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Alaska Fish Factor: Grim 50 cents a Pound for Bristol Bay Sockeye Salmon Fishermen

28 July 2015
 Alaska Fish Factor: Laine Welch Laine Welch has been covering news of Alaska’s seafood industry for print and broadcast since 1988. She also has worked ‘behind the counter’ in wholesale and retail seafood businesses in Alaska and Cape Cod, MA. Laine lives in Kodiak, Alaska.

US - Shock and dismay were heard from Bristol Bay fishermen when they finally got word last week that major buyers would pay 50 cents a pound for their sockeye salmon. That’s a throwback to the dock prices paid from 2002 through 2004, and compares to $1.20 advanced last year ($1.33 on average after price adjustments).

A late surge of reds produced catches of nearly 13 million in its final week, bringing the total by July 23 to 34.5 million fish. The fish were still trickling in, and state managers, who called the season an ‘anomaly,’ said the final tally will likely reach the projected harvest of 37.6 million sockeye salmon.

Fishermen were prepared for lower prices this summer, due to a plugged global market, sockeye holdovers from last summer’s big run, the continuing Russian embargo against U.S. seafood, and a strong dollar that makes it more expensive for foreign customers to buy U.S. salmon. Typically, 60-70 percent of Alaska’s seafood sales are in exports.

Going into the fishery, a disappointing base price of $.65 was bandied about – coming in $.15 below that was a demoralizing jolt.

“Shame on you (processors) for crippling the harvester side of the industry. This place is a company town!” said a fisherman on KDLG’s Open Line program. “I’m paying my crew less than they would make in a week down south,” and “Pay a guy what it’s worth,” said two others.

“This is a grim reality for all of us. Such wonderful protein for so little. So many fishermen cuckolded by this,” emailed a longtime fishermen.

“It’s not the processors’ fault. It’s the fault of the 2,500 permit holders for not getting together to set a price,” said another.

“Don’t jump to conclusions,” cautioned Norm Van Vactor, President/CEO of the Bristol Bay Economic Development Corporation. Before that, he worked for decades in the local seafood industry as a general manager at Leader Creek and Peter Pan Seafoods.

“Lots needs to sort out,” Van Vactor said. “I can empathize with their frustration, but don’t give up the ship. They went into the season knowing there were challenges and things will get better sooner rather than later. Advances are just that, and the market is very confused. I’m not even aware of people making offers. The bottom line is no one has a good sense of what the salmon product forms are (canned, frozen, etc.), who’s got what, or what is going domestic or foreign.”

In anticipation of a rocky red market, the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute allocated an extra $1 million to push sockeye salmon, particularly frozen, leading into and throughout this harvest season.

“The one bright spot is in the domestic market,” said Tyson Fick, ASMI Communications Director.

“We saw really good success with demos in 5,000 stores across the country that resulted in sales lifts from 20 percent to over 230 percent in individual stores.”

Sockeyes also will get a boost from the world’s largest seafood restaurant company. Red Lobster announced last week that it is partnering Alaska sockeye salmon with its popular Crabfest promotion in more than 700 restaurants in the U.S., Canada and other global sites.

Salmon elsewhere – Unhappy Southeast trollers wrapped up their summer Chinook fishery in just eight days and won’t get another shot due to controversies over West Coast and Canadian treaty kings. It’s just the third time in 15 years there won’t be an August Chinook fishery for the Panhandle’s largest fishing fleet.

Pink salmon are taking their time showing up in big numbers in Southeast waters, where a 58 million humpy harvest is projected. Only 3.5 million were taken through July 24.

Seiners at Prince William Sound are still slamming the pinks with a catch approaching 33 million.

Processing capacity was tapped out and fish were being hauled to Southeast and Kodiak, which is also seeing some record pink salmon catches so far.

Salmon catches at Cook Inlet are above the five year averages, for all but sockeyes.

The Alaska Peninsula was getting some good sockeye catches at 4 million so far with fishermen on limits in the Southern region.

Further west - the chum harvest in the Kuskokwim region was running well below average. The Yukon River chum catch was a respectable 366,000 fish. At Norton Sound, the chum take is on track to be the best since 1986 when 150,000 were caught.

At Kotzebue, which last year saw one of the best chum runs ever, chum fishing opened last week but was then canceled due to a lack of salmon buyers. The fish are flown elsewhere for processing but the one buyer was backed up with fish from Bristol Bay and Prince William Sound.

Comment on changes coming for GOA groundfish - Crafting a program to reduce trawl bycatch in Gulf of Alaska groundfish fisheries has been underway for three years. In October, the North Pacific Fishery Management Council will begin putting the pieces together and they want the public to weigh in on the process.

“The program goals are very broad in terms of better management of all the groundfish fisheries in the Gulf, in providing incentives to reduce bycatch, to better utilize groundfish species and to improve operational efficiencies,” said Rachel Baker, a fisheries management specialist at NOAA Fisheries in Juneau.

The new program will include some form of catch shares allocated among user groups and possibly communities. NOAA and the Council are now preparing an Environmental Impact statement, or EIS, to analyze potential impacts – not to marine mammals or birds or fish stocks, but to the “human environment.”

First and foremost, that includes impacts on fishing operations.

“Whatever the program ends up being, how it might change the management of fisheries we currently have,” Baker explained. “The economic impacts are always a big one to try and analyze – if you change the timing of fisheries and delivery to processors, all those things that flow through and are affected by that. Those are the main things we’re looking at. And, of course, the social impacts on the communities directly involved in the Gulf groundfish fisheries. That is of critical importance and was clearly identified by the Council as an important consideration as it develops this program.”

The massive new program could include up to 25 species in the Western, Central and West Yakutat regions of the Gulf. But even that has yet to be defined.

The public can weigh in now on fish species and all other options being considered because at this point, nothing is cast in stone.

“If people have very different ideas about alternatives for bycatch management, or things they definitely don’t want to see, we would really appreciate those comments and the more specific the better,” Baker said. “If a member of the public is worried about bycatch management but they don’t think catch shares are a viable alternative, we’d really appreciate hearing other ideas.”

Baker stressed that public input plays a big role in shaping fishery policies, adding: “I have been working in this process for 12 years and I am amazed at the power of public comments in influencing the outcomes of the fishery management programs we develop.”

Find the options being considered at the NPFMC website. Comments on the EIS are accepted through August 28.!docketDetail;D=NOAA-NMFS-2014-0150

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