Laine Welch: It's back to the future with canned pink salmon

Laine Welch

Salmon season is just starting, but seafood companies are still selling last summer's record catch of 226 million pink salmon, which has prompted some creative thinking.

"The challenge is to market all this fish and still maintain the value," said Tyson Fick, communications director for the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute.

"It wouldn't be any problem for the producers just to flood the market, and then we would see tremendous downward (price) pressure in years to come. We see this as a great opportunity to introduce more people to wild Alaska salmon at a price they can afford," Fick added.

ASMI has put forward an additional $1.5 million to promote pink salmon at home and overseas. And while Alaska has been shifting away from lower-value canned pinks -- 72 percent was canned a decade ago, compared to less than half in 2012 -- now the state is looking back to the future by moving to a smaller can.

"We've been really successful in marketing pink salmon, which has greatly increased the value over the past 10 years. The idea is that with a smaller can size, and the market will tell us what that is, we can hit a price point to be competitive with other protein options," Fick said.

Smaller-size cans also will let processors use the expanded product-development tax, passed this year by the Alaska Legislature, to upgrade canning lines, many of which date to the 1950s. Alaska marketers also are targeting endurance athletes with magazine ads in Runner's World, Bicycling and Competitor, Triathlete and others.

"We're going to some rock and roll marathons, which is a series of road races with routes lined with live bands and cheerleaders, and we're working with people like Kikkan Randall, who are pressed for time and want a lean protein that is very nutritious. Canned salmon certainly fits that bill," Fick said.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture announced in January it would buy $20 million in canned pinks for food-assistance programs.

"Prices haven't crashed or anything and things are selling at an OK rate. Business looks good, so there's absolutely no reason to panic," said Tom Sunderland, vice president of marketing for Ocean Beauty Seafoods.

Some 2.7 million cases of canned pinks (talls); and 1.7 million cases of halves were produced after the 2013 catch. That compares to 1.3 million and 55,000 cases, respectively, from 2012.

A much smaller pink run this summer -- a 67 percent decrease from last year's humpy haul is forecast -- should help.

GREENLAND CALLING

A new television pilot featuring Alaska fishermen will take them across the world to the iceberg-filled waters of Greenland. A recent classified ad in the Kodiak Daily Mirror sought the best and courageous halibut longliners, noting, "Crybabies need not apply."

"We are looking for Alaska halibut fishermen that have braved the waters of Alaska and are looking for the next great challenge," said David Casey, executive producer at Los Angeles-based Moxie Pictures. "The Greenlandic and Atlantic halibut of Greenland are much larger and much harder to catch. You have to get right up next to the glaciers to catch them. So it is a completely different environment and we want to see if the Alaska fishermen can hack it."

Casey said in a phone interview that only three men will be accepted.

"They longline with 200 hooks into the deepest fjord- fishing waters in the world, and the fishery changes with the season," he said. "In the winter, they use Greenlandic sled dogs to sled out into the inland fjords ... where the biggest halibut are. For the summer they go out on to the fishing waters on very small 5-meter boats; they are basically glorified bathtubs. It's the same process, but they have to get up near the largest icebergs in the world. You are in open ocean, but what you are fighting is not necessarily the waves but the melting ice around you."

Greenland's halibut quota this year is 55 million pounds. Fishermen get an average of $7 per pound. The Greenland halibut is marketed in Europe; any sold in the U.S. is known as Greenland turbot.

Filming of the pilot will start this summer. Contact is Christian Skovly at christian.skovly@gmail.com.

CHECK THOSE PRICES

Call salmon buyers around the state for fish prices and you'll get widely different responses -- if any. Prices paid to Alaska salmon fishermen depend on the region, the types of fishing gear and markets. Prices also reflect bonuses for iced fish, dock deliveries and other agreements between a buyer and seller. But finding any information during fishing season is a challenge.

"You are kind of in the dark," said Geron Bruce, is assistant director of Alaska's Commercial Fisheries Division. "You have to call around and talk to fishermen. Sometimes our biologists know what the prices are because sometimes there are prices on fish tickets, but a lot of times there are not. Until the fish are actually sold at the wholesale level, you really don't know what the price is going to be. So there's a lot of uncertainty."

Tracking salmon prices is not a priority of Bruce's agency. Still, he agreed not being able to pencil in a bottom line makes it tough to run a fishing business.

"I know there are many fishermen who don't know what they are going to get paid who are frustrated by that," Bruce said, "but there is nothing that we can do ... to alleviate that frustration."

Laine Welch is a Kodiak-based fisheries journalist. Contact her at msfish@alaska.com.


Laine welch
Fisheries