Early signs point to continuing headwinds in world markets for Alaska salmon. Let's count the troubling signs:
• Global currencies remain in disarray
• The ongoing Russian seafood embargo diverts more farmed salmon to the U.S.
• Tons of product remains in freezers from back-to-back bumper sockeye runs. (Most of Alaska's salmon goes to market in frozen, headed and gutted form.)
One plus: Aggressive market promotions have kept reds moving briskly at retail outlets at home and abroad, removing some of the backlog.
"What the Alaska industry really needs is to move that product through the supply chain — clear the decks — so we are not continuing to deal with that overhang in the following year. Whether we are there yet or not is hard to say," said Andy Wink, a fisheries economist with the Juneau-based McDowell Group.
"When the supply increases as much as it has over the last few years, especially from Bristol Bay, it has a big impact on what distributors, secondary wholesalers and retailers are willing to pay processors, who are buying from the fishermen," he said.
And in the case of salmon, size does matter. The past two years at Bristol Bay, most of the fish have been smaller, 2-to-4-pound reds worth dramatically less than larger fish. Luckily, sales of smaller sockeyes to Japan moved well, primarily because of the lower prices, and because their use of cut-up fish in various dishes makes it less of an issue.
"We have seen good sales volume through the supply chain in the past year," Wink said, adding Alaska sellers were surprised at the amounts that went to Japan and Europe, due to the global currency situation. The continued strong value of the dollar means it is more expensive for overseas customers to buy U.S. seafood.
"We've seen things move a lot faster, and while the currency situation is still terrible, at least it's been terrible now for a while," he added. "People are more adjusted and markets have a better grip on where it's at."
Alaska salmon also face growing competition from farmed fish. Russia's ongoing seafood embargo against several countries has displaced record amounts of Norwegian salmon, and imports to the U.S. have doubled.
"It's been a big shift and the whole supply chain is adjusting to that. But there is reason to think that we are getting to a more stable environment," Wink said.
"They'll get a very good sense of how hungry those customers are for product. If they haven't done very well moving these large sockeye volumes, they won't be as aggressive. If they have been having good luck with their sales promotions, they'll likely come back eager for more," Wink said.
Taken together, early signs suggest no big price boosts for Alaska salmon this year.
"There's still a lot of headwinds, a lot of unknowns. It's just kind of hard to see how the price takes any significant jump," Wink said. "
More tsunami cleanup
Money from Japan continues to fund marine debris removal from Alaska coastlines.
An influx of debris, especially polystyrene foam, continues to wash ashore from the 2011 tsunami.
The Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation recently received $950,000 from Japan for tsunami debris collection, removal and disposal projects for 2016. Specifically, funding is intended to support a large-scale project covering Kayak and Montague islands, which have some of the most debris.
Since 2012, Alaska has received the majority of a $5 million dollar grant from Japan to the United States for aerial surveys and coastal cleanups in the Gulf of Alaska, Southeast Alaska and the Kodiak Island area.
Last July, a large scale, three-week project used 1,176 helicopter airlifts to sling 3,397 "supersacks" and 717 bundles of marine debris to a 300-foot barge from 11 locations. The debris was shipped to the Lower 48 for disposal and recycling.
To date, more than 1 million pounds of marine debris have been collected and removed from Alaska using the funds provided by Japan and administered through DEC.
Climate change effect on fisheries
NOAA Fisheries has just released a draft climate science action plan for the southeastern Bering Sea that will assess the vulnerability of 18 fish species.
The plan identifies action the agency will take over the next three to five years to implement the NOAA Fisheries Climate Science Strategy, released last August.
"Climate-related changes in ocean ecosystems are affecting the nation's marine species and the people, businesses and communities that depend on them," said Doug DeMaster, director of NOAA's Alaska Fisheries Science Center.
The center is responsible for five large marine ecosystems — the southeastern Bering Sea, the Gulf of Alaska, the Aleutian Islands, the northern Bering and Chukchi seas as well as the Beaufort Sea. The plan will look first at the southeastern Bering Sea because it supports large marine mammal and bird populations and some of the most profitable and sustainable commercial fisheries in the nation.
The plan builds on work the center has been doing for more than 20 years as part of a Bering Sea Fisheries Ecosystem Plan, said the center's program leader Mike Sigler.
Several studies have been completed on potential effects of climate change on three species — pollock, red king crab and northern rock sole.
"We expect climate change to lead to smaller populations of walleye pollock and red king crab, but have little effect on northern rock sole," Sigler said.
NOAA is asking the public to provide feedback on the draft plan, which will be finalized this fall.
Laine Welch is a Kodiak-based commercial fishing columnist. Contact her at email@example.com.