This article originally appeared at KDLG.org and is republished here with permission.
DILLINGHAM -- It’s been a tough spring for the Copper River sockeye fishery in Southcentral Alaska.
Copper River is among the first fisheries to offer fresh salmon — its runs signal the start of the state’s commercial season. But the low number of sockeye returning this year has led to limited opportunities to fish.
The run is picking up, but until last week the season was similar to 2020, which finished with some of the lowest sockeye catches on record. But one thing is very different from last year: A record-high price for salmon.
“Markets were hot. And we were able to pay that price and pass it on to the fishermen,” said Jon Hickman, the executive vice president for Peter Pan Seafoods.
In May, the company announced that it would pay triple last year’s prices for sockeye and kings. This year, it will pay $19.60 per pound for kings and $12.60 a pound for sockeye. In 2020, sockeye went for around $4 and kings for $6.
The Cordova Times reported retailers’ pre-orders for sockeye fillets were as high as $54 a pound. King fillets went for up to $80 a pound.
Hickman said the reason for the price hike is “pretty straightforward”: Copper River is the first fishery of the season, so competition’s low. And demand is high — Peter Pan’s customers include restaurants and other high-end retailers, and as COVID restrictions relax, restaurants are welcoming more diners.
The record prices are stoking optimism within the industry just ahead of a very different fishery. Bristol Bay is the largest sockeye fishery in the world, and unlike Copper River, it runs at the same time as fisheries in other parts of the state, which starts in earnest in mid-June.
Hickman said the size of Bristol Bay’s run — and the size of the fish — will determine which products they will focus on, and what the price will be.
“Fish size is going to be a huge deal for us, and how we handle fish size and put them in the right places for the best return,” he said.” Keeping things fresh and keeping our fishermen with their nets in the water.”
Andy Wink, the executive director for the Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Association, said that while Bristol Bay is a much different fishery, the high Copper River prices are encouraging.
“I think seeing strong pricing in the early going for Copper River is definitely a good sign, as far as where the market’s at and how much demand there is,” he said. “Pretty much all that product goes into the fresh market and is sold fresh. We do marketing promotions with many retailers around the U.S. and already there’s a lot of demand for that.”
There was a lot of demand for seafood from retailers last year, and Bristol Bay saw less competition from other fisheries that experienced weaker runs. Still, prices were really low.
The base price in Bristol Bay dropped to 70 cents per pound, which is about half of what it was in 2019.
And even as the market dropped, processors spent tens of millions of dollars on COVID-19 mitigation plans.
Dan Lesh, an economist with the McKinley Research Group, said that while there will still be additional costs associated with the pandemic, he expects them to be much lower this year.
Lesh said another factor that might help get fishermen bigger paychecks is higher personal income.
“I think people have more money to spend and seafood is what they want to spend it on nowadays,” he said. “We do know that personal income rose last year, between things like the stimulus bills and also less spending on different services, helped with pushing up prices for premium seafood products, and I think Bristol Bay sockeye salmon can be in that category.”
Fishermen’s concerns about the low base price in 2020 prompted the Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Association to publish a report that laid out some of the reasons why the price was so low. These included business risk due to the pandemic, higher operating costs, and losses in other fisheries in the state.
This year, BBRSDA said that risk is down. Wink, the executive director, thinks the season may be better for fishermen.
“I guess the price remains to be seen, but I think when you look at the market factors that are in place now versus this time last year, things do look more bullish, and kind of appear more favorable,” he said.
Bristol Bay’s fishery kicks off in mid-June.