It was a rough salmon season across Alaska this summer, with Bristol Bay being the big exception. While sockeye catches exceeded expectations, all other species came up short.
But salmon stakeholders can take heart that the fish are moving swimmingly to market.
"The demand is there. The world still recognizes that this is the best place to go for the highest-quality salmon, including pinks," said Tyson Fick, communications director for the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute.
"Sales have been brisk this fall," added Tom Sunderland, vice president of marketing and communications for Ocean Beauty Seafoods. "We expect inventories to be low as we head into next season, and that should create some good market opportunities."
For pink salmon, Alaska's shortfall will likely be made up for by Russia's huge 200-million humpy haul this summer. But rather than competing with Russia, most of that pink pack will stay at home.
"The good news is there's been a push for many years to keep Russian seafood in Russia. So there will be a large portion of that catch taken up in their domestic market," Fick said.
Alaska pinks and other seafood are still being hammered by Russia's ongoing embargo of all U.S. products that followed Russia's actions in the Ukraine. Russia typically bought more than $100 million of Alaska seafood each year, mostly pink salmon roe and pollock.
"It also displaced a large amount of Norwegian farmed salmon at the same time because they were caught up in the embargo," Fick said. "It's been a sort of a musical-chairs effect."
Early on, markets for Alaska wild salmon look good.
"More and more people are turned on to wild salmon because they've had the opportunity to try it, especially with the huge sockeye harvests," Fick said.
The public can learn about markets for Alaska salmon and other species at ASMI's All Hands on Deck meeting Oct. 25-27 at the Hotel Captain Cook in Anchorage.
Crabbers want more
Bering Sea crabbers are heading out now for what appears to be a bleak season, with catch quotas slashed and no opener for Tanners. But they could catch a break this week from fishery managers, who might allow pots to drop in one of two Tanner fishing districts.
"It's going to be a tough year. We'll likely see record prices for our crab but the quotas are so low it won't make up for it," said Jake Jacobsen, director of the Inter-cooperative Exchange, which represents 75 percent of the 90-boat crab fleet.
For Bristol Bay red king crab, the quota of 8 million pounds is down 15 percent, snow crab was slashed nearly in half to 21 million pounds. And the Tanner crab fishery, which for several years has trended upward — producing 20 million pounds last year — was closed because few female crabs were counted during summer surveys.
That's a huge disappointment, Jacobsen said, because the Tanners were taking off at national restaurant and grocery chains.
"Our main effort was to differentiate bairdi (Tanner) and to educate the market that it wasn't just a big snow crab. It is a distinct crab with a very unique flavor. The taste is preferable among Bering Sea fishermen over any other crab they catch," Jacobsen said.
When Tanner crab came back on the market four years ago after being closed to let the stocks rebuild, it quickly gained popularity and last year fetched a better price than snow crab at $2.97 and $2.73 a pound, respectively.
"We saw the price differential increase and bairdi becoming a premium product. So it's a huge setback not to have some bairdi available," he added.
But customers still clamor for Alaska crab, said Fick.
"It's one of the most highly sought after seafood products in the world," Fick said. "Anytime you see big reductions in the quota and conservative management to shut down the fisheries, it hurts — but at the same time, it reflects the sustainable management that our whole program is built on."
Meanwhile, crabbers are pushing for a Tanner opening in one area where numbers of female crabs numbered above a minimum threshold.
"There is a slim possibility that we will see a fishery at some point," Jacobsen said.
At a work session this week in Soldotna, the state Board of Fisheries may discuss a petition to do just that, said Mark Stichert, regional supervisor at the Alaska Department of Fish and Game office in Kodiak.
The combined Bering Sea crab fisheries last season were valued at nearly $245 million.
Cukes vs. otters
Sea cucumbers are the most valuable of Alaska's dive fisheries, especially in Southeast. Annual October harvests there hover around 1 million pounds and attract nearly 200 divers, who fetch up to $5 a pound for their pickings.
The harvest used to approach 2 million pounds but sea otters have cleaned out cukes in many areas over the past decade.
"None of the areas have recovered. It's not like the otters come in and move on and the population rebounds. The otters stay. We've lost on an annual basis between 500,000 to 600,000 pounds of product and the trend is downward," said Phil Doherty, director of the Southeast Alaska Regional Dive Fisheries Association in Ketchikan.
Sea otters were wiped out by the fur trade at the turn of the 20th century and the state reintroduced about 400 animals to Southeast waters in the 1960s. Doherty pegs the otter population today at well over 30,000, based on U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service data, and added they multiply at a rate of about 12 percent each year.
Kodiak is also seeing a big increase in sea otters, but it's not clear if they're biting into the much smaller sea cucumber fishery there. The harvest by 24 divers is 140,000 pounds.
"We have a lot of talk by the fleet about the numbers of otters, even right here in the harbor, that no one remembers seeing years ago," said Nat Nichols, area manager at the Fish and Game in Kodiak. He added that there are reports of otters eating sea cucumbers, Dungeness and Tanner crabs, but nothing shows the animals are causing any stock declines.
Otters are protected under the federal Marine Mammal Protection Act, and can only be hunted by Alaska Natives. About 1,500 were taken last year, Doherty said.
"Natives . . . can't just sell the pelts on the fur market," Doherty noted. "They have to turn it into a native handicraft. So it's one otter at a time," he said.
Laine Welch is a Kodiak-based commercial fishing columnist. Contact her at email@example.com.