Alaska sockeye could be undersold by other fisheries

By Laine Welch | For the Capital City Weekly

June 25, 2014

Uncertainty best sums up the mood as fishermen and processors await the world’s biggest sockeye salmon run at Bristol Bay. In fact, it’s being called the riskiest season in recent memory in the 2014 Sockeye Market Analysis, a biannual report done by the McDowell Group for the fishermen-run Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Association.

As presaged by buyer pushback at seafood trade shows earlier this year in Boston and Brussels, for the first time since 2010 the starting price for the first sockeyes from Copper River took a $0.50/lb dip. At an average $3.50/lb, it was down 13 percent for fishermen from 2013.

“Probably more so than any recent year, processors are having pressure from both the buying side with more competition for fish in Bristol Bay, and on the selling side there is a very large sockeye forecast from the Fraser River (in British Columbia). And that fishery takes place in August well after Alaska’s sockeye fisheries are done,” said Andy Wink, seafood project manager at McDowell Group.

“If buyers hold off and there is a big Fraser run, it could leave Alaska processors holding some high-priced sockeye inventory. We’ll have to wait and see what happens with wholesale prices, but in general, there are more downside risks this year,” he added.

The expected catch at Fraser River is about 10 million sockeye, but it could be double that if fishermen and processors have the capacity to handle it.

Of course, farmed salmon remains a big market competitor – and in play this summer is red salmon from Russia. That fish is making big inroads into markets where it hasn’t been before.

“It wasn’t till 2013 when we really saw Russian sockeye going in any significant volume to markets outside of Japan,” Wink explained. “As our sockeyes become more expensive, Japan has been buying more from Russia. But last year we saw Russian sockeye exports outside of Japan go up 580 percent!”

On the upside, Wink said Alaska sockeye is an ever more popular brand, especially in the U.S.

“There is still a lot of demand, especially for fresh and frozen products, and there is strong demand from salmon smokers in Europe, and a growing market in the U.S. market. That’s really supported the entire Bristol Bay fishery over the last several years,” he said.

Sockeye salmon are Alaska’s must valuable species by far, usually worth two-thirds of the total statewide harvest. The 2014 Alaska sockeye harvest is projected at 33.6 million fish; roughly 18 million of the reds should come from Bristol Bay.

Find the easy-to-read 2014 Salmon Market Analysis at

Worker relief

Alaska seafood processors will soon get relief from worker shortages with the reinstatement of the J-1 Visa Summer Work/Travel Program. The J-1 program allows companies to recruit workers from outside the US when they can’t find enough Alaskans or workers from the Lower 48 during the busy salmon season. The State Department dropped seafood industry workers from the J-1 program two years ago.

Sens. Murkowski and Begich were successful in getting seafood workers added back into the J-1 Visa program. On Friday, the measure passed as part of the State and Foreign Operations Appropriations Bill, and it now heads to the full Senate.

Salmon skin cream

A chance discovery by farmed salmon hatchery workers has spawned a line of skin care products that keep skin softer and younger looking.

“Aquapreneurs” in Norway became curious several years ago after they noticed that hatchery workers who spent long hours handling salmon fry in cold seawater had softer, smoother hands. Researchers at Norway’s University of Science and Technology discovered the skin-softening component came from the enzyme zonase, found in the hatching fluid of the salmon eggs. The enzyme’s task is to digest the protein structure of the tough egg shells without harming the tiny fish. The scientists hailed this dual ability as the secret behind the beneficial properties for human skin.

Now, Norway-based Aqua Bio Technology, which develops marine based ingredients for the personal care industry, has launched the zonase-infused product as Aquabeautine XL. Another personal care product using salmon hatching fluid is set to be launched at the end of the year, according to ABT’s website.

Death by sunscreen

All that sunblock being slathered on beachgoers around the world is causing major damage to ocean coral. A study funded by the European Commission revealed the mix of 20 compounds used to protect skin from the harmful effects of the sun causes rapid bleaching of coral reefs.

The World Trade Organization reports that 10 percent of world tourism takes place in tropical areas, with nearly 80 million people visiting coral reefs each year. The WTO estimates that up to 6,000 tons of sunscreen is released into reef areas each year – and that 10 percent of the world’s coral reefs are at risk of ‘death by sunscreen.’

While Alaska’s deep-sea corals face threats from ocean acidification, they are safe from sunscreen. Unlike tropical varieties, Alaska corals don’t form reefs – they grow into dense gardens and can live for hundreds of years. The waters surrounding the Aleutian Islands are believed to harbor the most abundant and diverse cold-water corals in the world.

