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Alaska salmon haul a surprise

Laine Welch

KODIAK -- Alaska's salmon catch has blown past pre-season predictions and there is still a lot of fishing left to go.

The 2010 statewide harvest was pegged at 137 million salmon, down by 15 percent from last year due to anticipation of lower returns of pinks.

But the catch has topped 157 million salmon so far, and the humpy haul is approaching 99 million fish. Managers had predicted a catch closer to 69 million pinks.

Most of the fish were coming from Prince William Sound -- 65 million so far, toppling the record of 63.5 million pink salmon set in 2007. The fleet of 164 seiners hauled in an amazing 20.3 million pinks during one week early this month.

The take could have been much more but the huge catches exceeded processing capacity and boats were put on limits. Southeast fishermen also have seen strong pink salmon catches that are approaching 22 million fish so far.

Prices for this abundant salmon have increased to 35 cents a pound, compared with an average of 22 to 24 cents last year.

In fact, prices for pinks in their various product forms have trended upward in the past few years. According to market tracker Ken Talley, the wholesale price for frozen pinks was holding steady at 93 cents a pound in 2009 and 2008, up from 77 cents the previous year. Fresh pinks jumped from 84 cents in 2008 to $1.42 in 2009. Frozen pink fillets were wholesaling at $1.16 a pound last year.

And get this: Most of Alaska's pink salmon still end up in cans, and cases of canned talls were fetching $118.88 per case, up from $59.11 in 2008. Also favoring Alaska: Competing pink salmon catches from Russia are expected to be down by half from a year ago.

HIGHER SALMON PRICES

A higher harvest and higher prices mean the value of Alaska's 2010 salmon fishery will dwarf last year's dockside value of $370 million, which took a big hit from the global recession.

Red salmon account for two-thirds of Alaska's total salmon value and prices to fishermen this year have soared. At Kodiak, sockeyes fetched a base price of $1.49 per pound, up from $1.11 last year. Prices at Prince William Sound were $2.25, compared with $1.72. For Southeast, sockeye prices were reported at $2, an increase of 75 cents per pound.

Two-thirds of Alaska's total sockeye harvest comes from Bristol Bay and fishermen there received a base of 95 cents this summer, up from 70 cents a pound last year. With bonuses for chilled and bled fish, the final price at Bristol Bay could climb to about $1.20 per pound, boosting the value of the catch to $170 million, an increase of more than $40 million from 2009.

Alaska's total sockeye salmon harvest is expected to fall shy of the forecast 45.8 million reds but it is still a respectable 40.3 million so far.

CANADIAN REVIVAL

Salmon prices don't settle out until long after the fishing season, when sales are concluded at year's end and beyond. And customers look at the whole salmon pack from North America, meaning Alaska, the West Coast and Canada.

The market could get a shake-up from the first commercial fishery in four years at British Columbia's Fraser River, where 30 million sockeye salmon are expected to arrive next week, the biggest red run since 1913.

Industry reports say there are concerns whether B.C.'s processors have the capacity to handle such a monumental harvest. Already ice is being trucked in from Vancouver and plans are being made to ship fish to Alaska for processing.

McADAMS TALKS FISH

Whether the Republican candidate for U.S. Senate is Murkowski or Miller, they will face Sitka Mayor Scott McAdams, the Democratic challenger in November.

At a press conference after the primary election, McAdams, who grew up in Petersburg, said commercial fishing "goes to the core of my identity."

"I learned to read, write and reason in a town where 85 cents on the dollar came from commercial fishing," McAdams said. "I spent five years as a deckhand working in fisheries throughout the state.

"I seined in Southeast, Kodiak, I hand-bait longlined in the Gulf of Alaska and the Bering Sea. I have an appreciation and a great affinity for the lifestyle and the culture, and for the need for commercial fishing in our state."

Laine Welch is a Kodiak-based fisheries journalist. Her Fish Radio programs can be heard on stations around the state. Her information column appears every other Sunday. This material is protected by copyright. For information on reprinting or placing on your website or newsletter, contact msfish@alaska.com.


Laine Welch
Fisheries