Copper River fishing kicks off salmon season marked by fewer buyers and more uncertainty

Two fishermen repairing nets
Two Cordova fishermen make repairs to their nets ahead of the opener. Sea lions can be a constant nuisance for fishing crews, stealing salmon and ripping nets in the process. (Corinne Smith)

Justin Johnson surveyed his nets and the large net reel of his bowpicker the F/V White Night at the Cordova Harbor in early June, as he prepared for the next day’s opener. 

“So a 20 pound king is a $300 fish or better, so you definitely don’t want to see it splash out of the net,” he said, gesturing to the dip net on hand to snap up the coveted Copper River king salmon. 

The Copper River fishing season started on May 15, and marks the first salmon run of the year with the highest prices in the state, especially for kings. The Alaska commercial fishing season has been through an economic tailspin over the last year. Fishing crews grappled with historically low prices, and processors sold and closed down plants over the winter. The Prince William Sound fishery is one of the most productive in the state, but fishing crews are also feeling the pressure. 

For Johnson and many crews, the stakes were higher than ever – he saved up for 12 years to buy into the fishery, and every opener was important. 

“The very first one, it wasn’t bad,” he said. “I think I ended up with 500 pounds. I don’t think I had any kings. I was fishing out in the Gulf, I wasn’t inside, where a lot of the kings are.”

A man on his boat
Justin Johnson ahead of the fourth opener, he usually fishes solo in the Copper River delta on his bowpicker F/V White Night. (Corinne Smith)

Fishing crews hauled in about a quarter of a million sockeye and almost 6,000 kings in the first two weeks of the season in May. Every year, more than 2 million fish return to the Copper River delta, and crews benefit from strong marketing, as well as being the first on the water. 

Processors offered $7 per pound for sockeye and $16 per pound for kings at first, according to the Cordova Times. But those prices dropped at each delivery, as more fish were harvested, down to $2.50 per pound for sockeye as of early June. 

And start-up costs keep climbing. Ezekial Brown, a lifelong Cordova commercial fisherman and president of the union, Cordova District Fishermen’s United, said so far fishing is good, calling from his boat out on the delta, but he said uncertainty grows each year. 

“A few years ago, there were about 500 boats participating in the first opener and this year there were less than 400,” he said. “So we’re definitely seeing more fishermen just kind of taking a season off to (save) the amount of money it takes just to get out here and go fishing. And, you know, there’s just a lot of frustration in the fleet that you’re seeing these costs of everything going up, except for the price of fish not going up. So that’s the constant frustration.”

Last year, Alaska fishing crews saw historic low prices, with an statewide ex-vessel average of 65 cents per pound for sockeye. Prince William Sound fishermen caught nearly twice as many fish, but saw a 21% drop in price from the 10 year average, according to Fish and Game.  

Over the winter, big and small processors slashed operating costs. The now-defunct Peter Pan Seafoods sold its Valdez plant to Silver Bay but it is not operating this year. Brown, the fishermen union president, said that, plus the shuttering of Whittier Seafoods this spring is another hardship. 

“So that’s a big loss in buying power out here and competition for these fish,” he said. “So I think it resulted in lower prices to fishermen having less buyers.”

Alaska seafood markets are struggling from a perfect storm of economic factors, according to independent market analyst Andy Wink with Wink Research & Consulting. Among them are lower American consumer demand, lingering inventory, and competition with global markets.

“So it can kind of be a double whammy when demand is soft, and you have a strong dollar. So we’re not getting as much back when we export,” he said. “Japan, in particular, Japan’s currency, the yen is very weak…so that just makes everything that we export to Japan that much more expensive, from their perspective.”

There’s also much discussion of Alaska’s competition with Russia, who saw strong chum and pink runs last year. Wink says formerly big buyers like Japan and China are seeking cheaper seafood, which Russia supplies. 

“The US has imposed an embargo on Russian fish coming into America,” Wink said. “But we still compete in a global market landscape, right, so that could be in Europe, could be in Asia, China, Japan. So the prices that say somebody can buy Russian pinks, or Russian sockeye for that’s going to have an effect on prices for Alaska species.”

Permit prices also dropped last year – in Prince William Sound permits have continued to decline steadily over the last decade, and dropped from an average of $116,000 in 2022 to just over $99,000 last year

Back at the Cordova harbor, lifelong commercial fisherman Nick Nebesky took a break from boat engine repairs to share his concerns with market prices. 

“It was rough. I’ve spent all winter redoing my finances, accounting everything, to try to get myself back where I need to be,” he said. “And it seems like this year could possibly make that happen. But last year was awful, it was a terrible price. There was good fish – the fish were beautiful, the fish were healthy, and I see them in the grocery stores. Seems like they’re the same price in the grocery stores, but we did not get paid as much.”

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