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Salmon harvest is best-paying in 18 years, Alaska officials say

Elizabeth Bluemink

When it comes to the global recession, Alaska wild salmon are doing what they usually do -- fighting the current.

At a time when many workers are suffering, the state's commercial salmon fishermen have a lot to celebrate: collectively, they got their biggest paycheck in 18 years -- $533.9 million, according to the state's preliminary estimates.

Typically when harvests are high -- at 169 million salmon, this year's was one of the biggest harvests since statehood -- fish prices drop.

But for a variety of reasons, including problems in the farmed-salmon industry, that didn't happen in 2010.

"This was the first year where I saw a good volume (of fish) and a good price at the same time," said Kim Menster, a Cordova gillnet fisherman who targets sockeye but harvests all five of Alaska's salmon species.

Since Menster entered the gillnet fishery in 1998, the prices she's been paid have doubled for sockeye and quadrupled for chum, she estimated.

Over the same time period, the value of a gillnet permit dropped from $60,000 to $40,000 and then sailed up to $160,000, she said.

"We're doing pretty darn good here," she said, noting that fishermen are building new boats and are snapping up gillnet permits that had gone dormant.

SLOW RECOVERY

This year, all species of salmon attracted higher prices than they did in 2009. It's the continuation of a gradual price recovery under way since prices hit rock bottom in 2002, said Geron Bruce, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game's assistant director for commercial fisheries.

He cited three reasons for the recovery: rising consumer awareness of wild versus farmed salmon; declining production of farmed salmon in several countries due to disease and other problems; and rising production of value-added Alaska salmon products, such as burgers and fillets.

When the salmon industry slumped in the 1990s and early 2000s, Alaska's congressional delegation pumped millions of dollars into revitalizing the state's commercial fisheries, with money for marketing and developing new seafood products.

At the local level, Alaska fishermen and seafood processors worked hard to "change the equation" that generated low prices and bankruptcies in the last 10 to 15 years, said David Harsila, president of the Alaska Independent Fishermen's Marketing Association.

In Bristol Bay, that meant diversifying from the region's mainstay -- canned sockeye -- and buying new equipment to produce high-quality frozen and fresh salmon fillets to sell to Lower 48, European and Canadian retailers.

In Prince William Sound, the Gulf of Alaska and Southeast, it meant finding new products to make pink and chum salmon appealing to the typical consumer -- including the Trident Seafoods salmon burgers sold at Costco.

"The salmon burger program for us is one of the best sellers," said John Garner, director of Trident's salmon division. The company is based in Ballard, Wash.

Prices for chinook salmon have also been robust in recent years but the species is a small player in the commercial harvest. This year, for example, chinooks represented 3 percent of the value of the commercial harvest, according to Fish and Game.

GLOBAL TRENDS

The world supply of salmon has sat at about 3 million tons in recent years. The global numbers for 2010 aren't out yet but they are expected to be down due to the decline in farmed salmon production, said Chris McDowell, a consultant to the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute.

He and others agree that less farmed salmon in the market boosted prices and helped Alaska harvesters find some new buyers. But it doesn't explain the price recovery for Alaska salmon that has been under way since 2003.

Harsila said that fishermen are getting the sense that their markets are strengthening in the Lower 48 and around the world -- and less susceptible to the problems that caused prices to bottom out eight years ago.

One example: Alaska sockeye fishermen didn't suffer lower prices this year when the troubled Canadian sockeye runs experienced huge returns that boosted worldwide sockeye production to its highest level in years.

"The price still went up for (Alaska fishermen). ... That speaks to the strength of the overall sockeye market," McDowell said.

Find Elizabeth Bluemink online at adn.com/contact/ebluemink or call 257-4317.

Read the state salmon catch report
By ELIZABETH BLUEMINK
ebluemink@adn.com