Salmon disaster

Pink prices could fall to 10 cents a pound

What began as a bad Alaska salmon season has suddenly gotten a whole lot worse.

And no, it isn’t about “Otis” or any other Western Alaska brown/grizzly bear in danger of starving to death because of disappearing Bristol Bay sockeye salmon as reported by the Washington Post and the Anchorage Daily News.

There are lots and lots of sockeye. Despite what a WaPo reporter might believe, and Alaska’s largest newspaper might be ignorant enough to reprint, global warming hasn’t harmed Bay sockeye.

To date, warming has done the opposite. It has caused a huge boom in sockeye numbers. That could change in the future but for the moment there is a suffering of surplus.

In simple economic terms, supply is so much greater than demand that prices have come crashing down for sockeyes and pinks are about to follow.

Boom goes bust

“The current state of salmon markets is volatile,” as Trident Seafoods, the state’s largest processor and industry leader in setting market prices, put it in an Aug. 5 letter to the fishermen who sell salmon to the company. “And future indicators are even more concerning.

“Spring of 2023 brought a sharp decrease in wholesale prices across all species and continues to drop as the weeks progress.”

The really bad news followed:

  • “As chum (salmon) markets have collapsed, remaining chum harvests will be 20 cents (per pound), all-in, statewide.
  • On or about Sept. 1, 2023 we will stop buying salmon in all areas except for Petersburg and Cordova South, which will keep supporting coho fisheries.

Unclear was what exactly the company planned to do about prices for pink salmon. But there was the hint which usually comprise the bulk of the Alaska harvest might fall to a dime a pound.

Because of an unprecedented harvest of 74.8 million sockeye salmon last year, nearly all of them from the Bay, plus even-numbered years being weak years for the fish most Alaskans call humpies, pinks last year compromised only 43 percent of the harvest, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

But despite another big harvest of more than 39 million more sockeye in the Bay this year, pinks are back on top with a variety of commercial pink fisheries still going strong.

As of this writing, Fish and Game reports pinks have surpassed 45 percent of the catch and are steadily pushing toward more than 50 percent. The preseason forecast was for a harvest of 122 million pinks predicted to comprise about 65 percent of a total, statewide, all-species salmon harvest of 189 million salmon. 

Russian pinks roil market

But the forecast Alaska pink harvest, if achieved, is small potatoes compared to what has already been caught on the west side of the globally warmed Bering Sea.  Seafound Source, a trade publication, says Russian fishermen had as of last week harvested 285,000 metric tonnes of pink salmon.

Pinks are the smallest of the Pacific salmon, and generally weigh three to four pounds. At a weight of four pounds, 285,000 metric tonnes would translate into approximately 157 million pinks, and the Russian salmon season is far from done.

“Last week, Russia harvested pink volume equivalent to our entire Alaska pink annual forecast (of 122 million), and they have shown a willingness to offload inventory at very low prices in part to fund the war in Ukraine,” Trident said in its communique, which hinted at an Alaska pink salmon price as low as 10 cents per pound.

That’s a third to a fifth of what commercial fishermen were being paid in Alaska last year with average prices ranging from a low of 30 cents per pound in Alaska Peninsula fisheries to a high of 53 cents per pound in Prince William Sound, the humpy capital of North America, according to Fish and Game. 

The 2022 Sound harvest of nearly 28.5 million pinks – more than 40 percent of the statewide total for the year – helped push the state average up to 43 cents per pound.

Sound seiners who’ve enjoyed some big money years scooping up hatchery pinks are likely to take a big hit this year despite the efforts of the Alaska congressional delegation to encourage the federal government to head off this storm that many saw coming as far back as last winter.

“We haven’t seen a collapse in value like this since the 1990s when pinks went well under 10 cents a pound,” Trident said. “At the same time, record inflation is pushing up costs across the board for everyone. Trident is actively managing internal costs so we can return as much value as possible to our fishermen during this period.

“We are doing everything we can during this time to maintain service, stability and value for our fleet.”

Whether Alaska fishermen were buying that pitch or not is unclear. They’d earlier protested in the Bay over a 50 cent per pound base price for sockeye with bonuses paid for salmon bled and chilled before delivery.

