As Alaska's salmon season winds down, the seafood companies that purchased the pack start to gear up.
"This is the season for negotiations, you might say," said salmon guru Gunnar Knapp, longtime fisheries economist at the University of Alaska Anchorage. "You never know the price until the product is actually sold."
The salmon season runs on different tracks. Sales of different species have varying schedules and market patterns throughout the year.
"You can't just say, 'What is the market for sockeye salmon this year?' You have to ask, 'What's the market for roe, or frozen H&G (headed/gutted), or fillets or canned?' Each faces different market circumstances and the total picture is the sum of those things," Knapp explained.
Not a lot of sales data is available to the public yet but there appear to be some bright spots. Salmon roe markets look strong, primarily due to shortfalls in supply from Russia. Also strong: the canned market, due to high interest and low carryovers from last season.
"That's really good news, in particular for sockeye and pinks. A very significant share of the harvest goes into producing canned products," Knapp said.
Notably, canned wild salmon and roe do not face competition from farmed salmon. What does compete directly is frozen H&G salmon (the bulk of the Alaska pack) and fillets. Despite huge volumes of cheaper farmed salmon pushing down prices in the U.S., Europe and Japan, the effect on Alaska sales seems less than expected.
Before the season, all the news from Japan indicated the market for frozen H&G sockeye would be down significantly because farmed salmon imports were way up and prices were down.
"That led to a sort of self-correction of the problem," Knapp said. "If processors had the option, instead of producing frozen H&G, they canned more of the salmon or made fillets. So the amount of frozen H&G produced and sent to Japan was lower than expected."
Prices today are still lower than last year but by not as much as people had feared, Knapp said. He added that the fillet market remains uncertain because those sales continue over the course of a year.
Overall, Knapp said, salmon markets appear a bit better than people expected going into the 2012 season.
"I think the key is the diversity of products that Alaska produces," he said.
The fact that less wild salmon will be available from Alaska will affect global markets. As of Friday, the statewide catch topped 118 million salmon, up just 1 million from the previous week. The pre-season forecast for was 132 million salmon, down from 177 million salmon last year.
Alaska's halibut fishery has 6 million pounds remaining in its 24-million-pound limit this year. Kodiak tops the charts for landings at just more than 3.5 million pounds, followed close behind by Homer.
For sablefish, also known as black cod, nearly 8 million pounds remains in a 29.5-million-pound quota. Both fisheries run through mid-November.
Fishing for cod reopened on Sept. 1 in the Gulf of Alaska and is ongoing in the Bering Sea.
The pollock fleet was approaching its catch limit this year of more than 3 billion pounds.
Fishing for golden king crab continues along the Aleutian Islands, with a healthy 6-million-pound quota. Small boat crabbers in Norton Sound had one of their best summers ever, fetching $5.25 to $5.60 a pound for nearly 500,000 pounds of red king crab.
Prices also were up for Dungeness crab in Southeast Alaska, where fishermen averaged $2.55 a pound for 1.8 million pounds, slightly below last summer. The Dungie fishery reopens in the Panhandle on Oct. 1.
Dive fisheries for sea cucumbers and sea urchins in Southeast and Kodiak also open on Oct. 1.
Laine Welch is a Kodiak-based fisheries journalist. Her Fish Radio programs can be heard on stations around the state. This material is protected by copyright. For information on reprinting, contact email@example.com.
Fisheries By LAINE WELCH