FISH FACTOR: Farmed salmon, big Fraser River run impacting 2014 prices


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Salmon prices at wholesale show marked seasonal variations for both wild and farmed fish. It’s a pattern that has been tracked for decades by Urner Barry, the nation’s oldest commodity market watcher in business since 1895. The prices tend to decline through June, July, August and September and they begin rising again from November through the following April or May.

Two things drive the well-established pattern, said market expert John Sackton, who publishes Seafood.com, an Urner-Barry partner. 

“There’s a growth cycle for farmed salmon when they eat more and grow faster at certain times of the year, and so the harvests, particularly those that come into the U.S. market from Chile for example, really peak in June, July and August, which are our summer months and the winter months in Chile,” Sackton explained. “Then there is the opening of the wild salmon season each summer and all of a sudden you get a lot more diversity and availability of Alaskan salmon.”

Sackton said buyers of both wild sockeyes and farmed salmon are starting to push back a bit on high prices. That’s likely reflected in the $3.50 advances for the first reds at Copper River in mid-May, which was down 50 cents from last year’s starting price.

A big wild card for North American salmon this summer is the projected (an upper end of) 72 million sockeye return at British Columbia’s Fraser River. Sackton said Japanese buyers, who have been somewhat priced out of the sockeye market in recent years because there has been so much demand elsewhere and a drop in the yen has made it harder for them to buy, are hoping that a big run will open up more opportunities for them. Even though they’ve been buying less, Japan is still an important part of a three-legged stool.

“You’ve got your U.S. fresh/frozen market, the Japanese market and the European customers. If the Japanese part of that equation is a bit cautious because they are hoping to see some big price break at Fraser, they will be slow to commit to contracts for the pack earlier in the year and that can put price pressure on everybody,” Sackton said.

Timing also will come into play — the Fraser River run typically arrives in August, several weeks after the big sockeye haul at Bristol Bay.

“So what this is going to mean this year, in my opinion, is that there will be more uncertainty about what the final price is because you’ve got a run coming in later,” he added. “I don’t know how it will affect the fishing price except that tends to follow where people expect the markets to go.”

Fish Watch

The first week of June saw salmon fisheries opening all across the state and the streak of warm weather had fish showing up a bit earlier than usual. Bristol Bay’s fishing season officially opened on June 2 and fishermen and processors are hurriedly gearing up in anticipation of an early sockeye run.

No one wants a repeat of last year when the reds arrived eight days sooner than expected and caught many off guard. South Peninsula salmon fisheries are underway, and Kodiak’s season kicked off a bit earlier on June 5 and Yakutat on June 3. Trollers at Southeast have been out on the water for spring kings since May 1 and seiners will begin fishing throughout the region on June 15. 

Alaska’s total salmon harvest this season is projected at about 133 million fish, down 47 percent from last year’s record catch of 283 million fish. That’s due to an off year for pink salmon – this summer’s catch of 75 million is a 67 percent decrease from last summer’s record take of 226 million humpies. The breakdown for other catches call for a 14 percent bump up in sockeyes to nearly 34 million; 4.4 million coho salmon, and nearly 20 million chums. A total catch of 79,000 Chinook salmon is projected in areas outside of Southeast and Bristol Bay.

You can track Alaska salmon catches by region and species on a daily basis with Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s “Blue Sheet.” Find it under “Commercial Fisheries/Salmon/Harvest.” A weekly in-season summary also charts the progression of all commercial salmon harvests and compares them with the five-year averages.

As always, lots of other fisheries are underway besides salmon — the summer pollock season opens in the Bering Sea on June 10; likewise, cod reopens for hook and line catcher processors. Halibut longliners have landed 45 percent of their 16 million-pound catch limit with the ports of Homer, Seward and Kodiak getting almost equal shares of landings so far.

For sablefish, 54 percent was taken out of a nearly 24 million pound quota, with most deliveries going to Seward. Jig fishermen around Kodiak were still tapping away at their 7.3 million-pound cod quota. In Southeast, the Dungeness crab season opens June 15 — managers will use catch and effort information from the first week of fishing to predict the total season harvest, which usually is between two to three million pounds. At Norton Sound a herring bait fishery is underway. 

Fascinating ugly fish

One of Alaska’s ugliest and most abundant fish is set to be tracked for the first time by federal managers — the giant grenadier. Also called rat tails, there are several species of the deep dwellers and little is known about their life history.

Trawl surveys by NOAA Fisheries in the Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska have shown that grenadiers are the most abundant fish, in terms of weight, in depths from 600 to 3,000 feet and have been caught deeper than 6,000 feet. The fish are most commonly taken as bycatch in the sablefish longline and Greenland turbot fisheries. Sketchy catch data estimate that 16,000 metric tons (35.2 million pounds) of grenadiers are discarded which annually with 100 percent mortality due to the pressure difference experienced by the fish when they are brought to the surface.

“There really is not a lot known on their niche in the ecosystem, but just the fact that they are so abundant, they likely have a large impact on other species on the slope,” said Cara Rodgveller, a biologist at the Auke Bay Laboratory in Juneau. “They are most likely feeding off both fish and invertebrates, and also as a prey species for other fish.”

There have been attempts to develop a fishery for giant grenadier, but because of their jelly-like flesh quality, high water content and low fat levels, there has been little interest in world markets; likewise, endeavors to develop treatment processes to make the fish palatable have been unsuccessful.  

Federal fishery managers in February included grenadiers in their oversight as an “ecosystem component” in Alaska waters. That means they will be tracked for overfishing officially, and their retained catch is required to be reported, Rodgveller said.

And while there is no directed fishery for the grenadiers, which can reach lengths topping six feet, genetic research is continuing to learn more about the fish. In aging studies, scientists discovered that the otoliths (ear bones) were variable in shape, unheard of within a species.

“Giant grenadiers have the potential to actually be more than one species,” Rodgveller said. “They have different otolith shapes that are dramatically different, and haven’t been seen in any other fish species.”

Laine Welch lives in Kodiak. Visit www.alaskafishradio.com or contact msfish@alaska.com for information.

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