Business/Economy

Demand for Alaska sockeye salmon has pushed prices to near record highs

Strong global and U.S. demand for sockeye salmon has pushed prices to near record highs and boosted fishermen’s paychecks.

Silver Bay and Peter Pan Seafoods a few weeks ago increased their base prices to fishermen to $1.45 per pound, a 20-cent increase from the summer, and other Alaska companies are likely to follow suit. That compares to a final price in 2020 of just $1.06.

“Obviously, the base price is announced earlier in the season. Now that we can see where sales are going and really have a confident look, we’re excited to celebrate that with our fleet,” Abby Frederick, a spokesperson for Silver Bay, told KDLG in Dillingham.

Alaska’s total 2021 sockeye catch was 57 million fish, with a preliminary value topping $361 million – more than 56% of Alaska’s total dockside value.

Over 42 million of the reds came from Bristol Bay, worth more than $248 million to fishermen before final settlements are paid out next year.

Most of Alaska’s fish goes to market frozen, headed and gutted, and strong demand by global buyers pushed wholesale prices for Bristol Bay sockeyes this summer to $4.37 a pound, up $1.07 from last summer. Sockeye fillets were wholesaling at $6.61 a pound and averaging $12.94 at retail counters this fall, up nearly a dollar from a year ago.

The market is tight, which underscores increased demand, said Andy Wink, director of the Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Association.

Bristol Bay’s sockeye run this year set a record, topping 71 million fish. The run is projected to be even bigger in 2022 and could mean a catch of 60 million fish.

“It’s the largest we’ve ever forecasted,” said biologist Greg Buck at the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

Wink told SeafoodSource: “If you lined those fish up nose to tail, that’s enough to encircle the entire Lower 48 twice.”

Fish profile - Bycatch will continue to dominate headlines as more Alaskans and lawmakers engage like never before. The increased awareness can be credited in great part to one man from Homer.

“If we don’t step up and keep an eye out for it now, who will? It seemed like all the Alaskan resources were infinite for so long, but now we’re coming up to where fisheries are being shut down. It’s either step up or step out of the way,” said David Bayes, a longtime charter operator who said the waste and habitat damage by trawlers made him step up.

Bayes has used social media to educate more Alaskans via a Facebook page called “STOP Alaskan Trawler Bycatch” founded a year ago by Jody Mason of Whittier, who calls Bayes “an encylopedia.”

“David Bayes has helped pivot the bycatch discussion from one of behind closed doors and buried information to mainstream Facebook posts and dinner table conversations,” said Maddie Lightsey of Alaska Boats and Permits in her weekly Fish Ticket report.

In 2020, the trawl sector in Alaska took 92 million pounds of various species as bycatch, according to NOAA Fisheries data.

Bayes uses NOAA fishery managers’ numbers on bycatch and fishing overages to make his points.

“Every week they update and you can click and see what the new info is,” he said. “But I don’t think a lot of people have done that. Because once we started to post those numbers, we’d run into trawl captains and crews and people affiliated with the NPFMC that would say I was crazy. Those numbers are too huge. And then you show them and say, well, those are your numbers.”

Bayes also has exposed how catch overage numbers are juggled and often don’t add up.

“In the Bering Sea, for one example, a catcher processor trawl fleet was about five million pounds over its Pacific cod quota. You can see this progression through the year that these guys are past their cap but they adjust the quotas. And then a few weeks ago, NOAA reallocated and simply erased that overage on paper,” he explained.

It was Bayes who pointed out this fall that Bering Sea trawlers are allowed more crab as bycatch than the crab fleet can take, even in the red king crab fishery that is closed for the first time in 25 years.

“It’s gotten again and again to where the North Pacific Council system has said, OK, we’re going to shut directed fisheries but the trawlers can’t help it because of the gear type and they must have this quota,” he said. “That does so much to prevent the stocks from ever bouncing back. They’ve shut off directed fisheries, but the trawl fleet keeps hammering it a little bit at a time and the small local boats just sit there and twiddle their thumbs and wait.”

The STOP platform has its critics.

Heather Mann, director of the Midwater Trawlers Cooperative of Oregon, said the site “happily hosted bomb threats to individual decision makers, fishermen using gear they didn’t like and more misinformation about a very difficult topic than we’ve ever seen.” She added the platform “actively hosted and encouraged hate for fisheries, groups and individuals. It is the antithesis of civilized discourse.”

Dennis Moran is president of Fishermen’s Finest, the bottom trawl fleet that starting in 2023 will be required for the first time to reduce its take of millions of pounds of halibut bycatch.

[Fishery council approves new restrictions on Bering Sea trawl fleet’s incidental take of halibut]

Moran added: “The Facebook page has had multiple posts calling for violence against trawl vessels. If you speak up on the page to share the truth and provide sources to accurate information, you are blocked. What Bayes posts is either purposely taken out of context or flat-out misinformation and rhetoric. They allow personal attacks on Council members and others. Let’s have a real discussion about incidental catch and the fact that incidental catch occurs in every fishery and every gear type.”

Those critics are all wet, believes state Rep. Kevin McCabe of Big Lake, who calls Bayes “an honest broker.”

“He takes pains to post links to his data and has often provided amplifying information,” McCabe said. “The discussion gets more complicated by the players and power brokers who seem intent on discrediting any information or purveyor of information that does not fit the narrative they are trying to sell.

“I find that ‘following the money’ is the best avenue to determine the veracity of claims. When a fleet feels like they can waste $8 per pound halibut for other fish that is worth a few cents, it demonstrates the level of money involved.”

McCabe added: “They come to Alaska for what are essentially Alaskan fish, they sue us to not have to pay the very small landing tax required, and then throw away five times more fish than we are allowed to keep in the state fisheries? And the regulators seem to be in collusion by hiding the true data and parsing it out to the public in differing metrics.

“Half of the management council has ties to the trawl fleet that would make their participation on a state board a violation of the state ethics laws. This level of anger from Alaskans is not going to go away just because 20 boats homeported in Seattle want it to.”

Bayes said he knows the trawl sector is not “going away” but believes it’s time to “tap the brakes.” Stakeholders need to come up with better fishing solutions as other states and countries have done, he said, before it’s too late.

McCabe, who said he also is driven by “the total waste of the resource,” added: “I can and will work with anyone to solve problems. But the first step in resolving any problem is recognizing there is one. I am not sure that the trawl fleet thinks there is a problem.”

Correction: Last week’s column incorrectly stated some catch limits and has been updated. Cod catches for 2022 in federal waters of the Gulf of Alaska were increased by nearly 40% to 54 million pounds; pollock catches were boosted to 310 million pounds, a 26% increase.

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