Plethora of pinks gives Alaska fishermen pause

Alaska's pink salmon catch is pushing 180 million fish, making it the second largest harvest ever; the 219 million pinks of 2013 remains the record.

Alaska's humpy haul has been pushed by the record production of three regions – more than 15 million pinks were taken from the Alaska Peninsula, compared to less than 1 million last year. Kodiak's record pink catch is nearing 30 million, triple last year's take. And Prince William Sound's harvest has already topped 97 million pink salmon.

All that fish goes into a competitive global market and, in a word, the pink market stinks. A glut of pinks remains from Alaska's record 2013 catch, and devalued currencies bedevil sales overseas.

"We've had some big years backed up and that ripples through the supply chain and affects prices, and it doesn't help that the currency markets have gone against us so badly during this time when our supply has gone up so dramatically," said Andy Wink, senior seafood analyst with the McDowell Group.

Exports typically account for 60 percent to 70 percent of Alaska's seafood sales. Last week the euro was priced at $1.14, down from $1.32 at the same time last year. And the Japanese yen was at 84 cents, down from 96 cents.

"It gives you a sense of the dramatic shifts we're seeing in the currency markets," Wink added. "It's been very difficult," he added.

Another huge market hit comes from the ongoing U.S. seafood embargo by Russia – a big buyer of pink salmon roe. The roe usually accounts for a quarter of the value of the entire pink pack, sometimes more.

"Other than Japan, Russia is our largest market for salmon roe," said Alexa Tonkovich, international program director for the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute. "Japan takes about $125 million worth of salmon roe and Russia takes about $46 million. The next closest market is China at $20 million. And if you don't have diversified markets for a product, you're in a less powerful negotiating position."

"There is just not another market like Russia or Eastern Europe waiting out there with a strong currency to buy our pink roe," Wink said. "It's easy to see how it could drag down wholesale value by a quarter or a third compared to … years past."

Season totals for frozen and canned pinks have yet to be tallied. Cases of cans are still piled up from two years ago, keeping a downward press on prices. Alaska fishermen are getting paid on average 17 cents per pound for pinks, compared to a statewide average of 30 cents last summer.

Sockeyes in the red

"A perfect storm" of tough conditions is how market watchers are summing up sales of sockeye salmon.

Wholesale prices for Alaska's big money fish are down 20 percent to 25 percent on average across all markets, according to Undercurrent News.

Sluggish sales stem from a huge supply. Plus, the average weight of the fish is puny, making them harder to sell. As with pinks, the biggest pile driver is global currencies.

Half of the Bristol Bay sockeye taken this summer weighed in at just over 5 pounds. Larger reds more than 6 pounds, in demand because they yield higher profit margins, made up about 5 percent of the Bay harvest. Larger fish are wholesaling about $4.75 a pound, down 16 percent from last year, Undercurrent reported.

Mid-size 4-to-6 pounders are selling for $3 a pound, also down about 16 percent. The smallest sockeyes bottomed out at $2.25 a pound.

Bristol Bay sockeye fishermen received a base price of 50 cents a pound, 63 percent lower than last year's statewide average dockside price.

Another market issue for Alaska salmon prices comes from its constant competitor: farmed fish.

"Through the first half of 2015, fresh farmed Atlantic salmon imports -- including fillets and whole fish -- reached a year-to-date high by a large margin, driven by heavy imports in June," said analyst John Sackton of Seafood.com.

Seafood skills

Alaska's seafood industry depends on recruiting and maintaining processing professionals and NOAA's Sea Grant program helps build that specialized workforce.

Each year, the Alaska Seafood Processing Leadership Institute provides an intense 80 hours of technical training along with management and leadership skills.

The program is designed for such midlevel managers as assistant plant managers, production managers, quality control supervisors, engineers, human resource managers and administrators with leadership potential.

The course begins with technical training in Kodiak Nov. 9-13, followed by leadership training in Anchorage Feb. 29-March 4, and a trip to Seafood Expo North America in Boston March 6-8.

Some two dozen Alaska processing professionals from 21 seafood companies have attended over the past five years.

Laine Welch is a Kodiak-based commercial fishing columnist. Contact her at msfish@alaskan.com.

Sponsored