Alaska's most valuable salmon is seeing more of the world

It used to be that the Alaska salmon industry was criticized for "putting all its eggs into one basket," meaning, selling all of its big-money fish, sockeye, to one customer, Japan.

That’s not the case any longer. For the past decade, the trend has been a steady shift away from that traditional customer toward eager markets in the United States and Europe. The latest Seafood Market Report from the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute reports frozen sockeye salmon exports to Japan so far this year are 27 million pounds, just 33 percent of the total pack. This contrasts sharply with the past two years when production levels were similar, but Japan imported 66-69 percent of Alaska frozen sockeye. Frozen sockeye is by far the most valuable salmon product produced in Alaska, with first wholesale value of nearly $160 million in 2005.

The sockeye market is of keen interest for the industry, especially since Alaska harvests have topped 40 million reds for three years running. The export and sales patterns since 2004 are the most relevant for illustrating the changing market destinations for Alaska’s frozen sockeye, the report said.

Conversely, the market for canned sockeye is facing a glut. While the sales season for all canned salmon begins in September, all indications point to a large carryover of canned reds from previous years, plus above average volumes coming into the market from British Columbia, Canada.

There is a rosier outlook for pink salmon, as fewer of those fish end up in cans. Canned production this year, combined with carryover inventory, add up to the lowest case load in several years, the Seafood Market Report said. "In fact, closer to 55 percent of the pink harvest is now going into cans. That compares to roughly 76 percent in recent years. We’re seeing a big shift into higher-value frozen pink production," said Chris McDowell of the Juneau-based McDowell Group, producer of the market report for ASMI.

Salmon fillets continue to be the biggest trendsetter, and Alaska processors are "putting in more fillet lines all over the state, especially for sockeye," McDowell said. First wholesale prices for fresh fillets showed the largest price increase this year with gains between 27 and 36 percent. The total value of fresh and frozen Alaska salmon fillets from May through August jumped from $18 million to $26 million, an increase of 41 percent.

Through mid-September, state managers report the total 2006 Alaska salmon harvest at 135 million fish, ranking as the 17th-largest catch on record.

Latest sea lion counts

The 2006 population counts of westward populations of Steller sea lions showed mixed reviews. Whereas the animals are thriving throughout Southeast Alaska, populations from Kodiak and further west have dropped dramatically since the 1980s, and they are listed on the federal endangered species list.

Every two years, federal researchers from the Seattle-based Alaska Fisheries Science Center conduct aerial surveys to assess trends in the numbers of adult and juvenile sea lions at nearly 250 sites, ranging from Cape St. Elias to Attu Island. The mix of sites has been surveyed consistently, some since the mid-1970s and others since the 1990s. Population counts from 2000 through 2004 showed nearly a 12 percent increase in sea lions throughout the westward region, the first increase since the late 1970s.

For two weeks in June this year, researchers were able to only survey 159 of the sites due partly to bad weather that grounded survey flights. Researchers were also hamstrung by court-ordered delays stemming from a lawsuit by the U.S. Humane Society that found federal managers had failed to comply with regulations in issuing research permits.

A summary memorandum said the June 2006 survey yielded no new information on abundance trends for the entire western stock of sea lions. The counts of non-pups in the eastern and western Gulf of Alaska and eastern Aleutians appear to be unchanged since 2004, suggesting that adult and juvenile populations may have stabilized. The survey indicated, however, that sea lion declines appear to be continuing in the western Aleutians, perhaps by as much as 19 percent. Find the survey summary at

Alaska fish vs. global warming

Snow crab stocks are marching farther north, likewise pollock and other fish stocks, as Bering Sea waters get warmer due to global climate changes. Scientists from around the world were to gather last week to discuss the ability of members of a family of fish called gadids to adapt to human and environmental pressures. Gadids include 30 species of cod, haddock, pollock, lings, whiting and hake that inhabit the cold waters of the North Atlantic, North Pacific and Arctic oceans.

The conference, Resiliency of Gadid Stocks to Fishing and Climate Change, will include experts from the United States, Canada, Norway, Russia and other fishing nations to discuss what’s needed for gadids to cope with fishing and climate changes.

The meeting is the 24th Lowell Wakefield Fisheries Symposium, coordinated by Alaska Sea Grant since 1982 to bring scientists together to discuss research and help improve fisheries management and marine conservation. The series is named after Lowell Wakefield, founder of the Alaska king crab industry.

The conference was to take place at the Hotel Captain Cook in Anchorage, Oct. 31-Nov. 3.

11/12/2016 - 11:45am