Story last updated at 4/11/2012 - 11:36 am
A resurgence of farmed fish and shifting world currencies could shake up salmon markets this year.
"There are two trends going into the current salmon season that we haven't seen for several years," said Gunnar Knapp, a fisheries economist at the University of Alaska at Anchorage. "Exchange rates look to be weaker, not stronger, and perhaps more importantly, farmed salmon prices, rather than rising or holding steady, have fallen significantly. So we will be selling into a market where there is a lot more competing product available at a lot cheaper price."
There has been a huge rebound in world farmed salmon production over the past year - notably by Chilean producers who have recovered from a killer salmon virus that devastated their industry four years ago. Chile pegs farmed salmon and trout production this year at 700,000 tons, or 1.5 billion pounds (round weight), just slightly below Alaska's total salmon poundage last year.
"I absolutely think what is happening in farmed salmon production and markets is the critical thing for the Alaska salmon industry to be paying attention to going into this salmon season," Knapp said.
Norway, the world's other major farmed salmon producer, also is ramping up sales of whole salmon to the U.S., now that a 24 percent import tax imposed 20 years ago has expired, said Seafood Trend's Ken Talley.
Talley pointed to total farmed Atlantic salmon imports (all products) for the first month of the year when volume hit 37.4 million pounds, an increase of 16.1 percent over January 2011. The strong increase in volume has had the expected result, he said. The value and average price of imported farmed salmon has taken a hefty tumble: the value is down 6.2 percent to $118.7 million; the average price of $3.17 per pound was a drop of 19.3 percent to from $3.93 per pound in January 2011.
According to Knapp, over the past six months there have been significant declines in farmed salmon prices in the European, U.S. and Japanese markets. At the same time, the currency values of Alaska's biggest salmon customers - Japan and Europe - have shifted.
"The two currencies that matter a lot to Alaskans are the Japanese yen and the Euro," Knapp said.
For the past three years, the value of the yen has been significantly stronger compared to the dollar and that was one of the factors that helped boost salmon prices, he added. Over the winter that trend has reversed and the yen has weakened about 9 percent since January. Meanwhile, political and economic turmoil in Europe has pushed down the value of that currency by about 9 percent.
Of course, many other things affect varying cost structures for Alaska's processors and fishermen - how the catches come in, fuel and labor costs, and this year, the question of visas for foreign processing workers.
"Nothing is ever certain about fish prices" Knapp said, adding that global financial and economic situations can change markets quickly for better or worse. "That said, there is still strong demand for Alaska salmon, and we are widely diversified in our markets compared to where we used to be, so we've got a lot going for us. But I do think this year is somewhat different in that several other things that play into the pricing equation don't look as favorable as they have for the past several years."
On a historical note he added: "It is important to remember that every decade in the Alaska salmon industry has brought very significant changes since statehood. In the 1970s we had very low runs and limited entry, in the '80s the runs and markets rebounded and things looked extremely promising. Then the price crashed in the '90s, and 10 years ago things looked terrible. Over the past decade we have seen a dramatic rebound and a much better sense of optimism. This decade is no different. All you can do is be aware that there is no guarantee of stability in this industry and pay attention."
Spring fisheries are in full swing from the Bering Sea to the Panhandle. The Bering Sea snow crab fishery has about 30 million pounds remaining in its 80 million pound quota. Fishermen report the crab are large and of excellent quality. Crabbing also continues around St. Matthew Island for blue king crab with less than 500,000 pounds remaining in the 2 million pound quota.
Jigging for cod in the Gulf has really picked up and fishermen are bringing in boat loads of fish. In Prince William Sound, shrimp fisheries open on April 15 with a quota of 145,000 pounds of side stripes for trawlers and over 51,000 pounds for pot gear. The PWS sablefish season also opens April 15 with a 242,000 pound harvest level.
Kodiak's roe herring fishery begins April 15th. At press time, the Sitka Sound sac roe fishery was nearing the 29,000 ton quota. Also in Southeast, geoduck clam divers have been out of the water for over 6 weeks now due to high PSP levels. The Southeast winter Chinook troll fishery is about over, but will reopen in July. The forecast for this summer calls for about 198,000 Chinook salmon for trollers, a decrease of about 21,000 thousand fish. More than three weeks into the halibut fishery only about 1.3 million pounds were landed, mostly in Homer. Sablefish landings were higher, topping 1.8 million pounds, mostly at Seward.
Laine Welch has been covering news of Alaska's fishing industry since 1988. She lives in Kodiak.