Copper River, Alaska salmon fishery kicks off with low prices, slow fishing

Published on
May 19, 2020

Alaska’s earliest salmon fishery – the famed Copper River run – kicked off last week with slow fishing and lower year-on-year prices.

As fishermen scraped through a scant opener, rumors circulated online and in news outlets that Copper River Seafoods was paying out just USD 3.50 (EUR 3.19) for sockeye and USD 6.50 (EUR 5.93) for kings. That would represent a sharp fall from last year’s starting price of USD 10.00 (EUR 9.13) a pound for sockeye and USD 14.00 (EUR 12.78) for kings.

Copper River fishermen Bill Weber, owner of direct-to-consumer Paradigm Seafoods, told SeafoodSource a smaller buyer, Cordova’s Alaska Wild Seafoods, was paying out USD 6.00 (EUR 5.48 a pound for sockeye and USD 8.00 (EUR 7.30) a pound for kings.

Garrett Evridge, an economist for the McDowell Group, said the low prices are an indicator of the damage coronavirus-related restaurant shutdowns done to the fresh market.

“That’s one of the lesson we learned from halibut market, and the same is happening with early Copper River. The fresh market is just very weak right now,” Evridge told SeafoodSource.

Although Copper River prices are often used to gauge prices for the later salmon fisheries in Alaska, Evridge warned against reading too much into the low early prices. The market will likely be volatile as salmon navigate the pandemic, and the Copper River prices do not tell us much about the frozen market. 

“It’s so fluid right now, and that price will probably fluctuate day to day. And it’s very hard to compare it to Bristol Bay, for example, where so much of the supply is frozen,” Evridge said.

As example of market confusion, QFC in Seattle was selling the first Copper River sockeye at USD 34.99 (EUR 32.01) per pound, while Seattle’s iconic Pike Place Fish Market advertised preorders at USD 15.00 (EUR 13.72) a pound more. Copper River kings were USD 44.99 (EUR 41.16) a pound at QFC, while they checked in at USD 74.99 (EUR 68.61) on Pike Place Fish Market’s website. The famous fish market, which has remained open for curbside pick-up and online orders throughout the pandemic, was also advertising pre-orders of whole Copper River kings at USD 659.99 (EUR 603.92).

Coronavirus also left its mark on Copper River’s traditional first fish ceremony, which took place on Friday, 15 May. Instead of taking the first load of fish from the special Alaska Airlines flight to one of his high-end restaurants, chef Tom Douglas, working in conjunction with Trident Seafoods, Ocean Beauty Seafoods, and others, toted the fish to Swedish Medical Center in Seattle, where he prepared a salmon feed for around 200 medical professionals.

Meals were also donated to Healthcare Heroes, with money from take-out orders going to Food Lifeline, according to a tweet from Trident Seafoods. Douglas, a champion of seafood from the West Coast and Alaska, temporarily shuttered 12 of his 13 Seattle restaurants in early March.

Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADFG) predicted a low sockeye run for the 2020 Copper River season, with around 1.4 million fish expected to return, well below the 10-year average of 2.1 million reds. The predicted harvest of 771,000 sockeye represents a 41-percent drop from the 10-year average harvest of 1.31 million sockeye. The first Copper River opener on Thursday, 14 May, yielded 1,650 king salmon and just 1,500 sockeye, according to ADFG.

Paradigm Seafoods’ Weber said a cold winter had made for cooler waters, which may have been preventing salmon from moving up the river.

“I think the reason it’s starting out so slow is because we’ve actually had a normal winter. Everything has been so cold and the fish just aren’t here. But they have to show up. We need them to show up,” Weber told SeafoodSource as he had his net in the water on Monday, 18 May, for the second 12-hour opener of the season.

Weber caught just five fish on 14 May and said he had not seen any hits that morning.

While coronavirus affects markets, the threat of a COVID-19 outbreak is adding tension to preparations for the 2020 in Copper River’s homeport of Cordova, and the Bristol Bay hub of Dillingham, Alaska, with some calling for the fisheries to be shut down for the season and others insisting fishing must go on.

A worker for Ocean Beauty Seafoods tested positive 10 days ago in Cordova, representing the town’s first case, but there is no evidence the virus has since spread in the community.

Dillingham, where city officials and tribal groups had asked the state to call the season off, officials registered their first case of COVID-19 on Saturday morning, 16 May, when a worker for Trident Seafoods tested positive.  

Photo courtesy of TroutNut/Shutterstock 

Contributing Editor reporting from Seattle, USA

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