Oversupply and inflationary pressure on consumers drag down salmon prices

Oversupply from bumper harvests last year and inflationary pressures squeezing household food budgets have made it a terrible year for Alaska salmon prices.

A near-record pink salmon harvest in Russia isn’t helping by adding more fish to the market.

“It’s a challenging year for all Alaska seafood,” said Jeremy Woodrow, executive director of the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute.

Pollock prices are down, “we’re seeing impacts on crab too, and other whitefish species,” he said Aug. 10. And now, “salmon is getting the microscope.”

The downward pressure on prices started last fall, not long after a record Alaska sockeye salmon harvest hit the market. “Processors started feeling the pain” as demand weakened, Woodrow said. “It’s been a difficult 12 months or so.”

As inflation dug deep into household grocery budgets, shoppers avoided seafood, particularly salmon, which they perceive as higher cost than other proteins, the head of the state agency said. “With inflation, consumer demand is down,” leaving a lot of fish in storage, waiting for someone to buy the inventory.

“I would hope that we have reached the bottom,” Woodrow said, adding, “We are seeing some positive trends” of improved sales to restaurants. Before the pandemic, 70% of Alaska seafood sales went to restaurants, he said. “The U.S. is our single most important market” for Alaska salmon.

The seafood marketing agency continues working to differentiate Alaska salmon from farm-raised competition, funding promotions that highlight the wild-caught and U.S. brands.

But it’s hard to overcome oversupply.

“Russia catches more wild salmon than Alaska,” Woodrow said, mostly hatchery-reared fish. Russia’s Western Bering Sea harvest has totaled 880 million pounds of pinks so far this year, almost four times as much as all the pink salmon fisheries across Alaska netted last year — and more than the total of all the salmon fisheries in the state.

Even that is not a record year for Russia, Woodrow said, but it’s among the top five.

In addition, the Russian currency has dropped in value to a near-17-month low, making its salmon exports cheaper and making it even harder on Alaska to compete.

Seattle-based Trident Seafoods notified fishermen on Aug. 5 that it will pay just 20 cents per pound for chum salmon.

That’s a steep drop from 2022, when processors paid Southeast fishermen a record high average of $1.32 per pound for chums which were not cleaned or gutted by fishermen so that processors could remove and sell the eggs.

In its letter to fishermen, Trident specifically noted that “chum markets have collapsed.” The letter was sent out to the “Trident fishing family” and was shared around the Southeast fleet very quickly.

Over the past 10 years, chum have fetched an average 80 cents per pound in Southeast, according to Alaska Department of Fish and Game data.

Prices in the state’s largest salmon fishery — Bristol Bay sockeye — were just as dismal this summer. While last year’s prices averaged $1.39 per pound, processors’ minimum this year was 50 cents. An oversupply of inventory from last year’s record harvest of 74.8 million sockeye in Alaska is a big factor in this year’s price collapse, processors said.

“The current state of the salmon markets is volatile and future indicators are even more concerning,” said Trident’s Aug. 5 letter, signed by company CEO Joe Bundrant and senior vice president of Alaska operations Jeff Welbourn.

“The conditions we noted are not unique to Trident; rather, current global market conditions are concerning for Alaska seafood as a whole,” Alexis Telfer, vice president for global communications, said in an email on Aug. 8.

Trident is the largest seafood company in the U.S. and is not alone in coping with the market downturn. Paul Cyr, general manager for Ketchikan-based seafood processor E.C. Phillips & Son, told the Ketchikan Daily News, “We’re in the same market, so we’re subject to the same market forces” as Trident.

Grant Hagerman, a Sitka-based biologist for Fish and Game, told the Daily News that other Southeast-based fish processors would more than likely follow the price drop for chum.

“It’s coming soon for these regional processors to drop their price,” he said. “Some were paying 40 to 50 cents and will drop the price right down to the 20 cents that Trident is offering. Some will slowly drop their price, say five cents per day until they find out what’s going on with their markets.”

Hagerman said low prices could drive some fishermen to stop targeting chum, especially at hatchery-return sites that are farther from home ports, such as Neets Bay north of Ketchikan and Crawfish and West Crawfish Inlets south of Sitka.

“With fuel prices the way they are, boats are weighing whether it’s worth it to go out for a much lower price than for what they were earning earlier this season, and dramatically lower than last year,” Hagerman said.

“It’s another pinch to the fleet, not just trollers but gillnet and seine, too,” he said. “And the pink price is down to a dime (per pound).”

Last year, Southeast fishermen earned an average of 52 cents per pound of pink salmon, with a 10-year average of 37 cents per pound.

Trident Seafoods wrote on Aug. 5, “We haven’t seen a collapse in value like this since the 1990s, when pinks went well under 10 cents a pound.”

The company cited the surge of Russian pink salmon as a major reason for the drop in price.

“Last week, Russia harvested pink volume equivalent to our entire Alaska pink annual forecast, and they have shown a willingness to offload inventory at very low prices in part to fund the war in Ukraine,” Trident wrote.

This summer’s Alaska pink harvest has been much better than expected, even with the low price. Southeast fishermen are on track to perhaps double the state’s pre-season forecast of 19 million pinks this year, possibly netting as many as 40 million pinks before the fishery ends, Bo Meredith, who manages Ketchikan-area commercial fisheries for Fish and Game, told the Ketchikan Daily News.

Trident on Sept. 1 will stop buying salmon in all areas of Alaska except for Petersburg and Cordova Sound, where it will continue buying coho, according to the company’s announcement.

The Sept. 1 shutdown of fish buying will not affect the company’s Wrangell plant, which reopened this summer after a three-year shutdown and planned to only operate in July and August.

“Trident will remain open (in Wrangell) through the end of August,” senior vice president Welbourn confirmed on Aug. 9.

This story includes reporting by Anna Laffrey of the Ketchikan Daily News and Shannon Haugland of the Sitka Sentinel.


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