Some fishermen were hopeful the season-end price might average as high as 70 cents per pound or about 60 percent of the $1.15 average last year. 

That is now looking overly optimistic, but likely to be a way better deal than the fishermen who live or die on pink salmon catches are going to see.





25 replies »

  1. Alaska has the pristine water and the maritime expanse to maybe reconsider the poorly conceived 1990 ban on fish farming. For sure, Chile, Norway and Scotland fish farms are not subjected to the arbitrary human influences of the wild caught salmon industry. Fact is, the salmon consumers at a restaurant do not give a damn where their salmon came from. Fish farming is the future of the salmon fishery and the longer Alaska bans that activity the further behind it will fall.

    • But Don, Alaska is already farming fish on a massive scale. It’s just we farm the fish that go in cans, and these days there isn’t a lot of money in that for fishermen. The farmers are still doing pretty good though. And at these prices, the farmers (ie. hatchery operators) may end up simply taking over the harvesting of the fish to get enough of that “cost recovery” money to keep their hatcheries running.

      The volume is such that I’d expect the hatcheries can still function at 10 cents a pound for pinks. They’d just need to capture 80 or 90 percent of the fish they were originally set up to produce to benefit the “common-property” fishery.

      • Craig, the Alaska seacoast is littered with factories (ie, canneries) that once put fish in cans. They essentially disappeared because their market did as well. Mother ships and fast freezing put an end to canning. The largest cannery in Alaska was in Larson Bay. Now a very small piece of the facility is about fast freezing while the remainder of the building lies fallow. Fish farms are capable of doing what float fishing cannot do and that is providing a consistent fresh product virtually anytime of the year. And as you point out, the fish farms have the ability to withstand fluctuations in the market that doom the float fishermen.

      • In the big picture, it’s all just the continuation of the farmers displacing the hunter/gatherers – a socioeconomic evolution that has been underway for about 12,000 years. We ignore evolution at our own peril, sad to say.

    • You know nothing of the deavistation caused by salmon farming ,once pristine salmon rivers in scotland ,wales ,ireland are almost completely devoid of salmon and sea alaska please keep your waters pristine and never allow any type of fish farming on alaska’s waters ,and donald please crawl back under what ever rock it was you were hiding under gerry o brien ireland

      • Gerry: It’s easy to blame the farms, and certainly they haven’t helped the situation for wild Atlantic salmon in Europe. But I’ve some what regularly followed the ICES Working Group on North Atlantic Salmon and you have a whole lot more problems than just the farms.

        And you really need to ask a fundamental question: Is it better to hold and raise those salmon in pens or ranch them in the sea as we do here in Alaska?

        That said, hopefully, we will see a steady transition of all these farms to RAS or closed-containment systems as is beginning in Norway.

  2. Meanwhile, the cook inlet drift fleet has experienced a pretty good season. Good weather, decent harvest, and a reasonable price. Exceeding escapement goals has resulted in lots of lost yield, which would have made the season more prosperous, but it seems all user groups harvested plenty of sockeye(other than the east side setnet fleet of course). Heres hoping the chinook can do a turnaround in the near future so the setnet and sportfish fleet can get their share of the resource. The future is bright!

    • Gunner: That’s a big “other than.” Most of the UCI permits are in the setnef fishery. A lot of the problems in other fisheries could be solved by reducing permits by more than half. It’s good to have a positive attitude, but one shouldn’t ignore reality.

  3. I was recently at Brooks River and spent many hours just viewing the bears, mostly at the falls. And during what is normally the peak of the run. Have been doing so for over 50 years. Also watch the bear cams. A lot!
    I am not in a position to dispute ADF&G, escapement counts in the Naknak. But I can confidently say that I have never seen so few Sockeye in Brooks River or fewer fish being caught by the bears.
    Watch the Brooks bear cams. I have watched for 1/2 hour several times before seeing a fish caught. And it seems that the bears are a little more ready to argue over fishing spots than is usual. And some of the sows look thinner than I recall in the past. Just saying.

    • So how does it compare to 2009, which was probably the last time the Naknek count was in this low in the range?

