Bristol Bay bust

Bristol Bay salmon prices hit rock bottom

Prices paid commercial fishermen for their catches of wild, Bristol Bay sockeye salmon have just set a modern record low of 50 cents per pound.

That’s only three cents per pound less than the average price paid for a Southeast Alaska pink salmon – or humpy as Alaskans usually call the smallest and blandest tasting of the Pacific – in 2018, according to Alaska Department of Fish and Game data.

With a correction for inflation, that old humpy would now be worth 8 cents more per pound than a Bristol Bay sockeye. The last time the Bay saw anything like this was more than two decades ago when the sockeye price hit 42 cents per pound.

Once inflation adjusted, however, those fish had a value of 70 cents per pound – 20 cents more than what Trident Seafoods and other processors are now offering.

This price being paid in 2023 is less than half the $1.15 per pound a Bay sockeye brought fishermen last year when a record and unprecedented run of fish drove the harvest above 60 million, more than double the 20-year average harvest and almost 14 million fish more than the previous record set in 1995, according to Fish and Game numbers.

Trident, the country’s biggest seafood producer, blamed the big slump on the “massive amount of inventory” that pile up after that record harvest and the Russians, who have also been producing large volumes of wild seafood and selling it cheap in the face of boycotts aimed at limiting the profits the country makes off its natural resources.

Western boycotts of Russian fish, oil, gas and more are aimed at destroying its ability to finance the war on Ukraine.

Complicated problem

“In addition to these supply-side pressures,” a Trident statement said, “inflation has also had a significant effect. We have all felt the stiff increases in labor, parts, food, fuel and other services.”

Alaska salmon processing operations are largely conducted out of frontier outposts into which Trident and other companies must fly seasonal workers and everything needed to support them for a couple of months of salmon processing.

The company did promise fishermen bonuses of 15 cents per pound if their fish were chilled to 39 degrees or colder at delivery, which greatly improves quality, and said driftnet fishermen could collect another 15 cents per pound for bleeding their sockeye.

Bleeding fish, however, takes time, and ice costs money. Some fishermen were reported to be giving up early, pulling their boats for the season, and heading home.

Much of the season is already over anyway with Fish and Game reporting a harvest to date approaching 34 million sockeye. That is about 90 percent of the forecast catch of near 37 million,

About 12 million of the 13 million sockeyes earmarked for spawning needs have already entered Bay rivers. The Bay fishery usually peaks around mid-month before fading into an end in early or mid-August.

Fishermen knew going into the season that the prices were likely to be bad, but not this bad. The problem is one of simple economics:

The supply of sockeye now exceeds the demand given a strong run of the fish in 2021 followed by that unprecedented run last year.

Processors saw problems coming into 2022 which is why the price paid fishermen last year fell more than 50 percent from the average $1.75 per pound paid in 2021.

When the 2022 season began, processors were sitting on frozen salmon inventories from the 2021 catch of more than 40 million sockeye. And by the time the 2022 season ended, what had been an overstock of frozen sockeye had become a full-on glut.

Alaska Sens. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, and Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, tried to come to the rescue of fishermen and processors by lobbying for federal bailouts in the form of high-volume purchases of salmon for national school lunch programs, but not even the U.S. Department of Agriculture had the money to fix the problem in a world that has to a significant degree turned away from frozen Alaska fish in favor of fresh farmed salmon from Norway, Chile, Scotland, Canada and elsewhere.

By spring, processors had abandoned the idea that the “wild-caught” tag on Alaska salmon should bring a supermarket premium and were trying everything they could do to move fish in cold storage.

Seafood Source, an industry publication, reported some supermarkets pushing prices for previously frozen Bay sockeye below $9 per pound as processors tried to clear out stockpiles in preparation for the season now underway.

Retail prices did generally creep back over $10 per pound as the summer grilling season got underway, but processors are now panicky about getting caught with overblown inventories because of cold-storage costs, now high-interest rates on loans that make financing over-winter storage more costly, and signs cost-conscious consumer are cutting back spending on seafood.

The Food Industry Association reported a 3.8 percent drop in seafood sales last year, as “many shoppers turning to more affordable proteins as they adjusted their spending habits to the economic environment.”

The trade association did, however, expect the situation to improve as inflation eases.

In the meantime, however, the fishermen in the state’s usually most valuable salmon fishery are taking a big hit, although longtime Alaska fishery economist Gunnar Knapp did offer a small ray of hope on Monday.

“Personally, I think there is a reasonable chance that wholesale market conditions will improve and we could see postseason payments bringing final ex-vessel prices up to a level that won’t make fishermen happy but which may not be an all-time inflation-adjusted low,” he said.





19 replies »

  1. AGAIN, The USDA did NOT “bail out” the industry! Craig, I have explained this to you for twenty years and you sill like to use the term “Bail Out” , or “subsidize” or…. The USDA will purchase some $3+B of food this year and most of it is for our nation’s Food Banks and some school lunch. The USG dietary guidelines for Americans wants us to eat seafood twice per week even though the people they feed do not get access to that much seafood. It’s all done by competitive bid.

    • Bruce: In some cases, your argument holds water. Not in this one. This buy came because ASMI and the Alaska Congressional delegation begged and pleaded with the USDA to make the buy. And who knows what threats the former might have made vis-a-vis USDA budgets to make sure the buy got made.

