Prepare for the Copper River Conundrum
Cue the hype. The Copper River salmon fishery opens in less than two weeks, marking the unofficial start of Alaska's summer salmon season. The first batch of king salmon to hit the Lower 48 commands higher prices season after season due largely to the publicity surrounding the prized harvest. But the unprecedented closure of the California and Oregon salmon fisheries is sure to drive prices even higher this season. Is there such a thing as too high when it comes to price?
Copper River kings are bound to eclipse the $40-a-pound mark at retail. Of course, prices will settle in the $25 to $35 range after the first two or three openings. The 2008 Copper River harvest is projected to yield 62,000 kings, which would be up from less than 40,000 fish in 2007.
Fishermen may benefit from higher prices, but only initially. After the two or three openings, ex-vessel prices for kings will likely drop to the $3 to $4 range. Skyrocketing fuel and shipping costs are pressuring Cordova processors to keep ex-vessel prices for both kings and sockeyes in check to ensure their own profits, one Copper River salmon enthusiast points out.
Wholesalers and retailers may also benefit from higher prices, but again only at the outset. Retailers, especially on the West Coast, will fetch higher prices for Copper River and other Alaska kings this season, but that'll be offset by the closure of the California and Oregon salmon fisheries.
Paul Johnson, founder and owner of Monterey Fish Market in Berkeley, Calif., is selling Columbia River and Alaska kings for $18.95 at wholesale and $25.99 at retail, more than twice as much as two years ago. But due to the closure and the economic downturn, Johnson expects his salmon sales, which usually represent one-third of his total seafood sales during the summer salmon season, to account for just 5 to 10 percent of his total seafood sales this season. As a result, he projects his total seafood sales to be off by 15 to 20 percent.
What about consumers? Sure, the Copper River salmon fishery will garner a boatload of press if kings command $40 or more, bolstering awareness of wild salmon in general. But prices this high may scare away many consumers, even those willing to splurge on the flavorful fish. Retailers need to push price-conscious consumers toward other species of salmon or other fish when kings are fetching a pretty penny, or risk losing them altogether.