Short salmon supplies send prices upward

Now that the 2020 pack of Alaska salmon has been caught and put up, stakeholders will get a better picture of how global prices may rise or fall.

Nearly 75 percent of the value of Alaska’s salmon exports is driven by sales between July and October. And right now, lower supplies of wild Pacific salmon by the major producers are pushing up prices as the bulk of those sales are made.

For sockeye salmon, global supplier and market tracker Tradex reports that frozen fillets are in high demand and supplies are hard to source for all sizes. With a catch this year topping 45 million, Alaska is the leading producer of that popular commodity.

“Luckily, sockeye harvests were once again abundant in Bristol Bay as fishermen caught nearly 200 million pounds. Although that’s a bigger than average harvest for Bristol Bay, it’s still down 9 percent from last year. With lower sockeye harvests in Russia and closures in Canada, we estimate the global sockeye harvest declined by 26 percent in 2020,” said Andy Wink, executive director of the Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Association speaking on the Tradex Three-Minute Market Report.

Tradex reports that sockeye prices are “significantly higher than last year” and suggests that suppliers are stockpiling inventories in their freezers.

“Our recommendation for sockeye buyers is similar to a few weeks ago, which is to secure your supply now. Sockeye prices are anticipated to make a good bull-run before moving into a bear-type market,” said correspondent Tasha Cadence.

Tradex predicts the same for wild chum salmon due to low catches from all producers.

“In speaking to our VP of Asia Operations, he advised they are anticipating that new season chum won’t be available until the end of September and that salmon will certainly be very short this year,” Cadence added. “Both from Russia and Alaska, and the estimated raw materials price will go up to $4,300 per metric ton, which translates to about $1.95 to $2 per pound.”

And the same holds true for pink salmon, where big shortfalls from Russia are biting into the global supply.

Prices for pink salmon that are processed in China and distributed back to the U.S. and other countries have increased from $2,600 to $3,400 per metric ton, or from $1.20 to $1.55 per pound.

“Going back a few weeks it was reported that Russian boats did not even want to make commitments at the higher prices as they wanted pricing at even higher levels,” Cadence said.

A weakening dollar also means foreign customers can buy more U.S. salmon for less.

How the initial uptick in salmon commodity markets might play out in fishermen’s paychecks remains to be seen. Alaska processors typically post a base price as a placeholder when the salmon season gets underway. Then, bonuses for fish that is chilled, bled or delivered are often sent to fishermen in the fall, and any profit sharing checks usually arrive the following spring.

“Retro-payments more than anything are a payment to appease the fleet and keep them from jumping to another processor,” said a longtime Bristol Bay fisherman. “There are many instances where a processor has paid their ‘retro’ or adjustment in the spring, only to have to make another payment in early June to match competitors. Price adjustments are a dark art and there is no set formula as it relates to the sale of the pack.”

Fish on!

Salmon numbers continue to trickle in but Alaska’s total catch won’t add up to much more than 114 million fish, about 85 percent of what state managers predicted for the 2020 season.

Of that, more than 45 million are sockeyes and 58 million are pinks. Landings of just more than 2 million cohos are the lowest since the mid-1970s and a chum salmon harvest of just less than 8 million is the weakest since 1979. Chinook volumes also are well below historical levels.

The preliminary value of Bristol Bay’s 40.7 million salmon catch, nearly all sockeyes, is $140.7 million, ranking ninth in the last 20 years. That doesn’t include any postseason price bonuses.

As always, there is a lot of fishing action going on after salmon.

At Southeast Alaska, beam trawlers are back on the water targeting 650,000 pounds of pink and sidestripe shrimp in a third opener.

Southeast’s Dungeness season reopened on Oct. 1 and a few million pounds are likely to come out of that fishery. There will again be no opener for red or blue king crab due to low abundances.

On Oct. 5, a hundred or more divers also could be heading down for over 1.7 million pounds of red sea cucumbers. A catch of just less than 3 million pounds of sea urchins also is up for grabs, but there may be a lack of buyers. Southeast divers also are targeting giant geoduck clams.

At Prince William Sound, a 15,000-pound test fishery is underway for golden king crabs through October; likewise, a nearly 7 million-pound golden king crab fishery is ongoing along the Aleutian Islands.

Kodiak crabbers have pulled up more than 2.3 million pounds of Dungeness crab so far with a few weeks left to go in the season. A sea cucumber fishery opened at Kodiak on Oct. 1 with a 130,000-pound limit.

Halibut landings were approaching 13 million pounds, or 79 percent of the 16 million-pound catch limit. Homer, Kodiak and Seward are the top ports for landings.

For sablefish (black cod), the catch was nearing 17 million pounds, or 52 percent of the nearly 32 million pound quota. Seward, Kodiak, Sitka and Dutch Harbor were getting the most deliveries.

Both of those fisheries end in early November.

The Bering Sea pollock fishery closes on Nov. 1. Alaska pollock is the nation’s top food fishery and the Bering Sea will produce more than 3 billion pounds again this year. And as always, fisheries for cod, flounders, rockfish and much more are ongoing in the Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska.

Finally, the state Board of Fisheries has accepted 275 proposals to address at its as yet undetermined meetings on Prince William Sound and Southeast subsistence, commercial, sport and personal use fisheries and statewide shellfish. Meeting dates have been bumped from this winter to sometime next year due to COVID-19 constraints.

The board will consider new meeting dates at an Oct. 15-16 virtual work session.

Halibut survey success

A “resounding success” is how scientists summed up this summer’s Pacific halibut survey despite it being shortened and scaled down a bit due to COVID-19 constraints.

The so-called fishery-independent setline survey uses standardized methods to track population trends in the Pacific halibut stock, which ranges from the west coast and British Columbia to the far reaches of the Bering Sea.

For two months this summer, 11 longline vessels (down from the usual 17) took halibut survey experts aboard to fish at 898 stations, down 30 percent from the planned 1,283. The foregone areas were waters off California, Oregon and Washington. Survey areas in the Bering Sea near the Pribilofs also were cut, along with stations at the Aleutian Islands near Unalaska and Adak.

“We also thinned out a little bit in the Western Gulf of Alaska, and we also removed the stations off Vancouver Island,” said David Wilson, executive director of the International Pacific Halibut Commission which oversees the stock for the U.S. and Canada.

Still, Wilson said roughly 70 percent of the Pacific halibut biomass was sampled overall and 100 percent in the core areas of the central Gulf, Southeast Alaska and northern British Columbia.

“Normally we would have done a thinner sampling in those areas but to ensure that we had enough samples coming out we went for 100 percent in those areas,” he explained, calling it the “most data-rich setline-survey in the IPHC’s 97 year history.”

The halibut that are caught during the survey are sold to cover the cost of the operation. Wilson said the poundage and prices will be revealed next month at the IPHC interim meeting.

“The key thing is that we were able to meet both our scientific requirements and also maintain our economic goal of revenue neutrality,” he said.

The Nov. 18-19 meetings, which will be held online, also will provide a first glimpse at how the halibut stocks are holding up.

“The interim meeting is usually an information sharing meeting for stakeholders where we present the preliminary stock assessments and the outcomes of other research activity. We also put out some of the regulatory proposals we will be considering at the annual meeting,” Wilson said.

Halibut catch limits and other regulations will be revealed in late January.

Laine Welch lives in Kodiak. Visit www.alaskafishradio.com or contact [email protected] for information.

Updated: 
10/07/2020 - 9:11am