in the state of Washington but not in Alaska.
Many commercial fisheries for wild salmon struggle with the problem of mixed stock harvests. Much of the Cook Inlet sockeye salmon fishery was closed early this summer because there was no way to fish those salmon without killing some Kenai River-bound, late-run kings.
Given the choice between harvesting surplus sockeye and over-harvesting kings, or allowing surplus sockeye to escape into the Kenai along with the river’s few returning Chinook, state fisheries managers opted for the latter.
No fisheries are perfect. All have problems known and unknown.
Problems versus big problems
The problems the farmers face have technological solutions. Moving fish farms onto land solves a lot of them.
Concerns about farmed salmon polluting the fiords, bay and estuaries in which they are penned disappear. So too fears the fish could be contaminated by chemicals in the water they breathe.
Some of the farmers running recirculating aquacultures systems (RAS) have already made this a selling point.
“Our process converts one ton of fish feed into just under 11 tons of nutrient dense food, i.e. leafy greens and salmon,” bragged to Today’s Farmed Fish, a trade publication. “We are the only aquaponic system in the world to produce on a level that could even begin offsetting the volume produced with conventional systems.
“Food that would normally grow on 150 acres or more we can grow on six! Beyond efficient conversion, our growing process is truly sustainable. We recirculate 99.9 percent of our water and have zero discharge from the production and processing systems.
“All organic byproduct is composted on our own farm. Our fish swim in clean, cold water filtered naturally by our leafy greens and are raised with the ideal number of fish per pool (little do people know but too few fish and the fish are stressed as well as if there are too many fish). We have a safe, clean environment, and thus don’t need to feed our fish antibiotics or pesticides. The sustainable ecosystem we’ve created helps us ensure our fish are naturally free from diseases or pests. We also have no need for vaccinations for the same reason.”
The downside to RAS farms is that they are more expensive to operate than ocean, net-pen farms. That’s a plus for Alaska commercial salmon fishermen in that farmed salmon now rule the salmon market.
As the producers of close to 80 percent of the salmon consumed around the world today, the farmers largely dictate market prices. Anything that helps to drive up their costs helps pull the market value of wild-caught fish higher, or at least the market value of high-quality, wild-caught fish that compete with farmed fish.
Unfortunately, modern agriculture has proven ruthless in cutting production costs. Corn, wheat and soybeans are perfect examples of the market changes.
Adjusted for inflation, all have been generally falling steadily in value since 1912, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
“This downward price trend was reversed during the past decade by global growth in population and income, increasing biofuel production, and a depreciation of the U.S. dollar, but is likely to resume from these recent higher levels as population and income growth slow, biofuel production levels off, and as the U.S. dollar strengthens,” the federal agency reported in 2018.
The value of these crops dropped by about half between 1970 and 2018 largely due to improvements in the efficiency of farming, and the plant growers had then been at the business for a long, long time.
Salmon farming is still relatively new. Significant improvements in efficiency are to be expected as the business continues to mature.
As farmed salmon prices come down, at least as judged against inflation, they will drag wild-caught salmon prices down with them, and making a living as a commercial fisherman in Alaska will only become harder.
The designed efficiencies in the Alaska harvest systems – a lot of money is spent on fuel to get to fish that could easily be caught off the mouths of rivers or in the rivers themselves – only add to the problem in the 49th state.
And then there is the issue of Alaska’s massive, commercial-fishermen-driven, open-ocean farming of pink and chum salmon.
Some biologists contend it has helped to stuff the Pacific Ocean with never-before-seen numbers of humpies – as Alaskans commonly called pinks – to the detriment of sockeye, coho and king salmon.
Unfortunately, it is equally hard to back up the alternative hypothesis that all the pink salmon being dumped in the ocean aren’t negatively impacting other species.
Fisheries science is full of problems like this. It doesn’t exist in a world of black and white. It exists in a world of gray in which in the best-case scenarios, facts are judged on an 80 or 90 percent probability within a broad range of outcomes.
The forecast now appears to have been significantly higher than the return, but biologists managed to stay within the range.
Over the years, state fisheries managers have seldom hit the forecast spot on, but have almost always been within the range. This is, however, the difference between getting the bat on the ball in a baseball game – something most hitters can do – and consistently knocking the ball out of the park – something few hitters can do.
This inability to precisely forecast returns only adds to the market problems for Alaska commercial fishing businesses. Processors have only a rough idea of how many fish to expect, and that affects how they prepare for the fishing season.
In years when runs are smaller than forecast, they are left holding the bag on expenditures made to process expected large quantities of fish. In years when runs are larger than forecast, they are sometimes forced to put fishermen on limits to avoid stuffing processing plants beyond capacity.
These are problems the farmers do not face. They can scale their processing operations to their production output. It is the old story of the farmers versus the hunter-gatherers taken into a new arena.
Alaska thought it could head all of this off by banning net-pen fish farming – versus open-water fish farming – in the 49th state in 1990. Alaskan political leaders somehow thought they could corner the market on salmon with such a ban.
Every year now, it looks more and more like all the state did was corner what was once its largest and most important economic asset – salmon.
When the world thinks salmon now, it thinks Norway.