Russian bans add to uncertain picture for state salmon prices

By Molly Dischner
Morris News Service – Alaska
Alaska’s commercial fishermen have hauled in more than 125 million salmon this year, but the prices for those fish are still in limbo.
Fishermen have landed about 72.5 million pinks, 41.7 million sockeye, 2.1 million coho, 8.4 million chums and 413,000 kings, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s bluesheet estimate Aug. 13.
Russia’s recent ban on imports from the United States, Canada, Norway and other countries could affect the price for Alaska salmon, however.
The country is not allowing food imports, including seafood, in response to the economic sanctions other countries instituted after a Malaysian Airlines flight was downed over eastern Ukraine.
That means Alaska has lost its second largest salmon roe market, and also will result in additional Norwegian salmon on the global market.
ASMI’s International Program Director Alexa Tonkovich said that in 2013, Alaska exported $46 million of salmon roe directly to Russia. That figure doesn’t capture the full value of the market, because some is also exported to Ukraine and re-exported from there to Russia, she noted.
“It does have a significant impact for salmon roe markets,” she said.
Loosing a secondary buyer also could weaken Alaska’s position in price negotiations with Japan, as there are fewer alternatives for where else the roe could go, she noted.
Japan is Alaska’s largest salmon roe market, worth about $125 million in 2013, and China rounds out the top three with a value of $20 million in 2013.
In the coming months, Tonkovich said ASMI’s salmon committee will likely explore ways to capitalize on other markets, such as China, France and Germany.
Tonkovich said the other impact on salmon prices that could result from Russia’s ban is an increase in farmed Norwegian salmon on the global market.
Norway sends about $1 billion worth of farmed salmon to Russia each year. Now, that fish could be sent to the European Union, the United States, Japan, China or elsewhere.
Although farmed and wild salmon typically command different prices, the large influx in available salmon will still likely affect the price for Alaska’s salmon as the overall supply increases.
“The salmon has to go elsewhere,” she said.
Another question mark for 2014 sockeye prices is the Fraser River Run in British Columbia, where a run of about 23 million fish was forecast. If that materializes, it could also push prices down, as it’s another source of wild salmon on the market.
Canadian-waters Fraser River fisheries opened Aug. 6, and some American-waters Fraser River fisheries also were set for mid-August openings.
The Globe and Mail reported that Canadian prices started at about $1.50 per pound for Fraser River sockeye.
Pinks drive catches
Pink salmon make up the bulk of the commercial catches statewide, although chum and coho landings also continue.
Southeast Alaska fishermen are harvesting the majority of the catch, with about 10 million pink salmon landed from Aug. 6 through Aug. 12. Those were caught by several gear types, although seiners took the largest portion of the harvest.
At Prince William Sound, fishers landed more than 6,500 pinks from Aug. 6 through Aug. 12, according to ADFG’s bluesheet estimate.
Bristol Bay fishers harvested about 528,000 pinks during that same timeframe.
Coho and chum catches continue in the Arctic-Yukon-Kuskokwim region. There, just 1,000 pinks were caught in early August, but almost 150,000 chums and 70,000 cohos were caught during the Aug. 6 to 12 timeframe.
Most of the cohos were caught in Norton Sound, where managers issued an update Aug. 11 that said the commercial catch would likely be at the upper end of the forecasted harvest of 60,000 to 90,000 fish range.
According to information from ADFG’s Aug. 11 Kuskokwim update, the Kuskokwim coho run also was tracking ahead of the 5-year average while chum escapements were below average for all projects but still within historical ranges. Sockeye escapements also were at or above average at escapement projects.
Cook Inlet counts still a question
At Cook Inlet, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game is still counting fish — but not all of those numbers are being posted anymore.
ADFG stopped posting Kenai River sockeye counts Aug. 5 due to the increasing number of pink salmon in the river. The final count was about 1 million fish; ADFG managers will continue counting the fish and likely have an end-of-season estimate that incorporates a longer time-series, and factors out in-river harvest, but that number is not yet available. The escapement goal for Kenai River sockeyes is 700,000 to 1.2 million salmon.
Kenai River king counts continue, but the numbers are dropping off. On Aug. 10 and 11, ADFG counted 72 and 73 kings, respectively, at the sonar, bringing the total run count to about 16,671 salmon.
That’s within the escapement goal range of 15,000 to 30,000 late-run kings, and ADFG estimated that the goal was achieved Aug. 5, after in-river harvest and catch-and-release mortality was accounted for.
The Russian River late-run sockeye count was 28,649 fish through Aug. 12, less than the escapement goal range of 30,000 to 110,000 salmon.
Kasilof sockeye counts ended Aug. 7, and the total for 2014 was 439,959 sockeyes, fewer than the 489,654 sockeye counted in 2013 but ahead of the optimum escapement goal range of 160,000 to 390,000 fish.
Molly Dischner is a reporter for the Alaska Journal of Commerce.