ANCHORAGE Alaska's big salmon fisheries are gearing up around the state and commercial fishers are cautiously optimistic the slump in the industry may have bottomed out. Things should be a little better this year, at least in parts of the state.
"We're basically holding tight. I'm optimistic that we may be on a little bit of a climb," said Bob Thorstenson Jr., president of United Fishermen of Alaska.
But Heather McCarthy, a Juneau-based fisheries consultant, isn't so sure.
"There's a sense that we have reached bottom but it's too early to say we're in an upswing," she said.
Thorstenson and McCarthy both agree that a recent $15 million U.S. Department of Agriculture purchase of surplus canned pink salmon is a big boost. It will take substantial inventory off the market, which will help firm up prices for pink salmon.
Thorstenson said another government purchase of 50,000 to 60,000 cases of pink salmon, worth about $1.7 million, is planned for U.S. food assistance to Cambodia.
Alaska's salmon industry has been hit hard in recent years by a combination of low prices and low harvests in some areas for valuable species, like sockeye salmon.
The big Bristol Bay sockeye fishery, Alaska's most valuable salmon fishery, has seen low harvests and poor prices in Japan, where competition with Chilean farmed coho salmon is keen.
Things may be better in "the Bay" this year, where sockeye salmon fishing gets under way early this month. Alaska Department of Fish and Game biologists are predicting a harvest of about 17 million sockeyes, up from
about 11 million last year.
Prices are expected to be a little better than last year, too.
The Alaska Department of Fish and Game estimates the statewide 2003 salmon harvest at 151 million fish, up from 131 million in 2002.
Pink salmon are showing up early and in big numbers in Prince William Sound and prices for both pink and chum salmon are low but appear stable, said Dave Cobb, manager of Valdez Fisheries Development Corp.
However, in Southeast Alaska where pink and chum salmon are the backbone of the regional fisheries, fishers are worried a lack of buyers. Last year, about 400 jobs were lost in the region because of fewer buyers.
Thorstenson said a big pink salmon run is expected this summer and there may be seine fishers who can't find buyers for their fish.
Lack of buyers last year resulted in a loss of about 400 jobs in the region, including vessel crew and support workers, he said.
As in past years, the Valdez hatchery is selling much of its salmon to Bear and Wolf Salmon Co., which operates floating processors and also buys cost-recovery salmon from Prince William Sound Aquaculture Corp., the Cordova-based nonprofit with several hatcheries in the sound.
The Valdez hatchery also sells to Peter Pan Seafoods, which operates a processing plant in Valdez, Cobb said. Peter Pan is trucking fresh pink salmon fillets to the Lower 48 and will begin canning salmon in July.
Bear and Wolf makes fillets and sells them frozen to European buyers, Cobb said.
McCarty, who is vice chair of the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute, helped at the ASMI booth at the recent European Seafood Exposition, the world's largest seafood trade show.
Alaska firms sold a lot of fish at the booth, she said, and the contacts made there will result in more sales later this year.
Cobb thinks the experience of companies he works with show there's strong market demand for lower-priced wild pink and chum salmon fillets. Salmon fillet sales, driven by salmon farmers, have been growing 8 percent to 15 percent per year, he said.
"Our wild pink and chums can compete with farmed Atlantic and coho salmon. I'm tired of hearing people complain about farmed salmon. They've opened the door for us by creating a bigger salmon market. Let's take advantage of it," Cobb said.
The picture is brighter for troll fishers, who catch higher-value salmon like kings, he said. A larger-than-usual harvest of king salmon is expected this year, although prices have dropped from earlier in the year.
Troll fishers in Southeast did very well during the winter, Thorstenson said, when they averaged $4 per pound and reached peaks of $6 to $7 per pound for kings.
Those in the troll fishery could do better if kinks could be worked out in a U.S.-Canada salmon treaty that allocates harvests of king salmon between Alaska and Canadian fishers.
"Because of the treaty restrictions we have to catch 60 percent of our kings in six to seven days. That doesn't make a lot of sense," he said.
Thorstenson is giving a lot of credit to Gov. Frank Murkowski for his efforts to aid the state's troubled salmon industry. "The governor said he'd roll up his sleeves and step in, and he's doing it," he said.
The state is administering a grant program for new salmon product development, using federal funds obtained by Alaska's Sen. Ted Stevens.
The governor also approved a new state tax incentive allowing processors credits against state fisheries taxes for investments to make new products or improve quality.
Thorstenson said the salmon industry still needs to do a major restructuring, similar to what has been done in the offshore pollock and cod fisheries.
Farmed salmon will continue to dominate the market, which will keep a lid on prices, he said.
Tim Bradner writes for the Alaska Journal of Commerce.
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