Warming bonus

An Alaska purse seiner weighed down by its load of salmon/ADF&G photo


200M-plus Salmon Again, but Market Chaos

A warmer ocean continues to smile on Alaska commercial salmon fishermen, but the fish market is sadly another story.

The 49th state these days finds itself vying with Russia to become the world’s biggest supplier of cheap salmon to stuff into cans and pouches while upscale consumers spend their money on nice, fat salmon filets.

Norwegian salmon farmers – Leroy, Mowi and others who specialize in six-and-a-half to 13-pound Atlanatic – are posting record profits and worry about being taxed by the Norwegian government the way Alaska taxes oil, and Alaska fishermen are waiting to find out just how lo the final price for the bulk of their catch, pink salmon that have in recent years averaged 3.4 pounds, according to Alaska Department of Fish and Game data. 

When fishermen finally get fully paid, pink salmon prices are rumored to drop as low as 10 cents per pound for the flood fish hauled in this year. Neither processors nor the state have publicly disclosed pink salmon prices to date, but catch data is readily available.

Of the more than 216 million salmon now reported harvested, according to Fish and Game data, about 68 percent – more than 146 million – are pinks or what Alaskans often call humpies.

The number could have gone even higher if Trident Seafoods and some other processors hadn’t stopped buying fish at the end of August with slow-moving inventories of 2022 Alaska salmon still piled up in warehouses or in cold storage.

Being awash in Gulf of Alaska humpies and Bristol Bay sockeye, the price of which also took a beating this year, is a good thing for commercial interests right up until it is not, and an unusually warm Alaska has been awash in salmon for more than a decade.

Up, up, up

Six times in the last 11 years, the harvest has topped 200 million, according to Fish and Game data. Prior to 2013, that had happened only four times. Prior to 1995, it had never happened at all.

What followed ’95 was another 200 million plus year in the 1990s, two such years again in the first decade of the new millennium, and then a solid string of years in which every odd-numbered one – 2013, 2015, 2017, 2019, 2021 and 2023 – produced more than 200 million.

There was a reason the big catches came in odd years. Pink salmon, the smallest and shortest-lived of the Pacific species, have two distinct lineages: Odd-year fish and even-year fish with the former significantly more productive than the latter.

The prevailing but debated theory as to the differences in productivity between the odd and even years hinges on the idea that odd-year pinks chew such a big hole in the ocean’s food supply that the even-year fish struggle to find enough to eat. The ripple effect on other salmon that compete with pinks for food is unclear, but returns of all salmon species in Alaska now seem to be yo-yoing significantly from odd to even years. 

Some scientists contend that hatchery boosting of the already large number of Alaska’s naturally spawned pinks has created so-called “trophic cascades” that drive down not only the numbers of other species of salmon but also some populations of marine birds. 

The situation is such that it actually had the North Pacific Anadromous Fish Commission (NPAFC) last year asking “Are There Too Many Salmon in the North Pacific Ocean?”

The question focused primarily on pink salmon and the free-ranging farming operations being run by hatcheries in Alaska and Russia.

“Overall, pink salmon represented approximately 74 percent of total salmon abundance in 2018/2019,” scientists told the commission. “Most pink salmon are of natural origin, but abundance of hatchery pink salmon during 2005 to 2015 was greater than abundance of wild chum salmon and approximately equal to abundance of wild sockeye salmon.

“Total chum and sockeye salmon (the second and third most productive species) represented only 14 percent and 12 percent, respectively, of total salmon abundance in 2018/2019. These values exclude Chinook and coho salmon, whose combined reported commercial catch  was 1.5 percent of total salmon catch from the North Pacific during 2018/2019 and approximately 5 percent of total salmon catch, on average, during 1925 to 2020.”

Still, the overall trendline for the harvest of salmon in Alaska has continued upward despite the yoyoing with an average, statewide catch of 49 million in the 1970s, 122.4 million in the ’80s, 157.5 million in the ’90s, 167.4 million in the 2000s, and 180 million in the 2010s. 

For reference purposes, the highest average decadal catch in the Alaska Territory was 91 million in the 1930s. Up until the 1990s, a catch of 100 million was thought of as the benchmark for a great year.

The bar for defining great is now twice as hight, but this boom – fueled not only by warming ocean waters but by hatcheries and better management of wild fish – has not been equally good to all fishermen.


Declines in harvests of Chinook, or kings as Alaskans call them, and cohos, which Alaskans usually call silvers, as pointed out by the NPAFC have been bad news for commercial trollers in the state’s Panhandle and for anglers everywhere in the state.

Commercial gilnetters in non-Bristol Bay fisheries have also paid a price. A peer-reviewed study published in 2020 concluded that from 2005 to 2015, “the approximately 82 million adult pink salmon produced annually from hatcheries had reduced the productivity of southern sockeye salmon by approximately 15 percent, on average.”

Southern sockeye are those born in streams draining into the North Pacific Ocean from the Alaska Peninsula east to Cook Inlet and then south to the Pacific Northwest.

Along with declines in sockeyes has come what Canadian scientists have called a “collapse” of chum salmon returns to the streams and rivers of British Columbia.

