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Anchorage Daily News | Processors brace for a super salmon season
Processors brace for a super salmon season



(Published: June 12, 2004)

KODIAK -- Salmon fisheries are now in full swing in many parts of Alaska, primarily for kings and reds. From now through early fall, runs of chums, pinks and silvers will also arrive from Ketchikan to Kotzebue. State managers are projecting near record catches of pinks, chums and red salmon in Alaska this season. If their predictions hold true, the state's total salmon catch will approach 200 million fish, making it the third largest ever.

The most notable focus of the 2004 season is the projected sockeye catch of 50 million fish, well above the five-year average of 31 million. The boost is due to the outlook at Bristol Bay -- home of the world's largest red salmon run -- where this summer a harvest of 35 million reds is projected, double the five year average of 17 million fish.

Processors admit they will be hard pressed to handle all the red salmon if the huge run comes in. The scenario is likely to result in some new twists to traditional marketing in Bristol Bay, especially as it applies to number one customer Japan.

Exports of frozen sockeye to Japan have been falling for years. Market analyst Bill Atkinson reports that market prices for frozen Bristol Bay reds have remained below $2.50 per pound for three years, a sharp contrast to the current enthusiasm and record prices for wild salmon in the U.S. market. Based on this year's processing capacity, Atkinson said Japanese buyers estimate Alaska packers will be able to purchase about 25 million fish, or about 10 million fish more than last year.

According to the Salmon Market Information Service, less interest by Japanese buyers has two important implications: First, Bristol Bay processors will probably continue to focus on canned rather than frozen production, and second, significant amounts of sockeye are earmarked for the U.S. market. The SMIS said processors are intent on developing a strong, U.S. customer base for large volumes of Alaska sockeye salmon. Considering the limited interest from Japan and the strong U.S. demand for wild salmon, the incentive to do so is high.

Industry reports show that prices for fresh, wild fish in Seattle are nearly double from last year. European buyers are also placing orders for fresh sockeye and frozen sockeye fillets. In addition, canned inventories are reportedly limited and sales are expected to be good.

It all has fishermen hoping the higher wholesale prices will trickle down to them in the form of hefty retro payments after the season. Kodiak fishermen were generally getting the same price for their sockeye as last year at 53 cents a pound, with 5-cent bonuses for chilled fish, another nickel for (cold) deliveries and retro payments based on wholesale prices. At King Cove, early sockeye prices were reported at 46 to 47 cents a pound.

Good press promotes frozen. Seen in an article from Philadelphia's phillyburbs.com extolling the wonders of wild salmon:

For those who can't bear to be without salmon in the off-season, there are some alternatives. A few stores have begun to carry farm-raised organic king salmon -- the same species as the most prized wild salmon, raised on feed that purportedly doesn't have PCBs and other contaminants. And now, some fish markets substitute defrosted frozen wild salmon when they can't get fresh ... the fish is frozen at sea immediately after it's caught, so it's generally of excellent quality.

In fact, in a blind taste testing conducted by Chef's Collaborative, a network of chefs committed to sustainable cuisine, salmon frozen at sea came out on top, beating out fresh wild king salmon from Oregon. So maybe frozen fish is the answer for the cold days of winter. But right now, it's salmon season, and the fishing boats are hauling in the first of the catch. Salmon lovers across the country are heeding the call of the wild. It's time for the feasting to begin.

Laine Welch is a Kodiak-based fisheries journalist. Her fisheries programs can be heard on radio stations around the state. Her information column appears Saturdays.





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