Bristol Bay sockeye output blows last season out of water

For the third season in a row, the world’s largest sockeye salmon run featured above-average numbers, a late run, and sub-average prices for the fishermen. Unlike last year, however, the fishermen’s pockets so far aren’t as empty in 2016, and the overall market outlook seems to have improved.

In terms of output, the summer of 2016 blew even last year’s sockeye season out of the water.

“The 2016 inshore Bristol Bay sockeye salmon run of 51.4 million fish ranks 2nd out of the last 20 years (1996–2015) and was 46 percent above the 35.1 million average run for the same period,” according to a season summary from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

Along with being above average run, the 2016 Bristol Bay sockeye harvest surpassed ADFG forecasts.

“The 37.3 million sockeye salmon commercial harvest was 26 percent above the 29.5 million preseason forecast,” the summary reads. “All escapement goals were met or exceeded, with a total sockeye salmon escapement of 14.1 million fish. A total of 29,545 chinook salmon were harvested in Bristol Bay in 2016.”

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The 2016 season repeated that of 2015 not only in quantity, but also in run particulars that made last year’s harvest so strange, including timing and fish size.

“The 2016 sockeye salmon run timing was similar to 2015 as it was one of the latest on record, approximately seven days late,” reads the report. “Fish weights and lengths were smaller than the historical average with an average sockeye salmon weight of 5.4 pounds, but overall fish were slightly larger than 2015.”

The ex-vessel price for the salmon — what processors pay the fishermen — was above the final price for the 2015 season but still 25 percent below average. Processors paid 76 cents per pound for Bristol Bay sockeye.

Only the run’s volume made contributed to the overall value’s health. ADFG estimates the ex-vessel value at $156.2 million, which is 40 percent above the 20-year average of $111 million.

This marks the fourth and largest in a series of high volume years for Bristol Bay, part of a confluence of factors leading to depressed ex-vessel prices in 2015. In that year, fishermen received 50 cents per pound, half the average of 99 cents. The U.S. dollar’s strength against key export markets collided with oversupply for Alaska processors.

Tyson Fick, communications director for the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute, or ASMI, said this year’s situation differs, though some of market particulars are similar to last year.

“Some of the same factors are still there like the value of the dollar, the strength of the dollar being difficult in export markets,” said Fick. “That alleviated somewhat in Japan, so that’s done well for us. Our marketing efforts were pretty successful in stimulating more demand to match that supply, and we should see a nice increase in domestic demand throughout the year as people bring on refresh programs nationwide.”

ASMI is a collaboration between industry and the state to increase the value and markets for Alaska seafood.

Fick said ASMI has aggressively focused on expanding domestic consumption over the last year, and the results have been paying off for processors looking to move stockpiled salmon. The U.S. Department of Agriculture also helped with a series of purchases of canned salmon, the last of which neared $6 million.

“(Strategies) would include promotions that are very much focused on moving volume, partnered with retailers and distributors, and also the USDA canned salmon buys,” Fick said. “They’ve been trickling in pretty regularly over the last couple of years. There’s also interest in frozen portions. It’s a large customer. It’s millions of dollars. It goes a long way in correcting the market by using some of these programs that farmers have been using for years.”

Alaska processors also had less supply to compete with from other sockeye producing regions, notably Canada’s Fraser River, which harvested far below average.

“Places like the Fraser River, that just didn’t happen,” Fick said. “That’s big for us. That was part of the multi-year lead up to the prices last year, that huge batch of supply from the previous year in Canada on top of prices.”

Tim Sands, the area management biologist for Bristol Bay’s commercial fishery, said despite the off timing and the fish’s small size, the 2016 sockeye run was successful for the overall health of the system.

“The run timing being so much more protracted and later is definitely a twist that took some getting used to,” he said. “Biologically, all our escapement goals were achieved or exceeded. That’s the best we can hope for biologically speaking.”

Fishermen themselves adjusted better than in 2015, when processors sent many fishermen home after the run passed its historical midpoint. In several Alaska fisheries, weird is the new normal, and in Bristol Bay the fishermen remembered to roll with it.

“Certainly, industry was better,” said Sands. “They didn’t send their boats out too soon, there wasn’t the big stretch of limits we had in 2015. That made a big difference in what the escapements ended up being and what the harvest ended up being. I think the fishermen weren’t as surprised as they were in 2015 when things were so late.”

• DJ Summers is a reporter for the Alaska Journal of Commerce. He can be reached at daniel.summers@alaskajournal.com

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