Laine Welch: Salmon buyers push back against high prices

Laine Welch

Buyers of wild sockeyes and farmed salmon are pushing back a bit on high prices, according to John Sackton, who publishes the website. That's reflected in the $3.50 paid for the first reds at Copper River in mid-May, down 50 cents from last year's starting price.

A big wild card for North American salmon this summer is the projected 72 million sockeye return to British Columbia's Fraser River. Sackton said Japanese buyers have been somewhat priced out of the sockeye market in recent years because there's been so much demand elsewhere.

A drop in the value of the yen has made it harder for Japanese buyers, who are hoping a big run will open up more opportunities. Even though Japan has been buying less, the country remains an important part of a three-legged stool.

"You've got your U.S. fresh/frozen market, the Japanese market and the European customers. If the Japanese part of that equation is a bit cautious because they are hoping to see some big price break at Fraser, they will be slow to commit to contracts ... earlier in the year, and that can put price pressure on everybody," Sackton said.

Timing also will come into play -- the Fraser River run typically arrives in August, several weeks after the big sockeye haul at Bristol Bay.

"So what this is going to mean this year, in my opinion, is that there will be more uncertainty about what the final price is because you've got a run coming in later," he added.

Big drop in Alaska salmon harvest

Salmon fisheries across the state opened this week, and the streak of warm weather had fish showing up a bit earlier than usual. Bristol Bay's fishing season officially opened Tuesday, and fishermen and processors hurriedly geared up in anticipation of an early sockeye run.

No one wants a repeat of last year when the reds arrived eight days sooner than expected and caught many fishermen off guard. South Peninsula salmon fisheries are under way, and Kodiak's season kicked off a bit earlier too.

Southeast trollers have been on the water for spring kings since May 1, and seiners will begin fishing throughout the region June 15.

Alaska's total salmon harvest this season is projected at 133 million fish, down 53 percent from last year's record catch of 283 million fish. That's due to an off year for pink salmon -- this summer's catch of 75 million is a 67 percent decrease from last summer's record take of 226 million humpies. Other salmon projections:

• A 14 percent bump up in sockeyes to nearly 34 million fish

• 4.4 million coho salmon

• Nearly 20 million chums

• A total catch of 79,000 king salmon in areas outside Southeast and Bristol Bay

Track Alaska salmon catches by region and species using Fish and Game's "Blue Sheet." Find it on the Alaska Department of Fish and Game website under Commercial Fisheries/Salmon/Harvest. A weekly in-season summary also charts the progression of all commercial salmon harvests and compares them with the five-year averages.

Lots of other fisheries besides salmon are under way including:

• Halibut longliners have landed 45 percent of their 16 million-pound catch limit with the ports of Homer, Seward and Kodiak getting almost equal shares of landings so far.

• Some 54 percent of the 24 million-pound quota for sablefish has been taken with most deliveries going to Seward.

• Jig fishermen around Kodiak were still tapping away at their 7.3 million-pound cod quota.

Fascinating ugly fish

One of Alaska's ugliest and most abundant fish will be tracked for the first time by federal managers. Little is known about the life history of the deep-dwelling giant grenadier, which can exceed 6 feet in length.

Trawl surveys by NOAA Fisheries in the Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska have shown that grenadiers are the most abundant fish, in terms of weight, in depths from 600 to 3,000 feet and have been caught deeper than 6,000 feet. The fish are most commonly taken as bycatch in the sablefish longline and Greenland turbot fisheries.

Sketchy catch data estimates that 35.2 million pounds of grenadiers are discarded annually, with every fish perishing due to the pressure difference between the depths and the surface.

"There really is not a lot known on their niche in the ecosystem, but just the fact that they are so abundant, they likely have a large impact on other species," said Cara Rodgveller, a biologist at the Auke Bay Laboratory in Juneau. "They are most likely feeding off both fish and invertebrates, and also as a prey species for other fish."

There have been attempts to develop a fishery for giant grenadier, but because of their jelly-like flesh quality, high water content and low fat levels, there has been little interest. There is currently no directed fishery for the grenadiers.

Laine Welch is a Kodiak-based fisheries journalist. Contact her at


Laine Welch