“In recent years, a series of marine heatwaves (that) reduced food-web productivity in the North Pacific, increased metabolic demands on ectotherms like salmon and exacerbated competition between wild- and hatchery-origin salmon for limited food resources at sea,” they reported in a peer-reviewed paper published in 2022.

Pinks appear to enjoy an advantage in warm waters, and scientists with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration have suggested this might even play a role in the difference between odd-year and even-year productivity of the species.

“The difference in temperature tolerance between even- and odd-year brood lines may be traced to Pleistocene Era glaciation,” they believe. “Even year brood lines are thought to have survived the glaciation in northern refugia, while their odd-year counterparts took refuge in the south” where they flourished in warmer waters.

They are still flourishing in the south. They drove a bit of a fishing frenzy in Seattle this summer.

The fish that “surge into local waters for just a few weeks every two years, are here right now,” Seattle Magazine reported in the middle of last month. “Where pinks go, anglers are sure to follow, and they’re coming in droves; some even taking a road trip in from Oregon to target the fish in the most unlikely of fly-fishing spots: Seattle’s Elliott Bay.”

In an area with few salmon, pinks are considered a big deal by everyone, but in Alaska, where bigger and tastier salmon are available, pinks are sometimes considered a nuisance by anglers and a time-waster by commercial gillnetters.

But the fish put smiles on the faces of commercial purse seiners who net them by the tens of millions. Or at least that was the case before the old economic law of supply and demand hammered down prices this year.

Market realities

It’s never a good thing when the market demand for the product you’re selling starts to collapse.

Witness the American newspaper business which went from 46,179 publishers in 2002 to less than half that at 22,149 by 2020, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

The future doesn’t look quite that grim for Alaska commercial fishermen. The demand for salmon in cans and pouches is expected to grow through 2030, primarily in Asia and Europe.

The bigger problem is that salmon in pouches and cans are a low-end market. One can think of the canned salmon as the jug wine business versus the fine wine business, which is in filets of sockeye, coho and Chinook.

For salmon farmers, cans and pouches are nothing but a fallback choice for fish that lack the eye appeal to be sold as filets.  For Alaska salmon processors, however, cans and pouches remain a major market because many pinks are too small to produce marketable filets.

Money, however, can still be made by selling the cheaper product in a can or increasingly grinding salmon into fish meal for use in dog food or fertilizer. There are now a lot of premium dog foods boasting salmon as a main ingredient.

Canine Caviar’s ‘Platinum Series Salmon” at $4.99 for a 12.7 can in a California pet store will cost you more than the $3.42 Walmart wants for a 14.75-ounce can of Deming’s Wild Caught Alaskan Pink Salmon intended for human consumption.

Pet food is also projected to be a growth market in the U.S. in the years ahead, and the Supermarket News says fresh and premium dog foods are driving sales.

“We are no longer talking about just scraps under the table,” the website reported in July. “Shoppers are putting everything they have into the treatment of their pets, and health and wellness is of the utmost importance.”

Unfortunately for commercial fishermen, the Alaska fishing industry, and those in jobs the industry helps support, catching fish to sell dog food is never going to be as profitable as catching fish to sell to white-table-cloth restaurants no matter how much people might want to pamper woman’s (or man’s) best friend.







6 replies »

  1. In any Alaskan Safeway or Fred Meyers the meat sections are easily three times the size of the seafood sections. And virtually none of that meat comes from Alaska. How’s that for supporting our seafood industry?

  2. The market for BB and Area M (Alaska Peninsula) drift permits is slowing collapsing. Asking prices for BB permits are down to $140K in several listings while offers are around $125 – 130K. I spoke with reps of two companies that specialize in the sale of permits and vessels and they both said the same thing: that in their opinion prices for both will continue to fall.
    The commercial fishermen and women permit and boat owners are mere pawns in a massive business run by Kings and Queens that control everything on the board.
    As someone once said, “ you can’t get five commercial fishermen to agree to kill a rat in a tub.”
    Thus, they will never be able to organize into an effective bargaining unit. Because they will only be able to field a team of children in a game against the equivalent of a Super Bowl winner.

    Maybe these Pawns should consider cutting their losses while they still can and find a new game to play.

  3. U need to discuss the growing plant based food economy…
    By the summer of 2020, plant-based food sales more than doubled…243 %
    There is a lot of growing momentum away from killing animals for food.
    This will only gain more traction as boomers grow old & die.
    At some point, less salmon will be in demand on the global market.

  4. Thankfully the bled and chilled sockeye I harvest are still in demand at the “white tablecloth restaurants”. While we target sockeye because of the premium price paid, the pink and chum and the few coho we catch go a long way to cover operating expenses. Doing a bit of pre tax prep now, and find that expenses are right at half of gross, with almost all expenses other than vessel insurance have been spent locally.
    We are certainly fortunate to have this wonderful renewable resource available to us in Alaska . A renewable resource that provides income for those in the harvesting,processing and support industries, while still providing sustenance and recreation for all Alaskans and tourists alike.
    I love Alaska and thank my lucky stars I have the privilege of living here.

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