All eyes on Bristol Bay after state predicts a record season, but fishery’s economics still in flux

  • A fisherman works on the F/V Cutting Edge on June 30, 2021. (Photo by Hope McKenney / KDLG)

The summer salmon season is due to ramp up in Alaska over the next few months, and the main focus of this year’s salmon fishery statewide will be on Bristol Bay sockeye.

Of the 160.6 million salmon of all species that the Alaska Department of Fish and Game forecasts will be harvested in 2022, 74 million of those are sockeye and about three-quarters of those would come from Bristol Bay. Another 67.2 million are pink salmon, with the rest made up of smaller numbers of the other three species.

If the forecast proves accurate, this will be the biggest year ever for the Bristol Bay fishery. With a total predicted return of more than 75 million and a projected harvest of about 60 million in the bay, it would blow away the existing total-run record of 66.1 million, and dwarf last year’s harvest of 40.4 million. Like all forecasts, it comes with a degree of uncertainty—salmon runs are inherently hard to predict—but it tracks with the upward trend in Bristol Bay the last five years.

“We have used similar methods since 2001 to produce the Bristol Bay sockeye salmon forecast, which have performed well when applied to Bristol Bay as a whole,” the biologists wrote in their forecast report for Bristol Bay. “Since 2001, our forecasts have, on average, underforecast the run by 12% and have ranged from 44% below the actual run in 2014 to 19% above the actual run in 2011.”

The total number of fish isn’t the only factor to consider in the economics of the region, though. Last year, biologists recorded a significant drop in the average size and weight of sockeye harvested in the fishery — largely due to the fact that it was mostly younger fish coming back. Younger fish are typically smaller, which is worth less to the fishermen and to the processors.

However, that banner forecast has sparked speculation about a high-value fishery this summer. Fishermen from other areas have been looking at ways to buy into the Bay over the last few years, pushing the average price for a permit above $232,000 this year. That’s the highest price since 1997, according to the Commercial Fisheries Entry Commission. Processors have yet to announce a pre-season exvessel price, and it’s hard to know exactly what factors will go into setting what fishermen will be paid.

Dan Lesh, an economist with the McKinley Group who tracks seafood, said there are a number of factors both domestically and internationally that go into shaping salmon prices on the market. For one, the amount farmed salmon in the supply chain affects wild salmon prices, and like other businesses, the farmed sector has had disruptions lately, he said. There are also concerns about transport logistics for wild-caught salmon, such as the pilot shortage.

One factor that’s drawn speculation since February has been the ban on imported Russian seafood. Since Russia invaded Ukraine in February, a number of countries — including the United States — have blocked the sale of any Russian seafood products. Historically, Russia has competed with the United States on salmon. While it does block much of the movement of products like snow crab, both U.S. and Russian salmon go through a middleman for processing before hitting shelves: China. After that salmon is sold into China for processing and reexport, it becomes hard to distinguish what is Russian and what is American, Lesh said.

The Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute says it’s too early to determine what the effect of that ban will be on the market for Alaskan seafood, said Ashley Heimbigner, its communications director.

“Alaska and Russia are just two players in the larger global seafood trade and Alaska’s competitors have their eyes on the growing U.S. domestic market as well,” she said. “We can’t necessarily assume that product substitutions necessitated by the sanctions will result in significantly more Alaska purchases. However, ASMI will continue our work to increase the awareness and value of Alaska seafood throughout our markets.”

The big flush of Bristol Bay sockeye into the market may affect the types of salmon products made, too. Processors have limited capacity, especially for a fish like salmon, where they all arrive at once. Lesh said the industry may see more emphasis on the frozen and canned products this year as opposed to the fresh market.

One other challenge on the domestic side may be pressure from inflation. Americans have seen their grocery bills increase significantly in the last year, and while wages have increased as well, it’s not an even effect. Alaska wild-caught salmon tends to carry a higher price than other types of fish products. However, other types of meat have increased dramatically in cost recently—the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimated that across the board, meat products are expected to rise 4.5% to 6.5% in 2022. Lesh noted that wild salmon has not experienced as much of an increase, and may make it more competitive with other types of meat.

“Besides crab, most of the price increases have been higher in other proteins, like steak,” he said. “You can substitute other low-cost seafood products (for Alaska salmon), but I don’t think our prices have gone up enough to worry.”

Heimbigner said retail was a successful outlet for salmon during the pandemic, when restaurants and fresh seafood markets were shut down. Inflation, staffing and supply chain issues are affecting that sector, but she noted that one marketing opportunity is in frozen seafood.

“Consumers are learning that there is no quality difference when it comes to frozen vs. fresh seafood, and in the case of seafood from Alaska where the catch is frozen just after it leaves the water, freezing locks in nutrients and preserves quality,” she said. “Along the same lines, tinned and canned seafood, like canned Alaska salmon, has seen a surge in popularity.”

Alaska’s commercial salmon season kicked off Monday in the Copper River area, where drifters were able to get nets out for king salmon for a 12-hour period. The Copper River kings are the first of the season, and most years carry a premium price. For example, Pike’s Place Market in Seattle was reportedly offering a 1-pound fillet of Copper River king salmon for $129.99 on Monday.

Elsewhere in Alaska, there are above-average pink salmon runs predicted for Lower Cook Inlet, Kodiak and Prince William Sound wild pinks. Kodiak’s sockeye salmon run predictions look close to average as well. Southeast Alaska’s pink salmon run is projected to be weak this year, as is Upper Cook Inlet’s sockeye salmon run.

Reach Elizabeth Earl at [email protected].

Updated: 
05/18/2022 - 1:31pm