Laine Welch has been covering news of Alaska’s fishing industry since 1988. She lives in Kodiak. Visit her website at

Alaska fishermen flood Copper River for salmon season opener

The Copper River salmon season began at 7 a.m. Thursday, and gillnet fishermen will fish the Copper River Delta for 12 hours. The forecast initially called for gale-force winds, with gusts up to 45 mph by midday. But Mother Nature sided with the fishermen for the most part. Prince William Sound Marketing Assn.
The Copper River salmon season began at 7 a.m. Thursday, and gillnet fishermen will fish the Copper River Delta for 12 hours. The forecast initially called for gale-force winds, with gusts up to 45 mph by midday. But Mother Nature sided with the fishermen for the most part. Prince William Sound Marketing Assn.

By Jerzy Shedlock, Alaska Dispatch

The Copper River salmon season began early Thursday amid windy, dreary weather. But the gray skies didn’t stop Alaska’s commercial fishermen from crowding the waters to participate in one of the state’s most renown wild salmon runs, a highly prized stock of kings and reds famous in Alaska and the Lower 48.

Troll and drift gillnet fishing occurs earlier in May, generally in Southeast Alaska, but the Copper River represents the first big salmon run of the spring.

Restaurants race to be the first to get high-quality king and sockeye salmon to diners.

Gnarly weather subsides

The season began at 7 a.m. Thursday, and gillnet fishermen will fish the Copper River Delta for 12 hours. The forecast initially called for gale-force winds, with gusts up to 45 mph by midday. But Mother Nature sided with the fishermen for the most part. The National Weather Service is now predicting scattered rain and snow showers throughout the day, with winds possibly reaching about 30 mph.

Severe weather predictions didn’t prevent boat crews in Cordova from ramping up preparations Wednesday afternoon, with crews scrambling to set up their nets. They departed around 6 p.m., hoping to spend as little time as possible in the waters if the winds picked up, according to the Copper River Dock Talk blog, which is affiliated with the Copper River/Prince William Sound Marketing Association.

Marketing is essential to the fishery’s success, and help Copper River kings fetch a high price. The first salmon of the season may cost restaurants as much as $50 a pound, the Los Angeles Times reported.

Last year, the season began one day later, on May 17. And in 2012, the sockeye salmon harvested during the Copper River District gillnet fishery totaled 1.9 million fish, more than one-and-a-half times the previous 10-year average of 1.2 million sockeye salmon, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. While the red run boomed, the king return was awful. Just 12,000 of the big fish were harvested, not even half the 10-year average of 28,000.

During last year’s first two 12-hour openers, Copper River fishermen harvested 373,959 sockeye salmon and 3,339 kings, according to Fish and Game.

And this year, Fish and Game expects 1.8 million salmon to return to the Copper River.

The river’s salmon are harvested using gillnets, a common salmon-harvesting method in Alaska. Gillnetting involves laying a net of up to 1,800 feet in the water, creating a wall of sorts in front of the fish. Reds and kings are ensnared in the mesh, the size of which is regulated to reduce unintentional catches.

It’s grueling work, but seafood connoisseurs in Anchorage and the Lower 48 shell out big bucks for early-season Copper River salmon entrees, and seafood markets take advance orders from customers who want them at any price.

Simon and Seafort’s stocking up

Simon and Seafort’s Saloon & Grill in Anchorage, Alaska’s largest city, will have the Copper River salmon entrees Friday morning. And once they’re in the door, the fish fly off the grills and onto patrons’ tables. The restaurant is purchasing 140 pounds of salmon, which will last the restaurant about three days. Between 40 pounds and 60 pounds of salmon sells each night, said sous chef David Taylor. That’s a lot of business, some 150 portions, he said.

The dishes including Copper River salmon weren’t decided as of Thursday afternoon, but the back-to-basics “simply grilled” dish will be available. The salmon is grilled in olive oil with kosher salt and pepper, with roasted fingerlings and lemon vinaigrette-tossed asparagus. Customers pay up to $35 a meal, Taylor said.

Foodies flock to Simon & Seafort’s because of the fishes’ oil content, word-of-mouth popularity and nationwide hype, he said.

The nutritional benefits of salmon are widely recognized. A 3.5-once filet of wild Alaska salmon contains more vitamin D than a glass of milk — and plenty of omega 3 fatty acids, too. The fats give the sockeyes’ their tender texture, and they likely benefit consumers’ health in various ways, such as improving heart health and reducing the chance of developing several degenerative conditions.