From bust to boom: Bristol Bay late red surge continues

Bristol Bay’s sockeye run has not only blasted through a record-setting late finish, but bumped Alaska’s statewide red salmon harvest near the sizable 2014 total in doing so.

As of July 22, the Bristol Bay sockeye salmon harvest totaled 34.9 million fish, nearly 12 million more than the historical average for this point in the season.

In its last week the commercial fleet brought in 12.9 million fish, 10 million more than the historical average for that week. At this rate, biologists say meeting the projected 37.6 million fish commercial harvest is likely.

As of July 20, that puts the statewide sockeye salmon harvest at 42.2 million fish. This puts 2015 on track to match the 2014 harvest of 43.6 million, a record catch that left many processors overstocked with canned and frozen product.

Bristol Bay’s unpredictability has caused a freeze in the seafood industry. Buyers are reluctant to make deals until the season wraps up.

In the meantime, sockeye prices in the Bay are rumored to be at a low not seen since 2001 when farmed salmon began flooding markets, between 40 cents and 60 cents per pound depending on the processing facility. Trident has officially posted a price of 50 cents per pound, nearly half the projected price needed to sustain last year’s value.

To equal the total harvest value for Bristol Bay’s 2014 season, fishermen will have to bring in an average price of 93 cents per pound if they manage to catch and process the entire forecast amount of sockeye, according to a report from McDowell Group, a Juneau-based research firm.

From 2005 through 2014, the average price for Bristol Bay sockeye is 98 cents per pound. From 2010-2014, the average price was $1.26 per pound. Russian seafood import bans, which were recently extended, have eaten into the valuable sockeye roe market, softening the global market and lowering prices for salmon sellers stuffed with the massive 2014 harvest.

Bristol Bay’s 2015 season has been hectic.

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game, or ADFG, forecast Alaska’s most valuable fishery to have a commercial harvest of 37.6 million fish, nearly 60 percent more than the 20-year average of 23.5 million. Then the preseason forecast for Bristol Bay’s Kvichak River run was adjusted downward 33 percent from a predicted harvest of 7.12 million sockeye to 4.7 million, bringing the official forecast for the entire bay down from 37.6 million.

Next, early season fish came in substantially underweight, which will offset the entire season’s average weight, according to biologists.

The historical midpoint of July 4 came and went with only 8.87 million fish harvested, less that half of what was caught by this time last year, and 35 percent less than the five-year average. All signs pointed to a Bristol Bay harvest of less than 20 million puny fish.

Finally, the sockeye have now returned in full vigor later than any comparably sized run. According to Brazil, only 1971 had seen this late a run, but the harvest of 15 million salmon was not even biologically analogous to 2015. The 2015 run is a historical anomaly.

DJ Summers can be reached at [email protected].

Updated: 
11/20/2016 - 3:16pm