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Fish Factor

2006 Alaska's salmon catches to top $300 million
By Laine Welch


October 09, 2006

Headlines so far have heralded how Alaska's salmon catches will come up short for the 2006 season. The statewide harvest for all species is projected "at best" to approach 140 million salmon, down 37 percent from last year's record haul of 221 million fish. Regardless, the fishery should ring in at a respectable $304 million at the docks, compared to $334 million last year.

"It marks the first time in ten years that we've had back to back salmon harvests that topped $300 million, and it almost doubles the low point of $162 million in 2002," said market expert Chris McDowell of the Juneau-based McDowell Research Group, the first to come out with an official value for the 2006 fishery. Here is an early look at other season highlights:

For sockeye salmon, the "financial backbone" of the salmon industry, the harvest of 41 million fish was higher than expected and ranks at #13 in the record books. "From a market standpoint, for the past three years sockeye catches have been relatively strong for sockeye. So you've got a fairly strong supply meeting increasing demand, especially from the U.S. and Europe," McDowell said. It also points to an ongoing market shift away from Alaska's primary and traditional sockeye buyer ­ Japan.

Much of the market growth also has to do with a change in fish products, from frozen, headed/gutted fish to fillets. "In the past ten years almost all growth in the U.S. salmon market has been in fillets. Alaska is adding fillet lines fast throughout the state, especially for sockeye," McDowell said.

On the down side, the value of the 2006 sockeye salmon harvest to fishermen might decline. "Traditionally, sockeye from Bristol Bay receives lower prices than other regions for a variety of reasons. This year 70 percent of Alaska's sockeye catch will come from Bristol Bay, and much of that will go into cans, so the overall value will skew downwards," McDowell said. Smaller fish weights for Bristol Bay fish, averaging less than six pounds, will also put a downward press on the overall value.

One of the most exciting market outlooks continues for Alaska's "bread and butter" salmon: pinks. The harvest of 70 million was down by a third of projections, and well below last year's record catch of 140 million fish. "We went from a record harvest to the lowest in about 20 years," McDowell said.

There has been a major shift for pink salmon for the past three years, from cans to frozen fish. Last year, for example, 55 percent of Alaska's pink catch went into cans compared to more typical packs of 75-78 percent in the recent past.

McDowell pegged the average price for pinks this year at 14-cents a pound, up from 12-cents last year. He said there is strong market demand for pink salmon and people are looking forward to a good run next year. "The parent year for those pinks comes from the record run in 2005," McDowell said.

Looking at other species: the 2006 chum harvest of 20 million ranks in the top five. Chum prices also continued an upward trend, averaging 30-32 cents a pound. Demand outpaced supply for Alaska's king salmon catch of 580,000 and prices topped $4/lb in some regions. McDowell said the coho market is "on fire" and posted the highest prices ever at $2.85/lb for Southeast trollers, and about $1/lb for gillnetters.

McDowell said all indications point to an encouraging future for Alaska's salmon industry. "In general, salmon is on a roll, and wild in particular.

"The strong interest in pink salmon is especially exciting ­ it makes up more than half of our total harvest tonnage, so when there is increased demand for pinks, that adds up to hundreds of thousands of tons of Alaska salmon," he said.


Sea lions at the Alaska Sea Life Center in Seward always have full bellies, due in great part to donations of Bering Sea pollock.

"It began with the need for diet studies," said curator Richard Hocking. "For awhile we were purchasing pollock, and then got to a point where we needed to have fish of a certain size to match the requirements of the research. Members of the fleet agreed they could sustain our needs with the sizes and quantities and quality we needed. That started in 1999 and continues to the present time," he said.

Diet studies have been critical to Alaska's fishing industry due to closures stemming from drastic declines in Westward sea lion numbers. Many claimed that removals of pollock by fishing boats were a probable cause.

Hocking said boats belonging to a Bering Sea pollock fishing co-op sort out the smaller 10-14 inch fish needed for the feeding studies, which aim to mirror meals that the sea lions' eat in the wild. To date the fleet has donated 191,600 pounds of pollock to the Center.

"That adds up to about $70,000 worth of products that would have otherwise been processed into other products. We're glad to donate it towards marine research," said Jim Gilmore of the At-sea Processors Association, whose members participate in the project. Samson Tug and Barge has also donated shipping from Dutch Harbor to the Sea Life Center in Seward "from the get go," said Curator Hocking, valued at more than $35,000.

Hocking said the Center's three resident sea lions eat between 20 and 40 pounds of pollock per day, and it is also enjoyed by ten harbor seals. "It's kind of funny ­our staff names the fish by the different boats that catch it," he said.

Feeding studies over the past seven years show that the marine mammals thrive on diets with or without pollock. Researchers claim that drops in population of Steller sea lions more likely stem from disease, predation or a mix of other unknowns. Program director Donald Calkins said he does not believe the decline stems from fishing. "I've been working on this problem for close to three decades and I've never been able to connect those dots, he said

Unfortunately, all Steller sea lion research done elsewhere was terminated in June by a U.S. District Court ruling that found federal managers had failed to comply with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) in issuing research permits last year. The lawsuit, which was brought by the U.S. Humane Society, suspended all field research pending completion of an environmental impact statement in 2007.


Despite indications that the crab stocks appear to be ticking upwards and might handle higher harvests, fishery managers reduced the 2006/07 catch quotas for Alaska's largest crab fisheries: king and snow crab in the Bering sea. The total quota for the Bristol Bay red king crab fishery, which opens on October 15th, will be just over 15.2 million pounds, down about 15 percent from last year. Part of the reduction comes from a nearly five percent cut right off the top due to excessive high grading of king crab last season.

For snow crab, which typically gets underway in mid January, the catch quota was set at just over 36.5 million pounds, down about two percent from last season. The catch for bairdi Tanner crab will nearly double to about three million pounds.

Market analyst Ken Talley said imports of all species of king crab to the U.S. through July topped 42 million pounds, a whopping 103 percent increase over the same time last year. For snow crab, Talley said imports from Canada to the U.S. reached 74 million pounds, a gain of 16 percent from last year. Canada is by far the largest supplier of snow crab to the U.S. with a market share of 92 percent. Alaska's king and Tanner crab fisheries from all regions of the state last year were valued at nearly $152 million dollars at the docks.


Laine Welch has been covering news of Alaska's seafood industry since 1988. Her Fish Factor column appears weekly in over a dozen papers and websites. Her Fish Radio programs air on 27 stations across Alaska.

Contact Laine at msfish[AT]

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Ketchikan, Alaska