Salmon fishermen predict higher demand, but not higher profits

Posted: Monday, April 14, 2008

ANCHORAGE - With the closure of commercial king salmon fisheries in California and Oregon, salmon fishermen in Alaska are predicting higher demand and higher prices for their wild-caught product.

But they are not expecting to bring in higher profits.

The price consumers pay for the premium fish is determined by distributors and retailers further up the supply chain and often doesn't reflect the price paid to the people who haul in the catch.

"It's similar to a trickle-down theory," said David Harsila, president of the Alaska Independent Fishermen's Marketing Association. "Those at the top get more of a trickle than those at the bottom."

Salmon, be it king or another of the five Pacific species, is typically sold several times before reaching supermarkets and restaurants.

The first transaction occurs between fishermen and processing companies, who have facilities near the docks to gut, fillet, can or freeze the fish. The processors then sell the salmon to a distributor with connections to retailers, including large grocery chains and restaurants, who set the final price.

According to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, the highest price paid for kings coming off fishing boats last year was $4.45 in Prince William Sound, home of the highly coveted Copper River run. The average across the state was $2.68.

Consumers, especially those who insist on kings over the four other species of wild Alaska salmon, can expect to pay much more. As of Friday, a piece of smoked Alaska king salmon weighing 1 ¼ lbs. was selling for $31.25 on the Web site of Seattle's Pike Place Fish Market.

Marti Castle, owner of Yukon Wild Regional Marketing in Seattle, said distributors have to pay the transportation costs to bring the fish to markets outside Alaska. She said high fuel prices and increased demand this year will factor into the price a consumer pays for king salmon.

"The fishermen are right, they don't necessarily get more money because there are so many other costs in between that nobody can do anything about," Castle said. "In a perfect world, the fishermen would get more."

Besides fishermen, others in the industry are skeptical that the closure will be good for Alaska's salmon fisheries, which include the five Pacific species: kings, sockeye, silver, pink and chum.

While some believe the closure is a good opportunity to showcase the state's salmon, others worry that high prices for chinook will prompt consumers to purchase farmed stock or give up on all salmon altogether.

"Nobody likes the high prices because fish are much harder to sell and consumers are generally happier all around when the prices are lower," said Cade Smith, founder of online fish seller Fisherman's Express in Anchorage.

Kings, also known as chinook, are the most expensive variety, but make up the smallest percentage of the annual salmon haul in Alaska. Of the 213 million salmon caught in Alaska in 2007, 563,000 were kings, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

Gunnar Knapp, an economics professor at the University of Alaska Anchorage, said the closures will likely increase chinook sales to high-end restaurants and retailers, but could be disconcerting to those thinking about the long-term future of fisheries.

"Anytime anything goes wrong in the ocean anywhere, it can give people who get their living from the ocean a little pause," Knapp said.

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