Cook Inlet salmon pricing uncertain

Posted: Tuesday, June 24, 2003

Thursday marks the opening of the upper Cook Inlet commercial salmon fishery, and the occasion promises ebbs and few tides for the nearly 1,000 sockeye driftnet and setnet fishers expected to participate this summer.

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game has forecast a total harvest of 2.4 million red salmon for sport, personal use and commercial harvest. This is about 200,000 more than last year's forecast, but falls short of the number of fish actually harvested, said Fish and Game commercial fisheries biologist Jeff Fox.

Fox said between 2 million and 2.1 million fish would be left for commercial fishers.

"The way we do forecasting, there is about 1 million difference," he said. "We probably typically tend to underforecast."

These numbers still fall below the 20-year average harvest in the upper Cook Inlet of about 4 million fish. But Fox said some may take a "glass-is-half-full" view of last year's harvest in anticipation of the coming season.

"The forecast last year was for roughly a 2 million harvest, and we got 3 million," he said. "The optimist is hoping we get the same this year as last year."

How much fishers will be paid remains in the air. Upper inlet fishers were paid an average base of about 60 cents per pound. United Cook Inlet Driftnetting Associ-ation executive director Roland Maw said prices from Kodiak, Bristol Bay, Prince William Sound and Chignik generally were indicators for where inlet prices would be set.

"Knowing what's out in Chig-nik, the Bay, Area M (King Salmon) and Kodiak is an indicator of where the market currently is," he said.

According to price tracking sheets compiled by the Juneau-based research firm, The McDow-ell Group, Kodiak prices from last week were around 53 cents per pound.

But the McDowell report listed Lower Cook Inlet setnet prices at $1.40 per pound. Maw said parts of Prince William Sound also were paying about $1.40 per pound, and there were "unconfirmed reports that the price in Kodiak is moving back up."

Jeff Berger, president of Deep Creek Packaging in Ninilchik, would not predict a price, but speculated that stagnant sales of wild Alaska salmon in Japan still may impact prices. What had historically been the largest segment of the market continues to suffer to farmed salmon, he said, although new domestic awareness of the benefits of wild salmon is growing.

"I don't think there was anything to change in our export sales," he said. "Our (export) product has been to one country, and now they have alternatives. But there has been some resurgence in domestic sales. People are starting to see the difference in wild Alaskan and foreign import products."

Berger said establishing inlet salmon as a preferred household name is what would improve prices, and that is what he and other fishers and processor are shooting for with their participation in the Cook Inlet Salmon Branding program.

"We need to respond by creating the perception in the mind of the consumer of the superiority of Kenai Wild," he said. "Certainly, that is what we are trying to achieve. The reality of that has not materialized, however."

Nikiski fisher Merrill McGahan said he was optimistic that things would look good for the upper inlet fishers at the end of the summer.

"On the average, we'd like to see 80 cents per pound or more including delivery fees," he said. "It would be nice if we could see $1.50, or even more on the Kenai Wild fish."

McGahan said he was confident that fishers could get those figures because, like Berger, he said he believes the domestic market is growing in demand.

"There's getting to be a lot more people interested in our wild salmon," McGahan said.

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