High king salmon prices, demand causing concern

Some wonder if consumers will pay if increases continue

Posted: Sunday, May 28, 2006

Regionally caught king salmon fillets showing up at Juneau's seafood counters look luscious enough, but the prices they are fetching down South are making Panhandle fishermen a little jumpy.

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Southeast Alaska's kings - like other king salmon commercially caught in Alaska - are engulfed by an unusually high demand from Lower 48 consumers this spring.

A tight supply in the Lower 48 has been blamed for the increased pressure on Alaska salmon, which had already been enjoying a resurgence in popularity due to its pristine reputation.

Prices for Alaska king salmon have tipped $20 a pound in the Lower 48. Copper River kings have shown up at Seattle restaurants for $38 per plate, by some accounts.

"It's kind of scary," said Ken McGee, a Juneau troller. "There's some concern in the fleet about it. They don't want to lose a bunch of consumers."

In Juneau, locally caught king salmon is also selling a bit higher than usual at the grocery store.

For example, troll-caught salmon at Juneau's Alaskan and Proud market is selling "about a buck more" per pound than last year, said Tim Wolfe, who runs the store's meat and seafood counter.

Price listed for Alaska king salmon last week at Juneau markets ranged between $12.99 and $19.99 per pound, depending on the origin of the fish, the store and the cut of the meat.

Yet the Juneau shoppers that Wolfe deals with on a daily basis don't seem to be any less hungry for king salmon, Wolfe said.

"They aren't going to give up their staple here. They may not eat it four days a week, but they are definitely going to have their fish," Wolfe said.

Even though Panhandle salmon fishermen are getting better prices for their fish, they are also stuck with higher fuel bills. Dale Kelley, who heads up the Alaska Trollers Association, said she talked to one fisherman who spent $2,000 refueling his boat the other day.

"The prices will take a sting out of the fact that we have less fish and higher fuel prices," Kelley said. But, she added, "People aren't making a killing."

This spring, dismal events in Lower 48 king salmon troll fisheries conspired to create the extra demand for Alaska king salmon, seafood industry officials said last week.

"All the good fishing areas (in California, Oregon and Washington) have been closed this year," said Zeke Grader, California-based executive director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations.

The West Coast troll fishery is usually equal to or larger in size than the Panhandle's king salmon troll fishery, Grader said.

He said he hopes Alaska's kings will "backfill" any holes in the market created by this year's loss of the prime Pacific coast fishing grounds.

"Otherwise, the markets will be backsliding and going back to farmed fish," Grader warned.

In recent years Panhandle king salmon fishermen have been lucky to get several years in a row of record-size salmon runs.

This year's all-gear quota for king salmon in Southeast waters is down about 50,000 fish from last year, but it's still pretty high, said Alaska Department of Fish and Game commercial troll biologist Brian Lynch.

The king salmon are a new infusion of cash for the region's gillnetters, who have been able to harvest Taku and Stikine kings for the second time in 30 years this year.

Increasingly sophisticated marketing efforts have helped net steadily improving prices for the Panhandle's salmon, in both the troll and gillnet fleets.

"It's obvious that wild fish is very hot right now," Kelley said.

But, Kelley said, Alaska fishermen are not gloating they are able to catch kings and their Lower 48 counterparts aren't.

"It's tragic and unfair, considering all that they have done to restore the poor runs. ... We all rely on each other in this industry. It's not good for Alaska fishermen that these guys (in the Lower 48) are shut down," Kelley said.

"It's not the way you want to see prices increase," Lynch agreed.

The California, Oregon and Washington commercial king salmon fisheries are barely straggling along this year after a federal fisheries council decided to close down a wide swath of the West coast king salmon fishing grounds due to poor numbers on the Klamath River.

Other king salmon stocks, like the Sacramento River's, are doing well. But due to the council's recent action to curtail the fisheries, troll fishermen aren't getting a piece of that action, Kelley said.

Salmon processors in Juneau and Washington state said the Lower 48 closures are a major factor behind the increased price for Alaska salmon.

"The world has been clamoring for king salmon. All of a sudden, there aren't as many fish and the price goes up even more," said Eric Norman, plant manager for Taku Smokeries/Fisheries.

In 2006, Panhandle salmon may end up fetching the highest prices seen in 15 to 20 years, Norman predicted.

Juneau's gillnet fleet had a $1 million king salmon fishery in 2005. But this year, the gillnetters will have "less fish to deal with" from the Taku River run and may only make half of that amount, Norman said.

The good news is that the gillnetters so far are receiving about $5.25 per pound for their Taku kings, Norman said. The price last year was $3 per pound.

Wolfe, of Alaskan and Proud, said he doesn't recall ever paying fishermen as much as he is now for local, troll-caught salmon. He is paying area fishermen $6.50 per pound, translating roughly to counter prices between $12.99 and $13.99 per pound.

"It's probably a buck more (per pound) than what I was paying last year," not including the extra freight cost, Wolfe said.

"I've been selling everything I get," Wolfe said, but he added, his customers aren't "wild" about the price.

• Elizabeth Bluemink can be reached at elizabeth.bluemink@juneauempire.com.

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