Story last updated at 4/1/2009 - 11:29 am
Reduced supplies of salmon from other regions could benefit Alaskan producers this year.
Catches along the Pacific Coast will once again be down drastically due to dismal salmon returns to major rivers. Pacific fishery managers will decide in early April just how slim the pickings will be for West Coast salmon fishermen.
Low salmon catches also are projected for British Columbia, and the supply of farmed salmon imports also will be down significantly. According to market analyst Ken Talley, production of farmed Atlantic salmon from Chile, the #1 importer to the U.S., could fall 25-50 percent. That's due primarily to a deadly virus that has plagued Chilean fish pens for more than a year.
Meanwhile, Alaska's 2009 salmon harvest is projected to increase by 20 percent to 175 million fish. Much of the increase will be driven by lower-valued pinks and chums, which have taken on new importance in the marketplace in today's tough economy.
The wholesale market for Alaska salmon was very strong last year, due to reduced volume. The statewide catch topped 709 million pounds, down nearly 34 percent from the previous year. Alaska processors put up almost 288 million pounds of fresh and frozen salmon products last year, a drop of 22 percent from 2007.
The total ex-vessel value (dockside) of Alaska's salmon catch gained only 1.8 percent last year. But the average ex-vessel price jumped almost 32 percent from 2007, Talley said, to 58 cents a pound, the highest value in recent memory
Fishermen got higher prices for every species last year, except for sockeye salmon. Average Chinook prices increased from $3.07 per pound in 2007 to $4.28 a pound. Cohos jumped from 96 cents to $1.21. Chum prices to fishermen increased from 34 cents per pound to 53 cents, and pink salmon went up a dime to average 29 cents a pound. Sockeye salmon dropped from 80 cents a pound in 2007 to 78 cents last year.
Even though wild Alaska salmon will be more important than ever to the market this summer, the key will be the willingness of consumers to pay for higher-priced foods. The consumer price index shows that food prices increased nearly 5 percent in February from the previous year, with seafood prices jumping more than 7 percent.
Fish is top crop
Don't ever refer to it as farming - but home-grown fish are Alaska 's largest agricultural crop. Call it instead "ocean ranching."
Whereas farmed fish are grown in closed pens or cages until they're ready for market, Alaska fish (mostly salmon) are grown in hatcheries until they are released as tiny fingerlings to the sea. When the fish return to the "ranch," they make up a huge part of Alaska's total salmon harvest.
Most of the fish are raised at 36 fish hatcheries, primarily privately owned, non-profits with a few owned by the state or the feds. (The state oversees them all.) The hatcheries raise a mix of five species of Pacific salmon for commercial and sport catches.
The state's annual report on its salmon enhancement programs shows that nearly 1.5 billion baby salmon were released to the ocean last year, while 60 million returned to their home hatcheries. Those fish accounted for 34 percent of Alaska's total salmon catch last year. The hatchery fish were worth $110 million to fishermen, accounting for 29 percent of the total harvest value.
Chums by far make up the biggest hatchery crop at 64 percent of the state's total catch. It's 44 percent for pinks, 21 percent for coho salmon, 20 percent for kings and three percent of sockeyes.
In some regions, ranched salmon by far make up most of the total harvest - 91 percent at Prince William Sound, worth 83 percent of the value, and 24 percent of the catch for Southeast, worth 41 percent of the value. At Cook Inlet, four percent of the salmon catch and value comes from local hatcheries; at Kodiak, hatchery fish comprise nine percent of the Island's harvest, worth 15 percent of the value. Find the entire 2008 salmon hatchery report online at www.cf.adfg.state.ak.us.
Amidst little fanfare, Alaska's most lucrative herring fishery got underway at Sitka Sound last Sunday when seiners scooped up 2,700 tons in a 15 minute opener. On Tuesday they took another 5,000 tons in an hour and a half. That brought the catch to a little over half of the 14,500 ton catch quota.
All of the Sound's 50 permit holders were on the grounds, along with twice that many tenders, said Eric Coonradt, assistant fishery manager at the Fish and Game office at Sitka. The herring are valued for their roe, which goes primarily to Japan. Roe counts, which are a percentage of body weight, averaged 13-14 percent from the first Sitka fishery, and 10.5 percent in Tuesday's opener.
Coonradt said he doesn't expect to see huge hauls like last year, when a few boats each took sets topping one thousand tons in shallow waters. One boat netted a set worth nearly one million dollars!
"Last year was kind of a fluke," Coonradt said. "We had an area open at an extended shelf with a soft, sandy bottom and it allowed fishermen to trap the fish against the bottom in shallow water. This year we're having fisheries in deeper water, so it doesn't allow fishermen to trap sets that size."
At week's end, there was still lots of herring around and the fleet was on standby awaiting the next opener.
"You better be there and you better be ready. Mother Nature is in command of this deal," said Scott McAllister aboard the F/V Owyhee.
Last year's roe herring price at Sitka averaged $600 per ton, pushing the value of the fishery to nearly $9 million at the docks. Average gross earnings for each of the 47 participating permit holders were almost $190,000. More roe herring fisheries will kick off when the fish arrive in other parts of Southeast, at Kodiak, Bristol Bay and all they way up the coast to Norton Sound.
Laine Welch has been providing news of Alaska's seafood industry for print and broadcast since 1988. Her Fish Factor column appears weekly in 20 Alaska newspapers and web sites. Laine's Fish Radio programs air daily on 20 stations across Alaska.Visit her online at www.alaskafishfactor.com.