FISH FACTOR: Salmon buyers eager to replenish depleted inventories
Eager buyers are awaiting Alaska salmon from fisheries that are opening almost daily across the state and it’s easy to track catches and market trends for every region.
Fishery managers forecast a statewide catch topping 190 million salmon this year, or 61 percent higher than the 2020 take of just over 118 million. But globally, the supply of wild salmon is expected to be down amid increased demand.
The Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s Run Forecasts and Harvest Projections for 2021 Alaska Salmon Fisheries and Review of the 2020 Season, provides breakdowns for all species by region.
And salmon catches are updated daily at ADFG’s Blue Sheet, found at its commercial fisheries web page. They also post weekly summaries of harvests broken out by every region along with comparisons to past years.
Predictions for the 2021 mix of fish call for a catch of 269,000 chinook salmon, up slightly from 2020, but 25 percent below the 10-year average.
The projected sockeye harvest of 46.6 million will help replenish low inventories that saw strong export prices in early 2021 and “a continued promising market,” said Dan Lesh, a fisheries economist with the McKinley Research Group who compiles weekly updates during the season for the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute.
The 2021 coho forecast of 3.8 million is 56 percent higher than 2020, and similar to the 10-year average. Coho represent only around 5 percent of Alaska’s salmon harvest value.
A catch this year of 15.3 million chum salmon represents a 23 percent drop from the 10-year average, but a nearly 80 percent increase from the dismal 2020 harvest of 8.5 million. Japan is the main destination for chum roe, which saw increased prices to $17.83 per pound in the third trimester of 2020, up 42 percent from the previous year.
This year’s pink salmon harvest is pegged at 124.2 million, mostly from catches at Prince William Sound, Southeast and Kodiak. This summer, the Nome Nugget reports that Icicle Seafoods plans to bring a processing vessel as well as four or five fishing tenders to buy pinks from local fishermen. Icicle’s headquarters are in Seattle, but the company has roots in Alaska processing groundfish, primarily in the Dutch Harbor area and herring in Kodiak and Togiak. Last year’s statewide pink salmon catch of 60.7 million fetched an average dock price of 33 cents per pound, the lowest in five years and a drop from 40 cents in 2019.
Other per pound salmon prices to fishermen in 2020 (with 2019 prices per pound in parentheses) averaged $4.74 for chinook ($4.36); $1.06 for sockeye ($1.61); $1.24 for coho ($1.13); and 46 cents for chums (54 cents).
Those prices come from the newly released Commercial Operator’s Annual Reports from Alaska processors who are required to provide purchasing and sales reports for all species by April 1 of the following year. The COAR data can be found at ADF&G’s commercial fisheries web page under Statistics and Data.
Salmon has its own heavenly patron: Saint Kentigern of Scotland. Born in 518, Kentigern was the illegitimate son of a king’s daughter. He trained as a priest at a monastery, where his saint-hood evolved around a dangerous love-triangle.
Legend has it that the king suspected his wife of having an affair because she had given one of her rings to a court favorite. The king took the ring when the man was sleeping and threw it far out into the River Clyde. When he returned home, the king angrily demanded that his wife show him the missing ring and threatened her with death if she could not produce it.
The queen beseeched Kentigern to help her. He took a fishing rod to the spot where the ring had been flung into the river and quickly caught a salmon and cut it open. Amazingly, the ring was found in the salmon’s belly.
The queen was able to deliver the ring to her doubting husband and peace was restored.
From the time of his death in 603, Kentigern was regarded as Scotland’s patron saint and the cathedral at Glasgow was built in his honor. To this day his figure and symbols, including salmon, make up that city’s coat of arms.
So who knows; perhaps a quick prayer to the patron saint of salmon will lead more fish to your nets.
Along with salmon, lots of other fishing activity is ongoing or gearing up across Alaska.
Southeast’s Dungeness fishery opens June 15 and crabbers are hoping for another good season. Combined catches for last year’s summer and fall fisheries totaled nearly 6.7 million pounds, more than double the 10-year average, and just shy of the record 7.3 million pounds taken in 2002.
Kodiak crabbers also are dropping pots for Dungeness crab in a fishery that last year neared 3 million pounds.
A red king crab fishery opens at Norton Sound on June 15 with a 290,000-pound catch quota.
Southeast Alaska’s summer pot fishery for spot shrimp is pulling up the last of its 546,000-pound catch. Beam trawlers also are on the grounds targeting a 1.8 million-pound harvest of pink and sidestripe shrimp.
Southeast divers are still going down in some areas for the remainder of a half-million pounds of Geoduck clams.
Prince William Sound extended its spot shrimp season to September with up to 60 boats vying for a 70,000-pound pot catch.
Alaska’s scallop fishery opens in regions from Southeast to the Bering Sea on July 1. The total catch has not been announced yet but last year the small fleet of 3 to 4 boats dredged up a reduced quota of 277,500 pounds of shucked meats, nearly half from the Yakutat region.
Alaska’s halibut catch has topped 5 million pounds with Homer, Seward, and Juneau the leading ports for landings. Prices are still running more than $2/pound higher than last year, ranging from $5.50 to $6.75 or more in most major ports, and reaching $7 per pound at Homer. Alaska halibut fishermen have a nearly 20 million-pound catch limit this year.
Black cod (sablefish) catches have topped 13 million pounds with most deliveries going to Sitka, Seward and Kodiak. Those prices also are up considerably, ranging from $1 per pound for two pounders to $5.80 per pound for 7-ups. That fishing quota this year is 40.5 million pounds.
And as always, fishing continues throughout the Gulf of Alaska and Bering Sea for a huge mix of Alaska pollock, cod, flounders, rockfish and more.
The federal mask mandate remains in effect for fishing crews on all U.S. vessels. And while the Center for Disease Control has relaxed the rules for fully vaccinated people, fishermen are not included.
Many have pointed out that it’s critical on noisy boats to be able to read lips or facial expressions and Sen. Lisa Murkowski pressed that point at a May Senate hearing.
“This is more a safety hazard than anything else — you’re out on a boat, the winds are howling, your mask is soggy wet. Tell me how anyone thinks this is a sane and sound policy,” she said.
Murkowski recently co-wrote a letter to the CDC and Coast Guard asking them to exempt fishermen from the mask requirement, and the pushback has been joined by lawmakers from other coastal states.
Meanwhile, the Coast Guard has stated it will be checking for compliance and not wearing masks could mean restricted access to ports and operations, along with civil or criminal penalties.