Problems mount for Alaska’s salmon sector

On the cusp of the 2024 season, Alaska's salmon sector is facing low prices and an upended processing sector
A gillnetter in Alaska's Bristol Bay
On the cusp of the 2024 season, the Alaskan salmon fishery is in a state of flux | Photo courtesy of Kinematics Marine Equipment
10+ Min

Processors are going out of business, fishermen are scrambling to upgrade their onboard freezing equipment to meet higher standards, and politicians are at loggerheads regarding a proposed aid package. 

This is the current situation of the salmon industry in the U.S. state of Alaska, on the cusp of the 2024 season.

Ekuk Fisheries, founded in 2005 as a processor of set gillnet-caught fish harvested by beach fisherman in Ekuk, Bristol Bay, Alaska has been taken over by Alaska’s Best Seafoods. Ekuk Fisheries Founder Joe Kelso has left the company to become the director of processing operations at Silver Bay Seafoods. This follows on the heels of Silver Bay acquiring Trident Seafoods’ Ketchikan processing plant and Peter Pan Seafoods’ facilities in Valdez, Port Moller, and Dillingham. Peter Pan, which is facing a fresh set of liens from partners after coping with a previous set of claims in 2023, does not plan on operating at all in Alaska in 2024.

Additionally, OBI Seafoods announced in January it won’t open its summer fish processing plant in Larsen Bay on Kodiak Island, and in March it said it won’t buy salmon from the 80 permit holders in the setnet fleet in Kodiak’s Alitak District, according to the Alitak District Setnet Association. More recently, Whittier Seafoods reportedly shut down operations, though a spokesperson for Whittier Seafoods owner Marine Fishing International declined to comment when contacted by SeafoodSource and said Whittier Seafood General Manager Roger Stiles was not available for an interview.

The processors that remain are struggling to name a price for 2024 catch. Trident has not yet calculated a base price or communicated with its fishermen about what it will likely pay for the upcoming season, according to a spokesperson, and Silver Bay has not posted any pricing publicly. Alaska’s Best Seafoods CEO Jerry Ball sent out a fleet letter stating a base price of USD 0.70 (EUR 0.65), but the final price will depend on whether base prices among other processors change at the beginning of the season.

Most of the processors, including Alaska’s Best, have announced they will pay premiums for clean slush iced, floating salmon at the time of delivery, according to National Fisherman, with some processors offering incentives that could put ex-vessel prices for sockeyes at a total of around USD 0.80 (EUR 0.75) per pound. That’s pushing some fishermen to invest in refrigerated sea-water (RSW) systems, which can cost up to USD 50,000 (EUR 47,000) for a 10-ton unit plus another USD 20,000 (EUR 18,800) for installation. At current prices, the breakeven on such an investment would be 234,000 pounds of sockeye, but with a lower run forecast of 39 million sockeye for the upcoming season, combined with more limited processing capacity, it could equate to fishermen choosing to hold chilled fish in their boats rather than invest in an RSW system. But that carries its own cost – forcing them to potentially miss lucrative flood tides in the peak of the run.

In 2022, fishermen received similar incentives for chilling, bleeding, floating and other added quality measures, such as fewer fish per brailer bag, on top of base ex-vessel prices of USD 1.15 (EUR 1.08) per pound, which put their overall ex-vessel prices in the neighborhood of USD 1.50 (EUR 1.40) per pound. But the new incentive structure supersedes past practices and relies solely on core temperature. A looming question facing Alaska’s salmon sector is how core temperatures will be monitored. It may require the use of remote sensors to ascertain whether fish are being chilled to processor specifications.

For fishermen who can’t afford RSW systems and don’t have easy access to ice, this year’s ex-vessel prices will likely mirror 2023 prices of USD 0.50 (EUR 0.46) per pound.

“The USD 0.50 hit hard,” said Danielle Larsgaard, a set-netter from Igushik, Alaska. “With the USD 0.50 last year, I had to work three jobs to make ends meet.”

Longtime Bristol Bay fisherman Harry Moore told National Fisherman he’s not sure what he’s going to do this season.

“How do you make the payment on a USD 1.2 million [EUR 1.1 million] boat with USD 0.50 [EUR 0.46] fish?”

To address the situation, the Alaska Legislature is also considering upping the budget of the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute by USD 10 million (EUR 9.4 million). And Alaska’s state senate has proposed an aid package that will go to buying up to USD 7.5 million (EUR 7 million) in salmon “oversupply” from the 2023 harvest, which is costing processing companies money to store in freezers. The money would be paid in a grant to the industry nonprofit SeaShare, which would buy seafood from smaller processors to donate to Alaska food programs and food banks, according to Sea Share Executive Director Hannah Lindoff.

