Naknek is always hectic in mid-June. Thousands of fishermen from all across the world descend on the small villages scattered along the shores of Bristol Bay.
Salmon is the common thread in everyone's mind. Sockeye salmon from the pristine waters of the bay, and the potential money to be made, brings together the most diverse cross-section of humanity imaginable.
Jamaicans, Mexicans, Bulgarians, Japanese, Russians, Poles and others of indeterminate ancestry crowd the single street in Naknek. Many of them fish. Others work as processors or in support industries.
The crowds of salmon industry workers are common from one year to the next. This season has come with subtle difference: Optimism.
The supply houses and boat storage yards are filled with smiles. Everyone says "hi." Fishermen pause to chat with strangers. Bristol Bay is a place where the immediate future is bright.
The Bristol Bay fishery is the best-managed salmon fishery in the world. The sockeye returns of the past decade have been uniformly solid.
The price of fish has fluctuated wildly over the past decade. The fishermen's dismal market price of 50 cents a few years ago has steadied into a slow rise as consumers begin to recognize the premium quality of Bristol Bay fish. The 2017 final settlement price of $1.20 to 1.35 now appears sustainable with the ever-increasing consumer demands.
Quality has been the name of the game in the bay over the past few years. Processors are stressing the necessity of bled and chilled fish. And the fishermen are making it happen. Gone are the days of long delivery times, fish stacked without ice on tenders and red salmon picked from nets gone dry on the mud.
It wasn't that many years ago that Win Brindle, the boss at the red salmon cannery in Naknek, was asked by a fisherman if it was OK to bring in a few fish whose eyes had been picked out by gulls. Win gave his classic deadpan stare and replied: "We don't can the eyes."
Gone is Brindle's Columbia Wards company, and also gone are most of the cans. Few sockeye are processed for cans these days. The money is in fresh frozen fish. Value-added products such as filets are the focus. Additionally there is Chinese market for fish heads and carcasses.
Japan, which used to be the destination for the majority of Bristol Bay red salmon, is no longer the major sales motivator. The burgeoning markets are the U.S. and middle European countries. The rapidly developing market landscape results not only in better prices for the fishermen, but also in new construction. Jobs in the marketing sector are increasing as companies explore new locales where they can sell their products.
Fresh fish must be moved quickly and with considerably more care than fished being canned. New infrastructure must be developed to move perishable salmon to all corners of the United States and beyond.
Bristol Bay sockeye, and the fishery, have a bright future as long as the fish arrive. Fishing is never a given. While the bay looks bright for 2018, that does not seem to be the case for this season's gulf-based fisheries.
Prince William Sound and the Copper River sockeye seem to be no-shows thus far this season. Whether the cause is the ever-increasing numbers of hatchery pinks competing for food in the ocean or something else is unclear at present.
The size of the fish in the early returns is also causing concern among processors. Copper River sockeye are averaging less than four pounds, half their usual size. The early Kenai salmon are also running much smaller than normal. Southeast Alaska fisheries are an unknown right now, but early indicators have generally not been promising.
These factors have all combined to make Bristol Bay smile. If the bay is the only show in town, the demand will far outstrip the supply. Consumer demand this spring has already pushed the wholesale price of sockeye into the $10 range. That price translates to better than a buck and a half for fishermen at the boat.
Let's walk the street in Naknek again on July 10 to see if there are still smiles. And, we cannot forget that those who catch the salmon are only the leading edge of the game. Our neighbors must walk into the grocery store and gasp at the prohibitive retail price of sockeye. The future of the Alaska salmon industry seems to be shining, but fishermen, managers and marketers must all proceed with care.
Boom and bust is not a good roadmap for fisheries. All components of the fishery business must get equal attention and consideration if we wish to create sustainable markets. Salmon are handled by many hands. Fishermen, day processors, value-added workers, fish brokers and processing companies all play their part in getting fish to the marketplace.
In the end, it is the consumer who will dictate how Alaska's salmon industry progresses. College kids from the Lower 48, foreign workers with green cards and corporate executives will all be impacted by the housewife who can afford to purchase a pound of premium Bristol Bay sockeye.
For thousands of years, the return of the silver hoard to the Bristol Bay region controlled the lives of the people who lived there. Now, with our global economy, the small cold-eyed fish reaches farther than anyone could have ever imagined.