Alaska seeing wild start to salmon season as prices spike
A significantly lower projected Alaska salmon run, along with pressure on farmed Chilean salmon, is pushing up prices for Copper River salmon.
Predictions for the Alaska salmon harvest expect a 40 percent reduction in catch this year, falling to 161 million fish, primarily due to the signficant decrease projected for pink salmon. The Copper River region, which began fishing on 16 May, has an average forecast of 2.3 million sockeye salmon with a common property harvest of 1.7 million.
However, total Copper River harvest to date is lower than projected and buyers are complaining about smaller sizes.
“There are smaller sizes this year, but it was anticipated,” said Rob McNutt, purchaser for distributor Tradex in Victoria, B.C. “Pricing came out like gangbusters, too.”
“The fish have been running smaller. The larger fish are more desirable…for production,” said Jeff Berger, general manager of The Auction Block Company in Homer, Alaska, a wild salmon processor.
The average weight for sockeye started out below five pounds each, versus the historical average of around six pounds per fish, according to Jeremy Botz, area management biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. “Theories on the smaller average size of sockeye center around warmer ocean temps and range from increasing metabolic rates to changing dynamic of interspecific competition to reducing quality of forage…All in all, it is probably a complex mix of all these factors and more, causing the decline in average sockeye salmon size.”
However, the average sockeye weight recently moved above five pounds per fish, “so the fish appear to be getting slightly larger as the season progresses and other later-timed stocks move into the fishery,” Botz said.
Despite smaller sizes, Copper River dock prices are running high this season. At the start, buyers reported between USD 6.50 (EUR 5.74) and USD 7 (EUR 6.18) a pound for sockeyes (compared to an average of USD 5.15 [EUR 4.55] per pound last year) and kings for USD 8 (EUR 7.06) to USD 9.50 (EUR 8.39) a pound (compared to USD 6.50 [EUR 5.74] last season).
Still, some U.S. retailers were competitively priced on Copper River salmon. For example, Costco was running sockeyes on special for USD 14.99 (EUR 13.23) per pound, as of 25 May.
The stronger price is being driven by not only the lower anticipated wild salmon run, but also the pressure on the farmed salmon market. Worker protests in Chile and the disastrous algal bloom earlier this year have caused Chilean exports to the U.S. to come to a halt. Lost sales, just from the protests, are nearly USD 9 million (EUR 7.9 million per day, according to the Chilean American Chamber of Commerce.
Because of the lack of fresh Chilean salmon, frozen Chilean sellers are still getting “pretty decent offers” from buyers, McNutt said.
“There is room for prices to go even further north,” he said.
Buyers expect also expect further pressure on wild salmon prices because the total Copper River harvest to date is below anticipated. In-season projections are putting the total harvest at one million sockeye salmon, versus a pre-season forecast of 1.6 million fish, according to Botz.
At the same time, more wild salmon is coming on board, as the Bristol Bay area opened for fishing on 1 June. The projected run for Bristol Bay is around 29.5 million sockeye salmon potentially available for commercial harvest.
Plus, a run of approximately 23.2 million sockeye salmon is expected for the Naknek-Kvichak District in 2016, according to ADF&G. And the department projects 7.4 million sockeye salmon for the Egegik River this season, with the expected surplus potentially available for harvest at 5.7 million fish.