Bristol Bay forecast goes bust

Bristol Bay needed volume to make up for a soft market, but state biologists say there’s no reason to expect that it’s going to happen now that the season’s unofficial point of no return has passed. Not only will the run come in far less than forecast, but likely come in well less than the 20-year average harvest.

Bristol Bay sockeye, Alaska’s most valuable fishery, is coming up far less than the forecasted commercial harvest of 37.6 million fish, which would have been the third-largest since 1960.

As of July 5, daily harvest summaries from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, or ADFG, report that 8.87 million Bristol Bay reds have been caught. That is less that half of what was caught by this time last year, and 35 percent less than the five-year average.

In the fishing community, some hope lingers that the run will still come in as predicted, but ADFG biologists say there’s little hope the run is simply late.

Travis Elison, the management biologist for the ADFG Dillingham office, said a low run is a foregone conclusion.

“My perspective is that the run is below forecast,” said Elison. “That’s pretty obvious to me.”

Elison said that if the Bristol Bay run were to come in late, it would have shown signs by this point. The test fishery at Port Moller has not yielded high enough numbers, and each of the Bristol Bay management districts have already seen the peak of the Port Moller run work through their own waters.

The preseason forecast for Bristol Bay’s Kvichak River run has shifted downward 33 percent from a predicted harvest of 7.12 million sockeye to 4.7 million.

Traditionally, the Bristol Bay sockeye fishery peaks on July 4, then tapers off over the next few weeks on the same slope as it built in the prior weeks. July 4 is the crucial 50 percent mark at which the overall strength of the commercial harvest will be more or less determined. 

“It’s pretty amazing how consistent the run timing goes from year to year,” said Elison. “The earliest run we’ve seen was 2013, it was five days early. The latest we’ve seen was 1971, it was six days late. In 1994 it was three days late. It’s pretty tight (July 4) at your 50 percent point.”

The data of the test fishery, he said, is trustworthy enough to make the call; the run simply won’t come in as forecast.

“The data is solid,” said Elison. “We’re seeing fewer fish come back than predicted.”

Bristol Bay had forecast one of the largest sockeye runs in recent history: a total of 54 million sockeyes, 37.6 million of which would be commercially harvestable. That would be 60 percent more than the 20-year average of 23.5 million.

With July 4 as the typical 50 percent marker, Bristol Bay will likely be seeing something less than 20 million fish.

“We were really hoping to see much bigger numbers there,” said economist Andy Wink, who studies fisheries economics for the firm McDowell Group. “This was kind of the risk this year for fishermen.”

Small runs and unmet forecasts are undoubtedly a bad thing, said Wink, but a smaller than expected run could solve a lingering issue for the Alaska salmon industry. Due to last year’s record harvest of 41.1 million sockeye, processors and vendors still have stacks of frozen and canned sockeye that has not been sold. Now, that captive capital can move off shelves.

“In the long run, we would have had to work through this excess supply,” said Wink. “This will bring the market into balance quicker. When you have a shift in supply, the demand doesn’t keep up equally.”

Elison’s take on the unfulfilled forecast is the prevalent ADFG conviction that unusually warm temperatures in the Gulf of Alaska are having odd effects on returning salmon.

Part of the reason this year’s forecast was so high, he said, could be that the record numbers of sockeyes returning to Bristol Bay in 2014 were largely young year classes, which hints at larger returns the following year.

Most Bristol Bay sockeye migrate from their Western Alaska spawning grounds and winter in the Gulf of Alaska.

Last year a mysterious blob of warm water in the Gulf of Alaska hiked the surface temperature five degrees above average, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. This warmer temperature can have negative impacts on salmon, as they and their primary food sources prefer colder water.

With the increased food competition from large young year classes and negative environmental factors, it’s conceivable that many sockeye simply didn’t survive.

ADFG scientists float the same theory as an explanation for a noticeable decrease in the size at age of Gulf of Alaska salmon around Southcentral Alaska, though Elison said Bristol Bay’s initial glut of small salmon has given way to larger ones as the season has progressed.

Price points

Even if the sockeye were simply late, the 14 Bristol Bay processors couldn’t handle such a tightly compressed volume of fish. The biggest question is what will happen to the price of sockeye.

Fishermen and processors needed volume to balance sinking salmon prices due to competition from foreign farmed salmon exacerbated by the recently extended closures of the Russian market to American seafood, the strength of the U.S. dollar against the currencies of key export markets like Japan, and leftover salmon from 2014 still crowding vendor shelves.

Prices for 2015 Bristol Bay sockeye have not yet been released. Prices in 2014 dipped slightly in response to healthy salmon runs. The ex-vessel prices statewide decreased from $1.78 per pound in 2013 to $1.59 per pound in 2014 for sockeye, as well as decreases in price for coho, pink, and chinook salmon.

Early reports say Bristol Bay fishermen are getting 65 cents per pound with a bonus for fish stored in refrigerated seawater.

To equal the total harvest value for Bristol Bay’s 2014 record season, fishermen needed an average price of 93 cents per pound if they had caught and processed the entire forecast 37.6 million sockeye.

On the upside, Alaska sockeye still controls its corner of the North American wild-caught sockeye market. The only other sizable wild-caught sockeye run, Canada’s Fraser River, is seeing a similarly weak commercial harvest in 2015.

“The Fraser River is not going to be as big this year either. That takes some supply off the table,” said Wink. “From a market position, if farmed salmon weren’t so low now it would be even better. But even with low farmed salmon prices, there’s still going to be a lot of demand. It was not uncommon last year to see sockeye at $12 to $13 per pound retail next to $6 per pound farmed, and it was still moving, and that’s really encouraging.”

The relative strength of the dollar to currencies of salmon farming countries could keep lowering prices for foreign farmed fish. The U.S. dollar is strong and rising against both the Chilean peso and the Norwegian kroner, currencies from two of the biggest exporters of Atlantic salmon into the United States.

Norway’s farmed volume has been rising into increased U.S. demand, while Chile’s has been falling. Chile’s salmon production dropped 34 percent in May due to the Cabulco volcano eruption, labor issues, and shifting U.S. retail demand, according to the Chilean Undersecretariat of Fisheries and Aquaculture.

Recently, Costco dropped Chilean salmon from its shelves in favor of Norwegian, citing excessive antibiotic usage for Chilean fish. On May 22, Walmart also announced a new animal welfare and antibiotic policy that could potentially exclude Chilean salmon as well, losing them the two largest retail outlets for farmed fish in the country. 

According to reports from seafood purchasers, the lowered volume of Chilean salmon has not yet affected prices in any measurable way.

DJ Summers is a reporter for the Alaska Journal of Commerce. He can be reached at