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Alaska sockeye salmon glut expected to lower prices

The price of Alaska sockeye salmon is expected to drop this year as a huge run and leftover cans and frozen fillets from last season cause a glut in supply.

Although fans of the red-fleshed fish may rejoice, the news isn't good for fishermen in Bristol Bay, the largest sockeye salmon fishery in the world. Even without enormous numbers of fish flooding the market, prices are already under pressure.

The stronger dollar, which makes products from the United States more expensive on the world market, will likely put a damper on demand abroad. Many consumers do not consider Alaska sockeye special enough to prevent them from buying less expensive, farm-raised salmon from Chile or wild-caught Russian or Canadian reds.

Seafood marketers are concerned enough about the largest sockeye market, Japan, that they are spending more there on retail promotions, advertising and labels emphasizing the fish's Alaska origin, said Alexa Tonkovich of the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute.

"Japan has historically been the strongest sockeye market," Tonkovich said. "However, in recent years we've lost quite a bit of market share there."

As the mainstay of the Bristol Bay economy, the sockeye harvest attracts thousands of seasonal workers each summer. Fishermen in the region brought in about $149 million in 2013 during the month-long season that typically spans June and July.

The prediction by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game that 54 million sockeye will return to Bristol Bay is the largest since 1995. Of that number, Fish and Game calculates that nearly 38 million fish can be harvested, while the rest would be needed to replenish the run.

With so many fish expected, the market for fishing permits has dried up in Bristol Bay. Fishermen typically arrange to sell their fish before the season opens to processing companies, which clean, gut, fillet or can the fish and take the roe. But processors aren't looking to make deals with any more fishermen this season, said Tim Sands, an area manager with Fish and Game in Dillingham.

"It's expected that there will be more fish caught in a day than a processor can process," Sands said. "If you were to buy a permit, you would not be able to get a market to sell your fish."

The anticipated price drop would come on the heels of a series of strong years for sockeye prices. In 2013, Bristol Bay fishermen received an average of $1.61 a pound, the highest sockeye price since 1988, according to Fish and Game.

As for prices this season, no one knows how much lower they might be.

"We've quickly gone from a very high price on sockeye and a limited amount of product to a situation where we're going to have a big harvest," said Andy Wink, a fisheries economist with Anchorage-based consulting firm McDowell Group. "It's tough to go from one extreme to the other so quickly, and it's a question of how we hold the value and not have it go down too much."

In the Copper River basin, Alaska's other major commercial source of sockeye, price predictions are less dire. As one of the first major fisheries to open, it doesn't encounter as much competition earlier in the season, said Bert Lewis, regional management coordinator for Prince William Sound and Bristol Bay, Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

"We will likely see solid prices -- at about $4 a pound -- until the Copper River comes in strong enough that they have to start freezing and canning," Lewis said. "But once Bristol Bay comes on, then the market is done as far as prices."

Fritz Johnson, president of the Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Association, said he thinks "a lot of the doom and gloom is exaggerated."

"We're looking at a lot of fish this year," Johnson said. "I'm not wringing my hands and pulling my hair out at this point."