  2. I have heard from several people who either own and operate fishing lodges or fly for them who said that they have never seen such low escapement levels in the Naknak / Kvichak drainages. When the fisheries are open the number of gill nets that are put in the water effectively cork off the ability of salmon to make it up the river. All of a sudden there are essentially no salmon coming up rivet for miles. It is an astounding gap.
    Discreet stocks of Sockeye can almost be wiped out with these openers. Small rivers may not get anywhere the number of spawners necessary to perpetuate their individual strong runs. Bears no longer hang out where they historically have and are forced into other areas where conflict often results. All the rest of the wildlife that is dependent on the runs suffer.
    This is all caused so that permit holders can be paid $.50 a pound. Something really wrong here. The State’s priorities are screwed up.

    • There are solutions – fish wheels, fish traps, RAS, even the Pebble Mine, but nobody wants to even acknowledge the problem much less discuss a solution. Sadly, this sort of foolishness is coming for Cook Inlet for the identical reason. Cheers –

      • Problem? What problem? It’s just those evil processors trying to rip off hard-working Alaska commercial fishermen/ Some of whom are still blaming the Japanese apparently unaware of the fact the Japanese pretty much washed there hands of Alaska because it’s such a mess.

      • Why did you include the proposed Pebble Mine with fish traps, fish wheels and other fish killers? The proposed Pebble mine has done nothing detrimental to fisheries. As the market for Bristol Bay fish collapses the economic opportunity of Pebble looks all the better.

    • Oh please. The Naknek escapement is over a million now, the Kvichak over 3.4 million – above minimum goals of 800k and 2-10 million respectively. ADFG has been opening and closing the districts to address the discrete stocks concern you express. Total run is at about 47.4 million and climbing – pretty darned good overall – it came slow but the numbers are good. This price news has commercial fishermen dropping out a little early. One must remember we have been having unprecendented runs for several years now with very large to HUGE escapements in excess of normal escapment goals. I have been saying – when the Bay gets back to a “normal” or “average” run size, it will seem like a disaster in numbers of fish. Some commercial fishermen may complain of “foregone harvest” as revenue loss. And others wring their hands about “over escapment” hurting long time productivity (I don’t believe that) and income. The great “over escapements” of recent years have fed a great abundance of bears (over abundance for a lot of us locals)- I don’t know where you come up with the complaint the bears aren’t in normal places. Last year Brooks River was over-run with them and plenty were around Dillingham. With the abundant bears, I’m expect if we get a truly poor run the bears will become serious pests in villages and towns and really hammer our moose and caribou. So ADFG can’t win – seems like everybody brings their whine to the topic.

      If you need to worry about something, consider that last I heard, the 1.2 check fish did not make up near the expected proportion of the run this year. Will they come as 3 checks next year or not at all? If they don’t come back what happened to them? How about the fish that will be 1.2s next year?

      • Agreed. There is no escapement problem here. And I think your point about bears is a good one. It would be a surprise if this string of big runs DIDN’T boost bear numbers. It’s an ecological fundamental that population increases, as well as decreases, are tied to food abundance.

      • I read the numbers. But there is concern that they overstate escapement. Having spent quite a few days on Brooks, Kulik, kvichak , and American River recently I share that concern. And after viewing the Brooks Bear cams it sure appears that there are significantly fewer bears this season in the Brooks and the bears do not appear to be catching near as many reds as in the past. Lodge guides and pilots from several lodges say the same thing. Some friends who live in Igiuguk and Iliamna say they are seeing far less Reds in the Kvichak and the Newhalen rivers and that it is taking much longer to get their subsistence needs met. I have never heard so many concerns after many decades of frequently visiting the areas every year.
        The Dept is loath to admit to low escapement numbers and in some systems there are no sonars, just guesses based on a couple aircraft surveys.
        Decades ago escapements in the Kvichak were sometimes close to 8 and 9 million. Salmon were everywhere in the tiniest of streams and the eco system seemed far healthier than today. Nobody worried about the so called dreaded over escapement. And fish prices were multiple times what they are today.
        I guess it depends on your opinion of what is best for Alaska’s resources At only 50 cents a pound maybe erring on the side of the eco system is smarter.

    • Why do you people insist on making trouble for commercial fisherman, the streams have not been wiped out, excapment is been achieved. Yet you side with sport fisherman who have no stake in alaska nothing tangible to give back to the state but some money in guides pockets. Greg has always been anti commercial, and biased politically. I’ve read his prejudices for years. Commercial fisherman are one of the greatest professions on earth the men an women create a business out of pure confidence in themselves, We are not 9-5 people we are whatever it takes people. Not many of any of you could do what we do. We repair our boats ,build them ourselves often do everything from electrical to hydraulic s. Very few can claim the diversity of a fisherman s talents. certainly not self absorbed journalism.

    • Find below escapement totals for BB, from adf&g website, 7/18/23. Total numbers for Kvichak/Naknek are over 4.5 million. Are those “low escapement numbers”?

      Ugashik River 0 728,666 0
      Egegik River 0 1,453,776 0
      Kvichak River 0 3,428,538 0
      Alagnak River 0 973,032 0
      Naknek River 0 1,089,456 0
      Igushik River 0 402,876 0
      Wood River 0 2,576,676 0
      Nushagak River 4,157 1,733,724 0
      Togiak River 0 76,602

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