Salmon set to return, but market questions loom
The start of the massive Bristol Bay commercial sockeye fishery is fast approaching but this year is bringing with it a level of uncertainly rivaled by few others even in the volatile fishing industry.
Fishery participants and observers generally expect a softer market and lower prices for Bristol Bay sockeye due to several factors, though it’s difficult to predict how the market influences will interact, according to Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Association Executive Director Andy Wink.
The COVID-19 pandemic has all but evaporated traditional restaurant markets for Alaska salmon and other seafood, which has resulted in lower-than-normal prices for the Copper River sockeye and king fishery that started in mid-May, Wink noted. However, he added that poor returns and a corresponding small harvest at the Copper could help buoy demand for salmon from Bristol Bay.
Adding to the complexity of the situation, Wink also cited news reports indicating an increase in retail seafood sales and that could be a boost for the fishery that sends a large portion of its harvest to supermarkets.
Bloomberg reported June 12 that generally homebound consumers had increased retail seafood sales by 27 percent nationwide since early March compared to last year.
“Although Bristol Bay salmon is more commonly sold in grocery stores, which have seen a bump in seafood sales, massive spikes in unemployment and a standstill in restaurant traffic could also affect pricing,” Wink wrote via email. “However, we do expect continued strong demand for one of the healthiest proteins available, all things considered.”
On top of that, Wink said the strength of the U.S. dollar could hurt Alaska fishermen in export markets and lower prices for farmed salmon worldwide aren’t likely to help either.
“On the plus side, lower predicted harvests for sockeye and other salmon species globally could provide some support for pricing in 2020 as well as potentially more demand for canned product,” he said.
The final price for Bristol Bay sockeye has averaged between approximately $1 per pound and $1.60 per pound in recent years following a sudden drop to 64 cents per pound in 2015, according to data compiled by BBRSDA.
A large sockeye return last year led to a preliminary ex-vessel harvest value of $306.5 million, which is the highest initial value ever for the fishery, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. The initial base price for Bristol Bay sockeye averaged $1.35 per pound last year.
ADFG managers are expecting another strong return of sockeye to Bristol Bay. The department’s preseason forecast estimates a total return of nearly 49 million fish and a harvest of 34.5 million sockeye.
Last year’s run of 56.5 million fish was the fourth-largest ever and also marked the fifth consecutive year the Bristol Bay sockeye return exceeded 50 million fish. The 20-year average return is approximately 39 million sockeye to the region, according to ADFG.
And even if it goes off without a significant outbreak of COVID-19, the impact of the virus are still likely to ripple through the Bristol Bay fishery in the form of more expenses for processing companies paying for extra health precautions for their workers, such as COVID-19 tests and chartered flights in some instances, according to Wink. He said it’s unknown at this point to what extent the industry will be able to recoup those costs and without government aid, they could result in lower prices for fishermen.
Through the federal CARES Act, the fishing industry in Alaska was allocated $50 million and the state appropriated $100 million from the block grant in the same bill.
“The processing companies which buy Bristol Bay salmon are also very involved in other Alaska regions and species. Some of those species have struggled with a combination of low prices and/or lower biological production,” he wrote. “So even if the Bay is doing well, from a consumer demand standpoint, the fishery’s ex-vessel value could be affected by worse performance in processors’ other business segments.”
Operationally, Wink and Dillingham-based ADFG Nushagak Area Manager Tim Sands said they expect fishery to go off as close to usual as could be expected this year, barring an outbreak of COVID-19 among participants or sudden changes to government mandates.
“By and large we expect processing and harvesting capacity to be pretty normal,” Wink said, a conclusion Sands echoed.
In most years processors are able to handle daily harvests of slightly more than 2 million fish during the peak of the season before the system starts to back up, according to Sands.
As for the fish, Sands said ADFG’s Nushagak River sonar has been operating since June 6 as normal and had counted roughly 10,000 fish as of June 15, but department personnel had not been able to apportion the numbers of fish passing the sonar to get species-specific data.
However, anecdotal reports from subsistence harvests near the mouth of the Nushagak around Dillingham indicate early king returns have been poor, which is something managers are “very concerned about,” Sands said.
Poor king returns often lead to reduced opportunity for fishermen targeting sockeye as managers try to allow more kings into the river.
“I feel like we were catching more fish just in general at this point in the season with subsistence nets over the last several years so things might be a little bit later in general,” Sands said.
He also noted that sockeye harvested by subsistence users have generally been smaller than normal, but it’s too soon to tell yet if that means an overall larger run is coming or something else.
The commercial fishery is opened when certain river escapement thresholds are met. Fishing activity traditionally peaks around July 4.
Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected].