Story last updated at 5/20/2009 - 11:05 am
Alaska's salmon season officially got underway on May 14 with the first 12-hour opener at Copper River. A fleet of more than 500 gillnetters were competing for the first catches of the reds and kings, along with the usual media swirl surrounding the famous fish.
Cordova was busier than ever, said Rochelle van den Broek, director of Cordova District Fishermen United, a regional trade group active since 1919. The "lower" fuel prices ($3.60 compared to over $5 last year) mean that more fishermen will be able to come back to town between openers.
"They definitely looked more optimistic," van den Broek said. "That will help business owners and people can spend time with their families. It really helps our community a lot."
The rush of media also keeps Cordova cash registers ringing. The Copper River/Prince William Sound Marketing Association partnered with the Cordova Chamber of Commerce to bring PBS and National Geographic film crews to the world-renowned fishery. As usual, news outlets covered the race from fishing grounds to high end users in Seattle, all vying to be the first to menu the fish at their restaurants and retail counters.
Alaska Airlines whisked 20,000 pounds of Copper River salmon to Seattle within 12 hours after capture; first reports showed retail prices at $29.99/lb for kings; $19.99/lb for reds.
Prices to fishermen for their first catches were reported at $5.25/lb for king salmon and $3.50/lb for sockeye, a bump up from pre-opener posts of $5 and $3 per pound. (That compares to $6.55/lb. for kings and $4.55/lb.for sockeye last year).
The high prices are not a true reflection of the market place, and they will drop as more Alaska salmon fisheries come on line.
But there is no denying that Copper River-ites have created marketing magic for fish from their region, and they aim to expand their realm. Starting this season, ice is being barged to fishing boats in remote western reaches of Prince William Sound.
"It's a goal that our group has worked on for several years. And this past year we started working with processors in the region to actually get something on the water," said Beth Poole, director of the fishermen-funded CR/PWS Marketing Association.
"Processors will bring out totes of ice and put it on the barge for tenders and fishermen to re-ice during openers and closures, and fishermen also can store their nets on the barge," Poole said. The net storage will help fishermen swap out nets if they rip up, or when different mesh needs or fishery requirements demand it.
The availability of storage and ice will save fishermen a five hour run to port each way, and a 10 hour run for tenders.
"The western sound is really far away from any of the shore based ports in Cordova, Valdez and Whittier, so it's not feasible for them to come back as often as they'd like to re-ice. Our goal is to get more ice out there to improve that point of harvest chilling that really improves quality," Poole said.
"Marketing is great and we will keep doing it, but if the fish aren't top quality, all the marketing in the world won't help," she added. "Now we have an opportunity to boost quality and create a marketable niche for that region."
If forecasts hold true, good runs of pinks will boost Alaska's total salmon catch to 175 million fish, a 20 percent increase from last year - and a 700 percent increase since 1959, the year Alaska became a state!
For Chinook (king) salmon, the catch is pegged at 249,000, down 85,000 fish from last year. A statewide catch of 38 million sockeye (reds), a drop of one million. Managers predict 4.6 million coho salmon (silvers) will cross the Alaska docks, a slight increase; and chums - now often called keta salmon, should also see a slight bump to 18.5 million fish. For those hard-to-predict humpies, the catch is pegged at 113 million, a 34 percent jump from 2008.
Fishermen got higher prices last year for every salmon species except sockeye. King salmon prices averaged $4.28/lb, up from $3.07; cohos jumped a quarter to $1.21; pinks went up a dime to 29 cents a pound; sockeye salmon dropped to average 78 cents a pound, down from 80 cents last year. The value of Alaska's 2008 salmon fishery was $409 million at the docks.
Early markers so far show that the weak economy has taken a bite out of prices, at least for the higher value salmon. As noted, the Copper River prices were down significantly from last year. The first catches of spring kings from Southeast were fetching under $6/lb compared to $7.50-$8.50/lb.
Halibut landings continue to lag slightly behind last year's pace, but the lower catches have not resulted in higher prices. Prices to fishermen have dropped around $1 per pound in major ports since the halibut fishery opened on March 21.
At Kodiak, prices ranged from $2.50 for 10-20 pounders, $2.75 for 20-40s and $3/lb for 40 ups. As usual, Homer prices were running 50 cents higher across the board because of that port's ready access to the road system. In Southeast Alaska, halibut was fetching $2.60, $2.80 and $3.20 a pound.
Market watcher Ken Talley of Seafood Trend said wholesale prices are $1 lower than last year - $5/lb for fresh fish, and $4 at wholesale for frozen fish. Fresh halibut is selling at between $10-$11 a pound at many U.S. retail stores - that's the case at 10th and M Seafoods in Anchorage, where halibut fillets are fetching $10.99 a pound, down from $16.99 last year.
By last Friday 9.2 million pounds of halibut have crossed the Alaska docks, or 21 percent of the 43.5 million pound catch limit. Seward was in the lead for landings at 2 million pounds, with Homer close behind. Rounding out the top five ports were Kodiak, Juneau and Petersburg. The eight month halibut fishery continues through mid-November.
Laine Welch has been covering news of Alaska's seafood industry since 1988. Her weekly Fish Factor column appears in a dozen newspapers and web outlets. Her daily Fish Radio programs air on 27 stations around Alaska. Welch lives in Kodiak.