Bristol Bay fishers fear last year’s record sockeye haul could affect this season’s prices

sockeye salmon filets
A fisherman washing fresh-cut sockeye filets. July 13, 2021. (Brian Venua/KMXT)

Bristol Bay had an astounding 77 million salmon return between the region’s nine most bountiful rivers last year. Over 60 million sockeye were harvested, more than double the 20-year average. 

While huge salmon returns are great for a sustainable run, that supply could prove a problem for processors. Marketing agencies are now working to sell the frozen salmon before last year’s harvest affects this year’s prices. 

Tav Ammu started his fishing career in the 90s and now captains his own drift boat, the Sea la Vie. He said the 2021 season set high expectations when last year’s forecast was announced, but he just wasn’t in the right place for the big bursts last year.  

“I was expecting to be kind of overflowing with fish all the time, which it wasn’t,” Ammu said. “I didn’t have my biggest single day or biggest single set or anything last year.”

Ammu said although he missed some of the larger pushes of salmon, his boat still had its best season yet.

“It was consistent, but not super high on any given day,” he said. “So probably different than what you’d expect from the highest run.” 

Last year, the fleet was paid about $1.15 per pound, a bit less than they did the year before. They made $1.25 per pound in 2021. Some processors, however, give bonuses for bleeding and chilling fish. But with a record harvest of over 60 million sockeye, a lot of fishers like Ammu are wondering if that huge supply is still lingering in warehouses. That could affect their paychecks this year.

sockeye salmon
Sockeye salmon underwater in Yako Creek on Aug. 4, 2023. (Brian Venua/KMXT)

The Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Association is a fleet-funded marketing association with a direct focus on Bristol Bay salmon. BBRSDA’s marketing director, Lilani Dunn, said members of the fleet have shared concerns about prices both directly to staff and during member comment periods in their board meetings. 

“There’s always going to be concern with an excess inventory because it typically will affect ex-vessel prices,” Dunn said.

Ex-vessel price is the dollar value of commercial harvest before it gets processed. Dunn said the marketing association is working especially close with the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute to sell as much frozen stock as possible. 

ASMI’s research shows inflation is another concern – most Americans are concerned about saving money at the grocery store, so they’re working to help consumers save money on salmon.  

Megan Rider is ASMI’s domestic marketing director. She said ASMI is working with coupon agencies to stir demand among new customers. 

“Consumers are responding to inflation by prioritizing value options, taking advantage of shopping promotions, and especially turning to coupons,” Rider said.

ASMI expected about 12 percent of people who receive coupons to redeem them, but Rider said so far, they’ve been selling double that mark. 26 percent of coupon recipients have redeemed them.

“Maybe they’re a little bit more inclined to put some wild Alaska sockeye salmon in their cart because they have this coupon – it just makes the path to purchase a little bit easier and the choice a little bit more compelling,” she said. 

Increasing demand in the face of a massive supply is a classic way to balance markets, but there are a lot of factors that go into how much fishers are paid. 

Gunnar Knapp was an economics professor at the University of Alaska Anchorage for over 35 years. Knapp said despite marketing efforts, another large harvest this year could push prices for Bristol Bay sockeye down. 

“If we get another larger than expected harvest, that could be great from a fishing point of view, but bad from a market point of view and bad from a pricing point of view,” she said.

Knapp also points out it’s expensive to hold that much fish in freezers and warehouses, so processors might have to cut costs in other ways. But he said there’s no way to know what processors will pay this summer.

Knapp said it’s normal for sockeye prices to vary by about 10-15 cents season to season, but it’s too early to guess how much it will change. 

“It’s a fool’s game to try to predict at this stage where prices would go or how much they might rise or fall,” he said. 

Ammu said regardless of price, fishers like him have to commit to the season long before they know what their checks will look like. 

“The downside of it is that we don’t really know the price until after we’ve already done the planning and preparing and everything, right?” he said. “So while it is there in the back of the mind, it’s not as forefront as you might think.” 

The forecast for the 2023 Bristol Bay salmon run is 51 million sockeye, but could range as high as 65 million fish. Ammu said all he can do for now is to continue hoping for a decent price and to keep up with the big pushes of sockeye this year.

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