Boom-bust commercial salmon season doubles 2020 value

  • Sockeye salmon from the Bristol Bay fishery are pumped into the Peter Pan Seafoods cannery in Dillingham for processing. (Marc Lester/ADN archive 2003)

This summer was significantly better for commercial salmon fishermen in Alaska than 2020, though that success was far from evenly spread.

Commercial salmon fishermen hauled in salmon valued at $643.9 million this season, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. That’s more than double the 2020 value of $295.2 million, but still a little behind the estimated 2019 value of $657.6 million.

Overall, 2021 ranks fairly well in the historical averages for numbers of salmon harvested and poundage as well as in value, according to Fish and Game data.

“When compared to the long-term time-series (1975-2020), the 2021 all-species commercial salmon harvest of 233.9 million fish and 858.5 million pounds is the third highest on record for both total fish harvested, and total pounds harvested,” the season summary states. “Adjusted for inflation (CPI, 2021 prices), the 2021 exvessel value estimate of $643.9 million is also the third highest exvessel value reported since 1975.”

The vast majority of that value was in Bristol Bay, where fishermen took home an estimated $248.9 million in exvessel value—about 38% of the total value in the state. Unsurprisingly, nearly all of that value in Bristol Bay is from sockeye salmon. The Bay broke its run record again this year, though not its all-time harvest record. However, that value is still significantly below 2019, when it earned about $306.5 million.

The fishermen only caught about a million fewer fish, but about 27 million fewer pounds than in 2019. The difference was in the size — the average fish was about 4.7 pounds this year, compared to 5.2 pounds in 2019. Biologists noted during the season that fish were smaller on average.

Southeast Alaska came in second for value, with an estimated $132.2 million between its five species of salmon harvested. Southeast’s main commercial species are pink and chum — fishermen there landed about $48 million in pinks and about $39.6 million in chums, according to Fish and Game.

Prince William Sound wasn’t far behind Southeast, with an estimated $121.4 million in exvessel value. Prince William Sound is much more heavily weighted toward pinks, though, with an estimated 66.3 million fish harvested and about $84 million in value for just that species. Prince William Sound also commands the highest price for sockeye in the state — about $2.57 per pound — but only brought in about 1.2 million sockeye this year, resulting in a value of about $16.7 million.

The Alaska Peninsula and the Aleutian Islands also did well this year, with an estimated value of $67.4 million, also mostly concentrated in sockeye. That’s more than quadruple what the region earned in 2020 and about $18 million more than in 2019.

However, a number of other fisheries suffered this year. Cook Inlet lost a major chunk of its fishing season opportunity for sockeye in the upper Inlet fisheries due to low king salmon runs, resulting in a lower catch than usual, though it is higher than 2020′s catch.

Chignik landed only 118,785 sockeye, with a value of $868,635. Fishermen in Chignik lost much of their season this year due to a weak run and resulting closures.

The Yukon area had no fishery at all due to near-complete run failures. The region was only able to harvest pink and chum in 2020, but in 2019, it earned about $2.5 million from chinook, coho, pink and chum catches.

Big job losses in salmon in 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic led to job losses in almost every sector of the economy, but seafood harvesting saw its largest single-year drop since 2000, according to the Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development.

Throughout all fisheries, the state lost 1,078 jobs from its monthly average of seafood harvesting jobs. That may not be entirely due to the pandemic, though, according to a Nov. 1 Labor Department report.

“While COVID-19 made last year’s employment trends anything but typical, it’s difficult to isolate the pandemic’s effects because harvesting employment can change dramatically from year to year anyway,” wrote Joshua Warren, a state economist. “The swings are subject to a range of factors, including when openings happen — if they happen — and environmental and biological factors.”

Salmon is the largest employment sector, with more than half the harvesting jobs, and the losses last year hit salmon fisheries the hardest. August saw the largest drop in raw numbers, with 3,000 fewer salmon jobs than in 2019. Across the year, salmon saw an average monthly drop of 700 jobs from the year before.

Some of that is due to COVID-19′s impact on restaurants — less demand for seafood products made for less profitable fisheries. Health and safety restrictions on operations also made bringing in staff more difficult.

“All of these complications, especially early in the pandemic when little was known about the virus and what mitigation measures were effective, prompted some permit holders to not fish last year,” Warren wrote. “Those who did often reported using fewer crew members.”

The Department of Labor’s numbers are for 2020. Employment numbers for 2021 show some early signs of improvement, Warren wrote, and operations reportedly ran more smoothly. However, long-term risks like stock declines and climate change may impact employment in Alaska salmon fisheries long term.

Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected].

Updated: 
11/11/2021 - 9:53am