Despite low prices, the market for sockeye salmon could be improving

The world's sockeye salmon market is looking a little better than it did in the spring, with more fish moving off shelves and out of warehouses, but a recent report says there's still more to be sold. A new trade agreement could offer a little help with that, however.

Each fall, McDowell Group Fisheries Analyst Andy Wink helps that company put together a market report for the Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Association.

Wink said that so far this fall, sockeye has been selling faster than it did in 2014 for both frozen headed and gutted product, and filets.

"That's really encouraging because more than anything, the industry and the fishery needs this increase in harvest and production to get through the supply chain as fast as possible before we get to next season."

For canned salmon, a major Bristol Bay product, Wink said inventory and prices have both decreased as well.

"The inventory there is is a little bit more problematic. Canned sales tend not to react as quickly to changes in price or production," Wink said. "There's a USDA buy, that's going to help, but it's going to take some time to unwind. … It's kind of a more limited set of consumers, and how much more volume can you push into that consumer base."

Wink said that efforts to promote canned fish can help, but typically the largest portion of canned sockeye sales are abroad, where things are still moving slowly.


Wink noted that the improvements compared to 2014 are partially because that year was a particularly bad year for sales, with a large Fraser River sockeye run hitting the same year as a larger-than-forecast Bristol Bay run. That meant buyers did less buying, and more waiting to see how things panned out.

"They just kind of bought what they needed to support their programs," he said. "This year, in comparison, we had some companies offer much lower prices right out of the gate and that seems to be a deal that a lot of buyers jumped on."

Wink said Japan was also a more aggressive buyer this year.

The report also looked at one of the big questions making the rounds in fishing communities and on social media: are fishermen getting their fair share of the sockeye's value? A table in the report shows that so far this year, fishermen's take-home pay from the summer of 2015 was a smaller percentage of the first wholesale value than in years past.

Wink said the table compares the average first wholesale value per processed pound (which includes all product forms) to the ex-vessel price.

"What the table and the data tell us, is that it was pretty consistent kinda within a range from 2006 to 2013," Wink said. "Then in 2014, fishermen tended to get more of the value and in 2015 they got a much lower percentage of it."

Wink cautioned that for 2015, the table only compares the base ex-vessel price to the first wholesale value. The other comparisons can't come until there's more information. Bonuses still to come and not-yet-sold inventory will eventually play into the final picture of 2015, and the percentage could adjust in either direction.

Data in the report comes from several sources.

"We try to leverage all the available data that we can. Most of it comes from public data sources that are put out by the state of Alaska," Wink said, pointing to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game's collection of harvest numbers, as well as information on processing production and wholesale values.

"There's also a dataset called the Alaska Salmon Price Report, from the Department of Revenue, we use that a lot, we look at export data, we also bought retail sales data ... . We had them isolate sales of fixed weight sockeye products, like canned salmon, and we also looked at sockeye filets."

The report looked at other factors influencing the world sockeye market – like the Russian embargo that's resulted in more farmed Norwegian fish in other markets; a general trend of lower prices for all types of salmon; the relationship between the dollar and other currencies which is making exports more expensive; and even the lower price for smaller filets, which increased sales in Japan this summer but meant less revenue from other sales.

For 2016, Wink said he'll be watching to see what prices are this winter, and how much more fish sells before the 2016 run returns.

And a different document released recently pointed to at least a little good news for the sockeye market. The 2,700-page Trans-Pacific Partnership is an agreement between 12 countries, including the United States, Japan, Vietnam and others.

It would eliminate some trade barriers between those countries over the next decade, including some that should help with sockeye sales, according to Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute Executive Director Alexa Tonkovich.

"Currently the sockeye salmon tariff to Japan is 3.5 percent," she said. "With the TPP, it will be eliminated immediately for both fresh and frozen. For other types of salmon, it's also 3.5 percent, and it will be gradually reduced and then eliminated in the sixth year."

Tonkovich says 3.5 percent might not sound like a large part of the cost of sockeye, but it adds up, and over several years could be quite a bit of money -- particularly for places like Japan, which buys a large volume of sockeye.

Alaska salmon isn't the only product that may see a boost. Tonkovich said it could also increase the repackaging of pollock, salmon and other Alaska seafood that occurs in Vietnam, and help other exports.


That agreement must still be signed by the president and approved by Congress.

This story first appeared in The Bristol Bay Times/Dutch Harbor Fisherman and is republished here with permission.