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Alaska Fish Factor: Fishermen Optimistic as Salmon Season Starts

16 May 2016
 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 - Alaska’s salmon season has gotten underway with lots of optimism, a far cry from the bleak feelings of a year ago.

Last year’s fishery was blown asunder by a perfect storm of depressed currencies, salmon backlogs and global markets awash with farmed fish. Prices to fishermen fell by nearly 41 percent between 2013 and 2015, years which produced the two largest Alaska salmon harvest volumes on record.

But in the past six months, those trends have turned around.

“Based on current market conditions and harvest expectations, it appears probable that prices will begin improving in 2016 and there is an excellent chance total ex-vessel (dockside) value will rebound in 2017,” heralds the Salmon Market Information Service just released by the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute. The user-friendly reports include a salmon industry analysis, harvest and forecast summaries, salmon market overviews and Alaska seafood exports.

One of the biggest turn arounds this year is with global currencies.

“Going into last year the dollar was getting stronger against our major customers and competitors. That makes our salmon more expensive to foreign buyers and the competing imports less expensive,” said Andy Wink, a fisheries economist with the McDowell Group.

That trend has reversed and the dollar has weakened against other currencies, notably with the Euro (slightly) and the Japanese Yen, which has strengthened about 13 percent from a year ago.
“That will make our products less expensive to those two key Alaska salmon markets,” Wink said.
Another positive turnaround is with salmon supplies.

“If you want to see what’s happening with fish prices, look at supply and demand. Look at how much was produced in Alaska and how much our competitors produced,” advised fisheries economist Gunnar Knapp, director of the Institute of Social and Economic Research at the University of Alaska/Anchorage.

The loss of tens of millions of Chilean farmed salmon from an ongoing toxic algae brew caused by warming oceans has taken the biggest bite out of world supplies. The U.S. is Chile’s largest customer, last year importing 295 million pounds of farmed salmon valued at $1.16 billion.

“In Japan, Alaska sockeye’s biggest competition is farmed Chilean coho salmon and it is estimated 20 to 30 percent has died in the algae bloom,” Wink said.

Japan buys 80 percent of Chile’s farmed coho salmon and wholesale prices last month skyrocketed to $3.10-$3.35 per pound, up 20 percent from the same time last year.

A failure of Japan’s wild and farmed salmon fisheries also has spawned a surge of sockeye demand. Alaska sockeye exports to Japan at the end of 2015 were up 320 percent over the previous year, and are expected to remain high as holdings clear out prior to the new fishing season.

That’s another plus: backlogs of Alaska salmon, primarily sockeye, have moved briskly all year at retail.

“Promotions during Lent pretty much cleaned out the freezers,” Wink said.

“I definitely think things will be better than a year ago,” agreed Norm Van Vactor, President of the Bristol Bay Economic Development Corporation and former manager at Leader Creek and Peter Pan Seafoods. “Last year we would be talking about all the frozen fish in inventory. This year things moved smoother and we’re sitting in good shape.”

Other supply and demand indicators: Alaska’s projected salmon catch this year of 161 million fish year is a 40 percent decrease, due to an off year for pinks.

Salmon fisheries along the West Coast will be at a fraction of their former selves this year, and Russia’s catches also are expected to be down.

Some of the supply shortfall will be made up by Norway which is battling its own fish losses caused from salmon lice.

Pick up the pace - The state Board of Fisheries (BOF) could vote this month to streamline the way it reviews proposals that deal with oversight of Alaska’s commercial, sport, personal use and subsistence fisheries. The seven member BOF addresses several hundred regulation change proposals during its annual meeting cycle each year and fishery management is based on its decisions.

During a May 24 teleconference, the board could vote to deal with some proposals in a more timely way.

“We want to see if there is a way to speed up the proposal review process on certain proposals at board meetings,” said Glenn Haight, executive director for the BOF.

In the face of tightening budgets, time is money. Haight said the board is looking at quicker ways to deal with technical proposals, often submitted by fishery managers.

“Things like marker identifications – rather than using the old stump that’s down by the point across the bluff as an identifier, they might use GPS,” he explained. “Those kinds of things get introduced, they’re reported on before meetings, then discussed in committee…It would be an attempt to streamline that.”

The BOF could vote on a ‘consent agenda concept’ for technical proposals, commonly used by local governments.

“Where things that are fairly pro forma and aren't’ terribly controversial. The board would try and identify those things in advance and make them known, and if none of the proposals raised concern, the board could take them under consent agenda and vote them all in the affirmative at one time,” Haight explained, adding that “it would allow more time to work on the more substantive proposals.”

The May 24 teleconference is listen only, but the public can comment on the revised proposal process through May 20th.

Blowhole blunder – Toothed whales do have blowholes; I incorrectly implied they do not in last week’s pinger story. Baleen whales have not one, but two blowholes. Thanks to naturalist interpreter Lani Lockwood for the correction.

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