Forces are aligned for a nice payday for Alaska's salmon fishermen.
There is no backlog from last season in cold storages, a lower harvest forecast is boosting demand, prices for competing farmed salmon have remained high all year, and a devalued U.S. dollar makes Alaska salmon more appealing to foreign customers.
"Over the past year the dollar has weakened 11 percent against the euro, 9 percent against the British pound, 5 percent against the Japanese yen, and 7 percent against the Chinese yuan. That makes Alaska salmon and other seafood more affordable to those top overseas customers," said Garrett Evridge, a fisheries analyst at the McDowell Group.
Last year Alaska seafood exports set records in terms of volume and value — 1.1 billion metric tons valued at $3.45 billion. Alaska salmon accounted for 22 percent of the volume and 36 percent of the value.
On the home front, the weaker dollar will make imports from Chile, the largest farmed salmon importer to the U.S. followed by Norway, more expensive. That also will apply to imports of competing wild salmon from Canada where — if it materializes — a big sockeye run is predicted in nearby British Columbia.
"About every four years we expect a relatively large harvest from the Fraser River run in B.C. In 2014 they produced about 83 million pounds of salmon and sockeye was the largest component," Evridge said. "Likewise, a weaker dollar will make wild salmon imports from Russia and Japan more expensive for U.S. buyers."
Russia, which had grown from a $10 million customer of primarily pink salmon roe to $60 million in 2013, has banned all imports of U.S. seafood since 2014. Meanwhile, that country continues to send millions of tons of salmon and other seafood into the U.S.
For example, 2017 trade data from the National Marine Fisheries Service show that Russia sent nearly four million pounds of frozen sockeye salmon to the U.S. valued at just over $13 million, a $2 million increase over the previous year.
Alaska's salmon forecast for 2018 calls for a harvest of 149 million fish, down 34 percent from last year.
Copper River salmon fishermen were beached for a third scheduled opener on May 24 due to concerns over low numbers of sockeyes. The first fishery on May 17 produced a catch of just 1,900 reds out of an expected 38,600. For the second opener on May 21 the sockeye catch was 3,900 fish — predicted landings were 80,000. The king salmon take from the two 12-hour fisheries totaled 4,000 fish.
Fishery managers said it's too soon to say if the low numbers indicate a delay or a much smaller run than expected. The breakup of the Copper River is behind schedule and water levels are low. They also blame cold ocean temperatures for the delay in sockeye returns.
"We will know soon where we are in the early run, which usually peaks on June 1," said longtime fisherman Jerry McCune.
Latest prices at Copper River were reported at $14 per pound for king salmon and $10.50 for sockeyes after the second opener. That's down from $15.65 for kings and $10.65 for reds (or higher), plus delivery bonuses on opening day.
More salmon fisheries around the state will start kicking off within days, with other areas in Prince William Sound opening on May 31.
Districts at Lower Cook Inlet open June 1 with Upper Cook Inlet fisheries starting on June 18. Togiak at Bristol Bay also opens on June 1 with other Bay districts opening on June 4; the Nushagak district opens on June 11.
Chignik also is set to open for sockeyes on June 1. Yakutat gillnetters will get to fish starting June 7, as will salmon fishermen at the South Alaska Peninsula.
Kodiak's first opener for sockeyes is tentatively scheduled for June 9 but could open as early as June 1 depending on runs to the west side.
Southeast Alaska drift gillnet openings start on June 17.
Once again there is unlikely to be any commercial salmon fishing at the Kuskokwim due to a lack of buyers since the new plant at Platinum stopped operating a few years ago.
Norton Sound opens to salmon fishing on June 25 and Kotzebue on July 10. On the Yukon River, commercial fishing for chums will be based on in-season run estimates. As many as 1.4 million chums could be available to Yukon fishermen this summer, and 1.2 million in the fall.
Find links to regional salmon summaries at the Alaska Department of Fish and Game's commercial fisheries page.
Big chill in the bay
Salmon fishermen at Bristol Bay set a record last summer for chilling their fish.
Despite an unexpected hit of one of the biggest sockeye runs in 20 years, 73 percent of the salmon deliveries by the region's 1,447 driftnet boats were chilled, adding up to a record 130 million pounds of salmon. That's a five percent increase over the previous year and compares to a 24 percent chilling rate from 2008.
In addition, chilled raw product purchase amounts from the set net fleet increased by more than 33 percent.
That good news came from the annual 2017 Processor Survey done by Anchorage-based Northern Economics for the Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Association. The RSDA is operated and funded by the drift fleet with a one percent tax on their catches.
The better fish quality meant most of the salmon shifted away from the low value canning line into pricier products.
Last year a record 83 percent of the sockeyes were put up whole/headed and gutted, or as fillets — only 14 percent of the Bay's sockeye salmon last summer went into cans. That compares to upwards of 75 percent being canned 20 years ago.
When asked if there are any notable quality improvements gained from chilled, floated fish in RSW systems (refrigerated sea water) compared to chilled, non-floated fish in slush ice, all respondents said the quality of RSW salmon is typically better.
Consistent chilling combined with lower brailer weights (500-600 pounds or less per bag) were reported as the best practices having the largest impact on the quality of delivered fish.
So what's the big deal about Bristol Bay salmon if you fish or live elsewhere?
"The sockeye resource at Bristol bay is very unique because of its size. Typically, it's 35 to 40 percent of the global sockeye supply, and it is a huge chunk of Alaska's salmon value overall," said fisheries economist Andy Wink.
Last year, Bristol Bay's nearly 37 million sockeye catch accounted for fully half of the value of Alaska's entire salmon fishery, and a similar harvest is expected this summer.
The size of that harvest, Wink said, has a big impact on salmon prices elsewhere.
"Certainly in 2015 when the base price was just 50 cents at Bristol Bay and they had a large harvest, we saw coho prices come way down and sockeye prices in other areas were down quite a bit too," he explained. "It's a market-moving fishery and that is why it affects so many other Alaska fishermen even if they don't fish in the Bay."
The 2017 sockeye salmon price at Bristol Bay averaged $1.02 a pound, a six-cent increase over the year before, and the price is expected to be higher this summer.