Both Russia and Alaska expect big pink salmon numbers this year
A humpy swarm is again forming the North Pacific Ocean if fishery managers in Russia and the U.S. are to be believed.
Both countries are predicting yet another monster year for the smallest of the salmon species. The implications for the larger species remain unclear, but the abundance of humpies – or pink salmon as they are otherwise known – has been linked to both declines in numbers of Gulf of Alaska sockeye salmon and implicated in the shrinkage of sockeye and two other species, Chinook and chum salmon.
The Russian return this year appears massive with a forecasted harvest of 375,000 metric tonnes or more than 826 million pounds. Russia assesses its catches in weight, the traditional means of measuring market commodities, unlike Alaska, which counts fish.
The Russian harvest would translate into about 251 million pinks based on a 3.3-pound average weight, according to decades of data from the North Pacific Anadromous Fish Commission. That number of salmon is just slightly less than the Alaska record, all-species catch of 272 million salmon in 2013, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
The state that year reported a statewide, all-species harvest of 476,000 metric tonnes. The Russians, according to TradexFoods, which closely follows markets for fish, are expecting an all-species harvest of 511,000 metric tonnes this year after catches of other salmon, primarily sockeye and chum, are rolled into their count.
But Russian forecasts for harvests of 91,000 tonnes of chum and 35,000 tonnes of sockeye pale compared to the expected pink catch. The Alaska catch, too, is expected to be dominated by the littlest of the salmon, but not nearly to the extent of that in Russia.
Still it is worth noting that pinks accounted for more than 80 percent of the catch by number in the record-breaking year of 2013 although they were but 66 percent of the catch by weight. When measured in poundage, the record Alaska harvest was driven upward by a healthy catch of sockeye – more than 29 million fish – that averaged more than six pounds.
Bristol Bay sockeyes and Gulf of Alaska pinks seem to have been the major beneficiaries of a warming north in the new millennium.
Coming off a staggering, record-breaking harvest of 60.1 million sockeye in the Bay last year, the area is expected to get another big run of sockeye this year. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game is predicting a return of more than 51 million of the fish and a harvest of near 37 million, slightly above the 10-year average of about 34 million and more than double the 15 million per year average harvest from 1900 to 1939 when sockeye were once thought to have been at peak abundance.
By the 1980 to 2000 period, with the annual average up to 24 million per year, those good old days already looked to be not all that great, and the annual average has only gone up since then.
Credit has been given to warmer water making more productive Bay lakes, where young sockeye spend the first year or two of their lives, coupled with a warmer and more productive Bering Sea improving survival at sea. While this has been a boon for the Bay, elsewhere around the Gulf of Alaska warmer waters appear as if they might have helped more than hurt sockeye.
Or maybe it has just been the competition as pink salmon numbers in the Gulf have exploded just like those to the west in Russia. The state has yet to fully forecast all pink salmon returns, but preliminary indications from various regional forecasts is that the state is looking at a likely return of 90 million or more wild and hatchery-produced pinks.
With Russia still waging war in Ukraine and half the world trying to avoid business with the Russians – China and India being the big exceptions – how the global market will handle the latest humpy swarm is a big unknown. A species of salmon made up of two related but distinct populations, pinks have always run stronger in odd years than in even years, something that is always hard for markets to deal with.
More fish, less money
The abundance of pinks has pushed prices so low that many commercial fishermen avoid fishing for them, the exception being purse seiners who can scoop humpies out of the ocean by thousands at a time. For gillnetters, whether fishing with drifting or fixed nets, and trollers, the value of the fish is so low it’s often not worth bothering with them.
With a big supply of humpies in 2021, the last odd year, fishermen who caught them were getting a tiny fraction of what each sockeye would bring. The average humpy, according to state data, was worth but $1.25 at the dock whereas the average sockeye would bring a fisherman nearly $9.75.
Part of the price differential was tied to size. That average sockeye was more than twice the size of the average humpy. But an even bigger difference was in price per pound with the statewide average price per pound for a pink – 40 cents – a quarter of that for sockeye at $1.60.
This huge difference between these prices is a reflection of to end-product values.
Sockeye of five pounds or so and up can be cut into filets prized on both home and restaurant dining tables. Costco wholesale stores across the country were this week offering one- to two-pound frozen Alaska sockeye filets at about $22 per pound. Prices were similar at other retailers that deal heavily in fish.
Kroger, the country’s fourth largest grocery retailer doing business as Fred Meyer, King Soopers QFS and more, had “wild caught sockeye salmon fillet(s), previously frozen” at $19.49 in the “fresh” seafood aisle. It’s not usual for the fish to retail at ten times or more what Alaska commercial fishermen are paid for their catch.
Still, some salmon, notably Alaska humpies, can be had cheap. Walmart’s “Great Value” pink salmon is now selling for $3.30 in a 14.75-ounce can. That works out to about $3.58 per pound. Bumble Bee canned red salmon costs nearly three times as much at Walmart.
Walmart doesn’t offer sockeye in its in-house “Great Value” brand, but the company does sell frozen, Alaska “wild-caught, pink salmon, skin-on filets” under the “Great Value” label for $7.37 per pound. Great Value though they might be, they are not netting great scores for taste with the average, online reviewer giving them an average score of two out of five.