Lindoff said the money would explicitly be used to support smaller processors that couldn't match the scale of U.S. Department of Agriculture purchases of Alaska seafood that surpassed USD 200 million (EUR 187 million) in 2023.

"The seafood industry is hurting right now. Just making some cash sales is very vital,” Lindoff told Alaska Public Media. “They’re sitting on a lot of inventory that’s going to hurt them in the upcoming season. In that case, it would be helping fishermen and processors.”

State Senator Bert Stedman (R-Sitka), a co-chair of the Alaska Senate Finance Committee, said he’s considering supporting the bill in response to an "unprecedented market collapse in price across virtually all fisheries."

Stedman said he would like to support fishermen directly, but that it’s difficult due to the wide variances in the financial challenges they are facing. Instead, he said he hoped processors will be freed up to buy more fish once their current inventory is sold to Sea Share.

On the federal level, Alaska’s congressional delegation has applauded the USDA’s increased seafood purchases and its plan to buy another USD 150 million (EUR 140 million) worth of Alaska seafood in 2024. U.S. Senator Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska) has introduced legislation that would create a USDA buying program explicitly focused on seafood, and the U.S. Commerce Department added seafood into the U.S. national export strategy for the first time in 2023, according to KMXT. Sullivan, along with U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and U.S. Rep. Mary Peltola (D-Alaska) successfully pushed for U.S. President Joe Biden to close a loophole to eliminate the import of Russian seafood processed in third countries.

“Alaskan fishermen are at an unfair disadvantage competing against the unsustainable fishing and forced labor in foreign imports,” Peltola said at the recent ComFish event in Kodiak, Alaska.

At ComFish, Sullivan said he will be pushing other countries to adopt the ban on Russian seafood, including Canada, the European Union, Japan, and the U.K.

“That way, you could start to see market prices globally stabilize. That’s going to be a challenge, but we have a lot of reasons to do it – a lot of that money is going to Putin’s war chest for Ukraine,” he said in an interview with Alaska’s News Source.

Adding to the industry woes, a trio of Canadian conservation organizations have filed an objection to the Marine Stewardship Council’s recertification of Alaska’s salmon fisheries as sustainable.

SkeenaWild Conservation Trust, Raincoast Conservation Foundation, and the Watershed Watch Salmon Society, each based in British Columbia, have filed a formal notice of objection with the MSC, alleging Alaska’s salmon fisheries are putting chinook salmon, steelhead, and seabird populations at risk.

“These are not sustainable fisheries and continuing to label them as such would be misleading consumers,” SkeenaWild Conservation Trust Executive Director Greg Knox said.

The groups allege Alaskan fisheries near the B.C. border have been harvesting greater numbers of salmon returning to rivers in the Canadian province “as Canadian fisheries have been curtailed to protect at-risk populations.”

“[They] now catch the lion’s share of many of those populations,” the groups said. “These fleets disproportionately intercept millions of salmon and steelhead bound for B.C., as well as Washington and Oregon. They also fail to adequately track and report bycatch.”

They also said hatchery production to boost wild stocks has actually had a detrimental effect on wild salmon returns.

“Alaska’s indiscriminate harvest is preventing the recovery of vulnerable chinook, chum, sockeye, coho and steelhead that are headed for Canada,” Watershed Watch Salmon Society Executive Director Aaron Hill said. “This is having a devastating impact on communities and wildlife in B.C. that depend on wild salmon and steelhead.”

Alaska’s salmon fisheries have carried MSC certification since 2000, but its certifications for coho, king, sockeye, chum, and pink salmon expire in May 2024. A recertification process has been underway since 2022, but the objecting conservation organizations said certification body MRAG Americas “has not done its due diligence in characterizing how the fishery operates, significantly underestimating its impacts on at-risk salmon populations in B.C., Washington, and Oregon.”

Additionally, the conservation groups said the fishery has still not met conditions imposed from its previous assessments done a decade ago.

“The notice of objection should instigate an independent review of the decision, on the basis that the assessment company has undermined the fairness of the assessment,” Hill said. “Consumers want sustainable seafood and they want to trust organizations like the Marine Stewardship Council to help them make the right choices. If the Marine Stewardship Council certifies these dirty fisheries, it’s not just their credibility that’s at stake, but the future of wild Pacific salmon.”

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