Story last updated at 9/12/2012 - 2:19 pm
As Alaska's salmon season winds down, selling the bulk of the harvest gears up for seafood companies that purchased the pack.
"This is the season for negotiations, you might say," said salmon guru Gunnar Knapp, longtime fisheries economist at the University of Alaska/Anchorage. "You never know the price until the product is actually sold."
The salmon season runs on different tracks starting with sockeye, and fish sales have varying schedules and market patterns throughout the year. Plus, salmon markets depend on the species and how they are sold.
"You can't just say, 'what is the market for sockeye salmon this year?' You have to ask 'what's the market for roe, or frozen H&G (headed/gutted), or fillets or canned?' Each faces different market circumstances, and the total picture is the sum of those things," Knapp said.
Not a lot of public data on sales is available yet, but there are some bright spots. Salmon roe markets look really strong, due to shortfalls in supply from Russia. Also strong: the canned market, due to strong interest and low carryovers from last season.
"That's really good news, in particular for sockeye and pinks. A very significant share of the harvest goes into producing canned products," Knapp said.
Notably, canned wild salmon and roe do not face competition with farmed salmon. What does compete directly is frozen H&G salmon - the bulk of the Alaska pack, and fillets. But despite huge volumes of cheaper farmed salmon pushing down prices in the U.S., Europe and Japan, the impact on Alaska fish sales seems less than expected.
Prior to the season, all the news from Japan indicated the market for frozen H&G sockeye was going to be down significantly because farmed salmon imports were way up and prices were down.
"That led to a sort of self correction of the problem," Knapp said. "If processors had the option, instead of producing frozen H&G, they canned more of the salmon or made fillets. So the amount of frozen H&G produced and sent to Japan was lower than expected."
"Prices today are still lower than last year but not as much as people had feared," Knapp said, adding that the fillet market is uncertain as those sales continue over a year.
Overall, Knapp said salmon markets appear a bit better than people expected going into the 2012 season.
"I think the key," he said, "is the diversity of products that Alaska produces."
The fact that there will be less wild salmon available from Alaska also will come into play in global markets. As of Sept. 7, the statewide catch topped 118 million salmon, just one million more from the previous week. The pre-season forecast for Alaska's 2012 salmon was 132 million fish, down from 177 million salmon last year.
Besides salmon - Alaska's halibut fishery has six million pounds remaining in its 24 million pound catch limit. Kodiak is topping the charts for landings at just over 3.5 million pounds, followed by Homer just below that amount. For sablefish (black cod), nearly eight million pounds remain in the 29.5 million pound quota. Both fisheries run through mid-November. Fishing for cod reopened on Sept. 1 in the Gulf and is ongoing in the Bering Sea. Also, the pollock fleet was approaching its catch limit this year of more than three billion pounds. Fishing for golden king crab continues along the Aleutian Islands where there is a healthy six million pound catch quota. Small boat crabbers at Norton Sound had one of their best summer seasons ever, fetching $5.25-$5.60 per pound for nearly 500,000 pounds of red king crab. Prices also were up for Dungeness crab at Southeast Alaska where fishermen averaged $2.55 per pound for 1.8 million pounds, slightly below last summer. Dungies reopen in the Panhandle on Oct. 1. Dive fisheries for sea cucumbers and urchins also open in Southeast and Kodiak that same day.
Laine Welch has been covering news of Alaska's fishing industry since 1988. She lives in Kodiak.