By WESLEY LOY
November 07, 2006
The state's salmon industry has struggled with lower prices and lost customers in recent years because of competition from foreign, farm-raised salmon, and that struggle continues, said Gunnar Knapp, a University of Alaska Anchorage economist.
Some pockets of Alaska's complex salmon fisheries are strengthening, with fishermen receiving higher prices for their catches.
And while the overall value of Alaska's salmon harvest has nearly doubled since the industry hit bottom in 2002, the comeback is modest when measured against the boom years of the late 1980s and early '90s, when the farming industry took off, Knapp said.
On Thursday, the state Department of Fish and Game issued its summary of this year's commercial salmon season. At $309 million, the dockside payoff for the catch was above the $279 million average seen during 1996-2005, but this year's tally is $25 million less than fishermen received last year. A major reason was the size of the catch, which at 142 million fish was 80 million fewer than the record catch in 2005.
Knapp said major new trends are sweeping Alaska's salmon industry:
- Much sockeye - the main money fish among the five salmon species Alaska fishermen harvest commercially - used to go to Japan in frozen form. Since the mid-1990s, however, there's been a dramatic decline in exports of frozen sockeye to Japan as buyers there have turned to farmed fish.
- More sockeye and other types of wild Alaska salmon are moving into the European and U.S. markets, in part because the flood of cheap farmed fish has helped turn health-conscious Americans on to eating salmon. It's possible negative publicity about environmental and health concerns with farmed salmon have whetted appetites for Alaska's wild salmon, but another factor is that salmon sellers these days are finding an advantage in the U.S. market compared to the stagnant Japanese market.
"Basically, fish are attracted to money," said Bob Waldrop, a former fish-processing company executive now working as a consultant.
- Historically, pink salmon - the most abundant but least valuable kind of salmon, pound for pound - went into cans. But recently, more pinks as well as another low-value species, chum salmon, are being frozen for export to countries such as China, which has low labor costs. There, the Alaska fish is thawed and reprocessed into value-added items such as stuffed fillets or salmon croquettes, which are then re-exported back to the United States for sale.
Knapp said he's "cautiously optimistic" about the outlook for Alaska's salmon industry overall.
"I'm quite optimistic for those parts of the wild salmon industry able to produce a high-quality product and focused on marketing," he said.
Scripps-McClatchy Western Service, http://www.shns.com
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