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Bristol Bay fishermen aghast at 50-cents-a-pound price for sockeye

  • Author: Laine Welch
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published July 24, 2015

Most Bristol Bay fishermen were shocked and dismayed when they heard last week that major buyers would pay 50 cents a pound for red salmon. That's a throwback to the dock prices paid from 2002 to 2004, and is far below the $1.20 or more paid last year.

A late surge of reds produced catches of nearly 13 million fish in the final week of this year's run, bringing the total by July 23 to 34.5 million fish. Fish were still trickling in, and state managers, who called the season an anomaly, said the final tally should reach the projected harvest of 37.6 million sockeye.

To an extent, fishermen were prepared for lower prices this summer due to:

• A plugged global market.

• Frozen fish remaining from last summer's big run;

• The continuing Russian embargo against U.S. seafood; and

• A strong dollar that makes it more expensive for foreign customers to buy U.S. salmon.

Typically, 60-70 percent of Alaska's seafood is exported.

Going into the fishery, a base price of 65 cents was bandied about – and coming in 15 cents below that was a demoralizing jolt to commercial fishermen.

"Shame on you (processors) for crippling the harvester side of the industry. This place is a company town," said an anonymous fisherman on radio station KDLG's Open Line program.

"This is a grim reality for all of us," longtime fisherman Ronda Blough said in an email. "Such wonderful protein for so little. So many fishermen cuckolded by this."

But Norm Van Vactor, the president and CEO of the Bristol Bay Economic Development Corp. urged fishermen not to jump to conclusions. Van Vactor worked for decades in the local seafood industry as a general manager at Leader Creek and Peter Pan Seafoods before taking his current post.

"Lots needs to sort out," Van Vactor said. "I can empathize with their frustration, but don't give up the ship. Things will get better sooner rather than later. The market is very confused.

"The bottom line is no one has a good sense of what the salmon product forms are (canned, frozen, etc.), who's got what, or what is going domestic or foreign."

In anticipation of a rocky red salmon market, the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute allocated an extra $1 million to push sockeye salmon, particularly frozen, leading into and throughout this harvest season.

"The one bright spot is the domestic market," said Tyson Fick, communications director at the institute. "We saw really good success with demos in 5,000 stores across the country that resulted in sale lifts from 20 percent to over 230 percent in individual stores."

Sockeyes also will get a boost from the world's largest seafood restaurant company. Red Lobster announced last week it is partnering Alaska sockeye salmon with its popular "Crabfest" promotion in more than 700 restaurants in the U.S., Canada and other global sites.

Salmon across Alaska

Unhappy Southeast trollers wrapped up their summer king salmon fishery in just eight days and won't get another shot due to controversies over West Coast and Canadian treaty kings. It's just the third time in 15 years there won't be an August chinook fishery for the Panhandle's largest fishing fleet.

Pink salmon are taking their time showing up in Southeast waters, where a 58 million humpy harvest is projected. Only 3.5 million were taken through July 24.

Prince William Sound seiners are still slamming pinks, with the catch approaching 33 million fish. Processing capacity was tapped out and fish were being hauled to Southeast and Kodiak, which is also seeing some record pink salmon catches.

Cook Inlet salmon fishermen are above the five-year averages for all species but sockeyes.

Farther west, the chum harvest in the Kuskokwim region was running well below average, but the Yukon River chum catch was a respectable 366,000 fish.

At Kotzebue, which last year saw one of its best chum runs ever, fishing opened last week but was then canceled due to a lack of salmon buyers. The fish are flown elsewhere for processing but the one buyer was backed up with fish from Bristol Bay and Prince William Sound.

Inching toward plan to cut Gulf of Alaska bycatch

Crafting a program to reduce trawl bycatch in Gulf of Alaska groundfish fisheries has been underway for three years. In October, the North Pacific Fishery Management Council will begin putting the pieces together and it wants the public to weigh in.

Gulf of Alaska king salmon bycatch by groundfish trawlers was just 15,733 last year, the lowest since 2009. As recently as 2010, however, nearly 57,000 kings were taken as bycatch by the trawlers, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service.

"The program goals are very broad in terms of better management of all the groundfish fisheries in the Gulf, in providing incentives to reduce bycatch, to better utilize groundfish species," said Rachel Baker, a fisheries management specialist at NOAA Fisheries in Juneau.

The new program will include some form of catch shares allocated among user groups and possibly communities. NOAA and the council are preparing an environmental impact statement.

"Economic impacts are always a big one to try and analyze," said Baker, who called "the social impacts on the communities directly involved in the Gulf groundfish fisheries ... of critical importance."

The massive new program could include up to 25 species in the Western, Central and West Yakutat regions of the Gulf. But even that has yet to be defined.

"If people have very different ideas about alternatives for bycatch management, or things they definitely don't want to see, we would really appreciate those comments and the more specific the better," Baker said.

"I have been working in this process for 12 years and I am amazed at the power of public comments in influencing the outcomes of the fishery management programs we develop."

Find the options being considered at the North Pacific Fishery Management website. Comments are accepted through Aug. 28.

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

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