Alaska’s salmon season officially got underway on May 16 with the arrival of thousands of sockeye and king salmon at the Copper River near Cordova, and high prices were the talk of the town.
The first opener produced a catch of 25,000 sockeye and about 1,500 kings.
“It was pretty slow to start. Small fish, not too many of them,” said Kelsey Appleton with Cordova District Fishermen United.
Following a trend seen over the past couple of years across Alaska, the salmon were healthy but much smaller. Weights taken on several hundred samples after the 12 hour fishery showed sockeyes averaging just 4.2 pounds, 15 percent smaller than last year when fish size was the smallest seen in 50 years. Sockeye salmon normally average six pounds.
“It’s bad for our economy and bad for our fishermen; it’s not necessarily bad for our fish,” said Dr. Rob Campbell, a biological oceanographer with the Prince William Sound Science Center.
“It’s just been astoundingly warm in the entire North Pacific for two or three years now, and for most cold-blooded things like salmon or plankton or what have you, in warmer conditions they tend to reach a smaller final body size,” he said.
Of course, the biggest fish story of the day was the price for the first fish – $6.50 a pound for sockeyes and $9.50 for kings! That compares to starting prices last year of $5.15 and $6.50, respectively.
“Crazy high prices, which is fantastic,” said Appleton.
The prices typically drop as more salmon come on line across Alaska, but those starting prices are some of the highest ever. It will fuel optimism across the state after last season when the value to fishermen fell by 40 percent.
Overall, Alaska’s salmon fishery this year calls for a harvest of 161 million fish, down by 40 percent from the 2015 catch. The shortfall stems from a huge decrease projected for pink salmon with a harvest forecast of 90 million, a drop of 100 million humpies from last year.
Eat more fish!
Eating trends show some big pluses for wild seafood, but will that make Americans eat more of it?
According to the NPD Group, an international market tracker, the top trend is that consumers want to know where their foods and fish come from. The Group credits seafood for improved traceability and local sourcing, and says that will continue to boost sales.
Good fats also are in. People now know that some fats are healthy, such as those found in eggs, avocados and seafood.
“Consumers are seeking non-genetically modified foods in droves,” NPD said.
That will benefit wild seafood as people are demanding natural foods with fewer additives of anything, let alone tweaked genes.
Along that line, people want foods with ‘real’ ingredients and are reading labels like never before. Healthy and light entrees are expected to grow at a faster rate through 2018, another opportunity for seafood.
Technomic, another top market research firm, lists ‘trash to treasure’ fish as its #3 seafood trend, as more restaurants serve up lesser known fish.
Both market watchers said more people are cooking fish at home, Maybe that will help boost consumption, which has stalled at under 15 pounds a year per American.
Despite all of the conclusive health benefits from eating fish, a study last year by the U.S. Department of Agriculture showed only one in ten Americans follow U.S. Dietary Guidelines to eat seafood at least once a week.
Fish intake is associated with a 36 percent reduced mortality risk from heart disease and a 12 percent reduction in mortality. It improves children’s brain and eye development, slows brain aging, lowers the risk of depression and mood disorders, helps with weight management and more.
So why are so many Americans taking a pass? According to the Washington Post, Americans have a fear of mercury, buying fish and cooking it.
For those worried about avoiding mercury, government guidelines suggest not eating tilefish, shark, swordfish and king mackerel. Instead, choose salmon, shrimp, pollock, light canned tuna, tilapia, catfish, cod, sardines, sole and trout.
“Put in proper perspective, most of us should be more concerned with eating enough fish rather than worrying about mercury,” the Washington Post article said.
In terms of not buying more fish, a survey in the Journal of Food Service showed that affordability was a top reason, and most people said they did not have the knowledge to select the best quality. The survey added that most people said they don’t know how to cook fish.
“I can see that people understand that seafood is good for them. The hurdles come from knowing how to buy it and cook it and really understand the different varieties of seafood that they can include in their diet,” said Linda Cornish, director of the Seafood Nutrition Partnership.
The move away from fish is showing troubling signs in Japan, traditionally one of the world’s biggest seafood eating nations and a top customer for Alaska seafood.
Seafood.com reports that a new government study states that Japan’s seafood consumption has declined drastically, especially among younger generations.
The report reveals that total per-capita seafood consumption has declined to 60 pounds per year, down 30 percent from a peak of over 88 pounds in 2001.
The trend is especially prevalent among people younger than 40, who are increasingly replacing Japan’s once most common food with meat, the report revealed.
• Laine Welch has been covering news of Alaska’s fishing industry since 1988. She lives in Kodiak. Visit her website at www.fishradio.com.