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.
“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.
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.