Prices are up, but commercial salmon harvests and forecasts are down

Sockeye. (Alaska Department of Fish and Game)

As a number of commercial salmon fisheries around the state kick off this week, the outlook for ex-vessel prices is looking good. Fishing economists say between lower run forecasts and strong foreign and domestic demand, commercial fishermen will likely see higher prices this year. But that doesn’t necessarily mean commercial fishermen will earn more this season compared to last year.

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Andy Wink with Wink Research and Consulting said although prices vary by species and region, most fisheries should see stable or higher prices this year.

“For pinks going into an even year, we’re expecting a smaller harvest. Just by virtue of less supply, we should see pricing be pretty strong there,” Wink explained. “However, Russia is looking at probably having a very large pink harvest. So, that could offset our lower forecast a little bit.”

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game expects the commercial fleet statewide to harvest 72 million fewer pinks this year. Pink runs typically decline on even years. Returns across the state in 2016, this season’s parent year, were also declared a federal disaster.

Fish and Game is also forecasting smaller chum runs around the state. Wink said smaller chum harvests in the other parts of Pacific will also likely bode well for prices on the docs in Alaska.

“Japan is typically the world’s largest chum salmon producer, but they’ve been dealing with lower and lower harvest in recent years,” Wink said. “That’s really created a lot better market conditions for Alaska chum salmon.”

Wink said prices for secondary products such as chum roe or eggs are also benefiting from limited supply. He adds high prices for farmed salmon will help boost prices for Alaskan hatchery and wild fish as well, and Wink explains that a weaker U.S. dollar should increase exports into countries like China.

“Now whether that will actually add up to more total dollars at the end of the day, that’s harder to say,” Wink noted. “Like I say, we’re looking at a much lower pink harvest and last year was a record high chum harvest, so it’s going to be tough to do better than that this year.”

If early runs in Prince William Sound are any indicator, things may be off to a worse start than expected. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game shuttered three openings in the Copper River commercial gillnet fishery due to abysmal sockeye harvests.

Max Matveev is a commercial gillnetter in Prince William Sound. He said most of the fleet that participates in the Copper River fishery has shifted its attention to hatchery chum salmon.

“I’m sure more than 75 percent of the fleet, since the Copper is closed, started focusing here towards the sound and trying to get some chum, but that’s also a little late it seems like,” Matveev added.

Matveev said prices for sockeye and chum are higher than last year, but he said so far, it’s not enough to make up for lackluster runs.

“It’s just early in the season. You never know if our runs are lagging behind or not, but we’re definitely still optimistic about it,” Matveev said.

Fish and Game expects the Copper River to fall below the forecasted harvest of about 950,000 sockeye. So far, gillnetters have harvested only 28,000 sockeye in Prince William Sound.

Salmon forecasts statewide are down across the board from 2017. Chum harvests are expected to decline by about four million fish and sockeye forecasts are down along with pink salmon.

Wink said there’s no denying early harvest numbers are putting the industry behind last year’s harvest, but like Matveev, he said it’s still early.

“People are wringing their hands about the Copper River. Sometimes it takes a while for Fish and Game data to come in and populate. We might not be as far behind as it looks, but we’re definitely pretty far behind. There’s no question about that in terms of the pace,” Wink said. “Hopefully they’re just showing up late or maybe it’s just a regional issue. We’ll see over the next month.”

A number of commercial fisheries in Southcentral and Western Alaska kick off this week, and the bulk of the state’s salmon fisheries will be underway later this month.

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