      It’s hard to know how many sockeye are actually in the Brooks without an actual counter on the river. The ADF&G count on the Naknek is pretty good. And my personal experience with personal observations, unless I’ve logged them in logbooks, is that they’re always suspect. We have very selective memories.

      Not to mention that I’ve personally found that my observations didn’t always match the data. I remember a few years when I came back from the Russian River thinking it wasn’t getting a very good return only to look at the weir count – which provides really accurate numbers – and find out it was a pretty normal year.

      It’s been a while since there’s been a normal year for the Naknek. It was right at the upper end of the range last year, 800,000 over the upper end in 2021, a couple million over the upper end in 2020, about a million over in 2019. Our memories tend to focus on the near present rather than the long ago, except maybe to conlcude it was always better at sometime in the past or always worse.

      Whatever the case, there’s no data whatsoever to suggest sockeye are in decline Bristol Bay wide. The harvest is at 39.5 million. The Alagnak and Igushik are already over-escaped. The Wood, Nushagak and Togiak are near the upper limit and will likely go over. The Kvichack does seem to be lagging a bit but at 3.8 mllion it’s well within that massive range of 2 million to 10 million. The Egegik is in the upper end of the range.

      Just doing some math on the back of envelope here, it looks like the final run assessment will come very close to the 51 million return that was forecast, and that’s a big return – 40 percent greater than the 1963 to 2022 aveage of 36.5 million.

      Of course, that average is dragged down by the years prior to the new millenium. There were also likely a lot fewer bears in Southwest Alaska then, too, because life in the wild is hard.

    • Weren’t people just complaining that ADFG killed too many bears and so they weren’t returning to the cameras…errr falls? Maybe they should have killed more so they wouldn’t have to fight over the salmon that aren’t there…

  4. Time to open these fisheries up and allow owners to own multiple permits and fish multiple areas with the same boat. The only Cavat being once you leave an area for the year you cannot go back and you have to declare 5 days in advance of changing districts. This will keep the Million dollar boats moving and leaving locals who are less mobile, less coemption though-out entire season or in slow/low run years.

  5. A permit ownership is not just a business decision. For many Alaskans is a traditional way of life and of passing on historic traditions and values to our children. In the past I have bought my teenagers these very expensive permits – it was not a business decision. It was a values decision, and an attempt to teach them work skills, ethics and values that will help them in this world should I suddenly be called to depart it. This attempt has at least somewhat been succesfull. I now have late teen adolescents who know how to work, run skiffs, start fires, mend web, fix outboards, Weld, diagnose and fix just about any mechanical system, get along with other workmates and deal with just about any kind of an emergency we often run into in Remote Bush Alaska. Yes, we are suffering greatly from this market catastrophe, and even so we shall overcome. This kind of disaster is exactly what Federal Farm disaster assistance is made for. It won’t be much but it will help. . We small-time fishermen certainly need it and deserve it far more than the Corporote Farms that receive assistance of all kinds year after year.

    • Dan: I can only commend you on your parenting, but I’m not sure it’s anyone else’s responsibility to help support it. I put my kid to work in a stable to help pay the costs of her competitive jumping horses, which was a bad business decision but a good values decision.

      When she got really, really good at jumping horses, it stretched us to the limit financially to keep her on horses as good as she was. A serious coke habit would have been a lot cheaper. But I never expected government subsidies to help just because she was up against a bunch of wealthy riders in a rich person’s sport.

      This is a catastrophe. Limited entry and a whole lot of other decisions made in the fisheries to limit competition and mandate inefficiencies helped get us into it. The question now is not how to once again prop up the existing structure, but how to modify it to compete in the new world order.

      Sad to say these things, but somebody needs to say it.

