Salmon fishermen around the state are gearing up for the summer season, and although there will be differences between major fisheries in Alaska, overall the 2001 harvest is expected to be similar to the 2000 harvest.Market conditions, and prices, aren’t likely to be much different either, according to Chris McDowell, an analyst with McDowell Group, the Juneau-based economics firm.An important trend in sales, however, is that more salmon is going into cans these days, with less being frozen, McDowell said.It’s a long-term trend, caused indirectly by farmed salmon eating into a key market for frozen salmon in Japan.Farmed coho salmon from Chile compete head-on with Alaska sockeye salmon in Japan and are a big reason why Alaska is selling less salmon to Japan, and why prices there are lower, McDowell said. With sales of frozen salmon down, processors put more of it into cans.Alaska canned salmon production has increased by 60 percent in the past 15 years, McDowell said. From 1985 through 1989, canned salmon production averaged 3 million cases per year. From 1990 through 1994, the average increased to 3.8 million cases per day. From 1995 through 1999, the Alaska industry produced an average of 4.8 million cases per year."In 1999, sales of canned salmon brought in more money than frozen salmon," McDowell said.Sales of new salmon products like canned "skinless-boneless," in which meat from pink and chum salmon are canned after the skin and bones have been removed, are steadily gaining, McDowell said, but are still a small part of the market.What’s being canned more and frozen less is higher-value sockeye salmon from places like Bristol Bay. That’s because sales of sockeye salmon to Japan are down and Japanese buyers usually prefer frozen salmon, McDowell said.Many of those Bristol Bay sockeyes are still being exported, McDowell said. Once canned, many are sold in the United Kingdom, traditionally Alaska’s strongest market for canned salmon, or to Canada, where some are re-exported to the United Kingdom, he said."We exported over a million cases of canned sockeye last year," McDowell said.The trend toward canned salmon is good in one respect: Canned product is sold in markets less vulnerable, at least so far, to competition from farmed salmon.However, Barbara Belknap, executive director of the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute, a state agency that works with industry funding to promote seafood, said she saw canned Chilean farmed coho salmon while on a recent trade mission to Europe.Canned Chilean salmon is now selling big in Australia, although it has yet to reach Europe, which is a major market for canned Alaska sockeye salmon, Belknap said.Seventy percent of Alaska’s salmon harvest last year was pink salmon, however, and 80 percent of that is canned and sold mostly in domestic markets. Sales volumes, and prices, are directly influenced by harvest levels, which swing wildly from year to year in places like Southeast Alaska.Canned pink salmon markets are stable, if not growing much, but McDowell thinks these markets are somewhat insulated from competition from farmed salmon, unless some technological breakthrough develops.That’s because Alaska’s pink and chum salmon are so inexpensive, particularly in a year with a big harvest, that salmon farmers find it difficult to compete."We don’t have to feed these fish. We can sell pink salmon into the market for about 50 cents a fish. It’s tough for salmon farmers to compete with that in canned salmon markets," McDowell said.Last year 1.7 million cases of canned pink salmon were sold, up from 1.14 million cases in 2000 and somewhat above the 1.4 million cases sold in 1998, McDowell said.All through the 1990s pink salmon sales have ranged in a band of 10 percent, up and down, he said. In 1991, 1.75 million cases were sold."Alaska’s salmon harvest has been large and stable over the last 10 years, but the species composition of the harvest changed substantially in the 1990s," McDowell said.Between 1990 and 1994 higher value species like sockeye, coho and king salmon made up 49 percent of the harvest, with 41 percent of it sockeye. Lower-value fish like pink and chum salmon made up the other half of the harvest, or 51 percent.Between 1995 and 1999, however, sockeye harvests declined, and pink salmon catches boomed. The harvest of lower-value pink and chum salmon increased to two-thirds of the harvest while the higher value fish decreased to a third.That’s mainly due to pink salmon harvests being at or near record levels throughout most of the 1990s, because ocean conditions have been favorable to wild stocks and Alaska’s salmon hatcheries have been prolific in their production of pink and chum salmon.Eighty-three percent of pink salmon is canned, which explains the growth in the canned salmon pack, McDowell said.But even though sockeye salmon made up only 29 percent of the catch over the last five years, it still accounted for two-thirds of the value of the state’s salmon fishery, he said.If Alaska is producing much more lower-value salmon, with most of that going into cans, the challenge is selling it, according to ASMI’s Belknap.Canned salmon is considered a mature industry. Sales are steady, but the market demographics haven’t changed a lot in recent years. Americans are eating more fish, but tuna producers have captured much of that growth, she said.Some Alaska processors are experimenting with new product forms like salmon-in-a-pouch. While these are popular, only tiny amounts are being produced.The Alaska salmon industry may be approaching a key decision point if it wants to expand market share, Belknap said.Processors could decide to make basic improvements in cans, making them easier to handle and the contents more attractive. Alternately the companies could invest in a major shift to new product packaging, like salmon-in-a-pouch.Tuna producers are now moving toward using pouches, Belknap said, and salmon producers may be able to ride with this trend. Alaska salmon companies can take advantage of the marketing muscle of the huge tuna industry, she said.