ANCHORAGE Alaska's salmon harvests are falling below projections of 196 million fish for all species, but prices are up, as fishers record what looks to be the ninth-largest harvest historically, a fisheries economist says.
''In a nutshell, things are looking up, and it's not just in one or two fisheries,'' said economist Chris McDowell of the McDowell Group in Juneau.
The group produces the Salmon Market Information Service for the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute.
''Things are looking up across several gear types. The overall value (price paid to fishers) will easily exceed $240 million,'' he said.
Prices fishers received for salmon bottomed out at $162 million in 2002, rising to $209 million in 2003, he said.
''This is the second year in a row that values are up,'' McDowell said.
In Bristol Bay, prices are down a little bit, but volume is way up, almost double from last year, said McDowell, who is also a commercial fishers.
''Prices for high-value salmon, like troll-caught salmon, Copper River kings and sockeye, are up pretty substantially, due to domestic market demand,'' he said. ''The domestic market is really strong right now.
''And there is increasing demand from Europe for fresh and frozen salmon. Domestic markets for canned pink salmon, and European markets for canned sockeye, mostly in the United Kingdom, also remain stable,'' he said.
Prices tracked by the McDowell Group for the Salmon Market Information Service showed Southeast gillnet-caught sockeye in late August bringing fishermen up to 90 cents a pound, compared with an average of 85 cents a pound for the same period a year ago. Chums were fetching 15 cents to 18 cents a pound, about the same as last year; and cohos 50 cents a pound, up from 45 cents. Prices on pinks were holding steady at 7 cents a pound. In Prince William Sound, prices for gillnet-caught reds were up from 65 cents a year ago to 75 cents. Copper River kings, which fetched 50 cents to 55 cents a pound a year ago, were worth 80 cents to 85 cents a pound, and Prince William Sound seine-caught cohos doubled in price to 40 cents a pound.
At Kodiak, prices were up for chums and cohos, up from 20 cents to 42 cents a pound. Kings delivered to processors were still getting 35 cents a pound, but were paying $1 a pound delivered to the dock.
Through Sept. 24, the total salmon harvest stood at 164,588 fish, including 99,084 pinks, 43,855 reds, 15,937 chums, 4,998 cohos and 719 kings.
''We bottomed out at 162 million (salmon) in 2002, then 206 million last year,'' McDowell said. ''It's pretty clear we will beat that this year.''
McDowell also predicted that the prices paid to fishermen for all salmon would exceed the $209 million paid in 2003.
On the down side, ''fuel costs were a bruising experience this year,'' he said. In the seine fisheries, the total harvest was similar to a year ago but with fewer boats participating, those who fished had a larger harvest, he said.
In Southeast Alaska only about half of the seine fleet went fishing because of difficulty getting markets.
''They either couldn't make money at these prices or didn't have a market to sell their fish to,'' McDowell said. ''One seiner I know said, 'Catching fish is not the problem, it's selling them,' when it comes to pink salmon.''
Every area but the Kvichak River, which runs into Bristol Bay, came in close to or above the projected total of 50 million reds this year, McDowell said.
Cook Inlet, projected at 3.8 million sockeye, had more than 5 million with several weeks to go in the fishery. While the sockeye harvest came in short of projections, the five-year average is 31 million reds, so the fishery has substantially exceeded that average and will probably end up with about 44 million reds, he said.
McDowell said the market for salmon in U.S. markets, one of the largest in the world, is growing at 15 percent a year, with most of the growth in salmon fillets.
''A lot of packers are beginning to get into the fillet business,'' he said. ''Throughout the state more fillet lines are being added. Part of the growth is due to long-term market success, and Alaska producers are beginning to produce more of what the U.S. market demands.
''The strong market for salmon extends from fillets to headed and gutted fish. The fillet production is indicative of the industry paying more attention to the domestic market,'' he said. ''It's pretty safe to say Alaska producers are willing to go into fillet markets, an indication of a fair amount of interest in the domestic market, and that interest appears well placed because of the rise in prices.''
Also contributing to the price hike has been a public awareness that salmon is good for you, he said.
In the case of pinks, oversupply in the canned market kept prices down this year.
''Pink prices remain low and chum prices remain low as well, but there are changes in the works,'' he said. ''As more of the pink production steers to frozen, it shifts some product away from canned, and that will change oversupply.''
The abundance of pinks also offers a cheap source of raw material important to new product development, he said.
''Pink salmon is plentiful and cheap,'' he said. ''At today's prices, you can get three or four pink salmon for a dollar, and if you are looking to develop a new product, that is a prerequisite.''
The presence of farmed salmon in domestic markets has had mixed effects. On one hand, the presence of farmed salmon has made salmon more available in the public eye and the growth in the U.S. market is mostly farmed salmon, but as the size of that market grows, so do the niches within that market, he said.
''There is a growing focus on those niches and the niches aren't that small any more. The U.S. consumes about 1 million pounds a day of salmon fillets, both farmed and wild,'' he said.
''Fillets are the No. 1 salmon product. Virtually all the growth in the salmon market is in fillets, so it makes sense to get into the salmon market and produce more fillets. That allows Alaska processors to offer customers what they want and to cultivate new customers.''
Meanwhile, there is also plenty of demand for headed and gutted fish, which are used in grocery chains where there are skilled employees to fillet the fish. The headed and gutted whole fish have a lot of natural barriers to bacteria, he said.
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