    • Daniel:
      When BB permit holders decide to spend well
      Over $500K and sometimes more than a million dollars on a single purpose BB fishing boat or in PWS or SEAK, an even far more expensive seiner, store them, insure them, buy provisions and fuel at $10.00 or more a gallon, fly themselves and crew from the lower forty eight, they are making business decisions
      .Factor in the fact that nearly 55% of the BB permit holders are non residents and around 25% are Alaskans but live nowhere near the fishing area. Which leaves only 20% that live in the communities near the fisheries.
      It becomes quite clear that for the vast majority they are making serious business decisions that have nothing to do with historical ways of life or passing on traditional values to children.
      Likewise, a permit holder who builds or buys a 58’ limit seine boat for a million or two or more dollars, has made a serious business decision. All these business decisions were voluntary and in many cases made by people who have no other connection to Alaska other than to make money off Alaska’s natural resource. And they are not the “small time fishermen” you seem to think they are.
      Your analogy to farmers who sometimes receive disaster aid is simply wrong. The difference between farmers and limited entry fishing permit holders is vast. Farmers work hard year around. They till the land, buy expensive seed, use large infrastructure and expensive water for the crops, nurture the fields, and then harvest and move the crop to market. It is a year long effort. If there is a natural disaster caused by things totally out of their control sometimes there are funds available to help.
      Contrast that to limited entry permit holders. All they have to do is harvest a resource that they had no hand in growing. And they chose to invest huge sums of money to harvest a public resource that they did not create through their sweat and tears. And they collectively do so with no clue what they will get paid. They make business decisions. Turns out that many are bad ones. Why they should get emergency funds is beyond reasonable.

    • I’m a little more sympathetic, Steve. Most of the commercial fishermen I know work damn hard for what they get paid, and this hurts them more than some of the highliners.

      • No one was sympathetic when all the family owned lodges on Alexander creek went belly up or when I couldn’t catch a king in Willow for nearly 15 yrs.
        They made their bed, now they can sleep in it…

      • Brooks fall has sewn pitiful run so far so quit lying. Watch everyday bears tearing up each other over fish. Majority of cubsvwill not make it. So skinny right now and runs are minimal.

      • Eric: Almost 1.2 million sockeyes had returned to the Naknek River as of yesterday. You can look it up:

        If fewer than you would like to see came back to the Brooks River, one of many tributaries in the Naknek drainage, maybe it is because the bears have overfished them there in recent years, or that the boom times of the 2010s and 2020s have led to such an increase in Katmai bear numbers that there are now more bears than the river can support.

        Not that this necessarily changes things. Bears have been tearing up bears at Brooks since forever. That’s what bears do. This is nature with nature’s rules, which are jungle rules not city rules.

        As for the cubs, the majority them never make it. Where this has been studied best, in Denali National Park, 65 percent of them end up dead in their first summer. You can look that up, too:,harvest%20or%20for%20management%20purposes.

        You would appear to know even less about bear ecology than you know about the status of salmon runs in Bristol Bay, so stop with the “lying” accusations. It’s nice that you’re watching the bear videos from a couple thousands miles away, but when doing so one should never forget John LeCarre’s warning that “a desk is a dangerous place from which to view the world.”

  6. Thanks for reminding us that the massive flood of Alaskan sockeye onto the market last year is still causing indigestion for this season’s catch. To claim some nefarious attempt by the Russians to flood the market with pinks is just plain nonsense. The Russians simply have a large catch this season, as Bristol Bay did last year, and are selling their fish to their traditional markets, just as Trident did last year. Trident, of course, knows this, as they have been regular buyers of Russian pink salmon in the past.

  7. A football commentator and former pro quarterback once said on TV, quoting from a Willie Nelson song, “ Turn out the lights the party’s over”. That is what has dramatically happened to the Sockeye and Pink fisheries in Alaska. And it is not likely to change soon.
    Million dollar 32’ BB boats will soon be on the market at a fraction of what they cost to build. The seine vessels used in the Pink fisheries may well
    flood the markets. Limited entry permits are already crashing.
    The handwriting has been on the wall for several years. And the Ostrich like approach by the permit holders in ignoring the incoming tsunami has finally created a self imposed disaster. One, from which, the Feds will hopefully not bail them out!
    The limit entry permit, that they all have, was never intended to guarantee them anything other than a competitive edge by reducing the number of people who are allowed to catch and sell their harvest. It never promised a particular number of fish they would catch or a particular price they would be paid for them. Yet they have felt entitled and will expect to be bailed out. Hopefully the tax payers will not have to foot the bill for their bad business decisions.

    • The sadly departed Dandy Don Meredith used to sing that toward the end of NFL Monday Night Football game broadcasts when one team had the game clearly won. Good memory, as this was 50 years ago when he co-hosted with Cosell. Cheers –

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