Almost 70 percent of those offering an opinion went lower and gave the product a one.
One reviewer suggested the fish had to be “some low-cost hybrid manufactured in a lab.” Another said it was so mushy and stinky ” I threw it out to the cats.” Still another objected to that idea, writing that others should “definitely listen to the reviews. We didn’t even want to give it to our dog because of how bad the quality is,”
Filets are what become of the highest quality pink salmon from Alaska and Russia. Canned pinks are the second-tier on the value chain. Below that is fishmeal to be used in dog and cat food, fertilizer or aquaculture feed. A 2019 study out of Auburn University suggested “salmon meals are a good protein sources which can replace anchovy meal” in feeding shrimp, the most popular seafood in the U.S.
The study added that ” salmon meal and its by-products have (also) shown their potential as fishmeal replacement in a number of studies. Fehringer, Hardy, and Cain suggested that the utilization of pink salmon meal to replace 25 percent anchovy meal can stimulate some innate responses for rainbow trout without causing negative effects in growth. James et al. reported that salmon meal can replace 100 percent herring meal in the manufactured diet of red king crab without compromising its growth
performance and economic benefit.”
The Norwegians, who pioneered salmon farming and helped to make farmed salmon the salmon now most eaten salmon around the globe, are now in the process of figuring out how to farm king crab. The crash of Alaska king crab fisheries along with Norway’s crab “problem” has made this idea very attractive.
King crab is not native to the Atlantic Ocean waters off Norway. The crabs first appeared there in the 1970s after a decision by the Russians to a decade earlier engage in a practice much loved by some Alaska commercial fishermen – farming the sea or ocean “ranching” as they like to call it.
The Russians released into Murmansk Fjord crabs caught in the Pacific off the Kamchatka Peninsula on the west side of the Bering Sea. The crabs flourished in the fjor and then began a march west to expand their range.
Today, according to NordNorge, “some think that (crab) is upsetting the ecological balance in the sea as it eats everything in its path. Others believe that it is a valuable supplement to the Norwegian fishing industry. However, the communities west of the North Cape are not keen on the crab establishing colonies there, so there are no restrictions on king crab fishing.”
The political compromise reached by the Norwegian government has been to create two fishing zones: one in which crabs are to be managed sustainably to support a newly developed crab-fishing industry and the other where all efforts are to be made to stomp the crustaceans out so they cannot further expand their range.
There is only one problem with the kill-them-all fishing zone, or “free fishing zone” as the Norwegians call it. A lot of the crabs caught there are small and unmarketable, but fishermen are prevented from throwing them back to grow bigger. This has helped drive the idea of creating crab feedlots.
“What can be done when the crabs caught in the free fishing zone are too small?” asked the Norwegian Institute of Food, Fisheries and Aquaculture. “Well, you catch them and feed them until they reach the desired weight before export.”
No one knows whether this idea can actually succeed. The institute says “experiences so far have been both positive and somewhat challenging.”
A two-year-old test project has proven crabs can be grown in tanks and that the crabs so produced taste just like wild crabs, according to Grete Lorentzen, the crab project manager. But meat content in the legs is a problem. The market wants it at 80 percent, and the domesticated crabs have yet to meet that goal.
“In the trial, the crabs were well-fed throughout the entire period. However, the meat content was low. Compared to wild-caught red king crab, the red king crab that were fed had a lower meat content. This shows that there is still some work to be done before we reach our goal,” Lorentzen said.
The researchers are now experimenting with different feedstocks to see what might work best to fatten up crabs.
“If we succeed in our experiments, feeding of small crabs can be a valuable contribution to today’s exports of red king crab,” Lorentzen said. “This type of feeding will contribute to value creation and what used to be considered ‘a problem’ can be turned into a resource.”
Unmentioned is the possible synergy between crab farming and the now massive Norwegian salmon farming industry. It annually produces more than 1.5 million tonnes of salmon, or about three times as much salmon as Alaska produces in its best years.
Processing so much fish leads to a lot of fish waste, much of which was once dumped at sea. But Norwegian and other salmon farmers are now working toward zero-waste systems that along with using processing plant “viscera to make fishmeal and fish oil, fish heads to make salmon oil, and trimmings for domestic food use” collect waste and uneaten food emitted from pens to produce fertilizer and biogas.
Whether the crab will one day create a market for some of this waste, or for all the fish meal now being made out of Alaska pink salmon, only time will tell. Unfortunately, there are no indications that the salmon Alaska has proven best at farming at sea and managing for abundance in the wild are going to become any more attractive to high-end Western consumers of the future than they were yesterday, and that is where the real money is in the fishing business.
That is why all the major salmon processors doing business in Alaska have one foot in the north and another in various salmon farming operations elsewhere. Their natural business goal is to maximize profits at both ends of the market for salmon and salmon products, and there is no better place than Alaska to find high-volume, low-value salmon to stuff into cans or pouches to compete with canned tuna, an old – international staple.
And this should be a good year for that product.