ANCHORAGE -- Copper River fishermen are enjoying much higher red salmon catches than expected, yet most of the fleet was tied to the dock Friday in a strike against the packing companies.
The issue in the rare midseason fishing halt is price.
Because the catch is about three times the size expected by this date, processors say the markets cannot sustain the minimum prices they had agreed by contract to pay the fishermen.
On Thursday, several of the major packers radioed fishermen on the water that they couldn't pay the minimum price of $1.10 per pound of red salmon and that they might buy only limited poundage from preferred lists of fishermen.
By Thursday night, boats began suspending fishing to try to enforce the deal they had struck with the processors.
Going into the 36-hour fishing opener Thursday, the Copper River fleet had caught nearly 539,000 reds and 25,000 kings. The state Department of Fish and Game had anticipated a catch of only 184,000 reds and 33,500 kings by this time.
Negotiations were expected throughout the weekend.
Terry Gardiner, president of major buyer NorQuest Seafoods Inc., said the big catch has overwhelmed the lucrative fresh-fish markets, including restaurants and high-end grocery stores, where the coveted and heavily marketed Copper River reds can retail for $12 or more per pound.
Now much red salmon will need to be frozen for Japan. But frozen demand in that country is too soft to support the minimum prices in the contract with fishermen, Gardiner said.
So the choice for processors is to either buy fish at the contract price and lose money or simply not buy so much fish, Gardiner said.
The goal for fishermen has been to lock in good prices throughout the season.
The processors and the fishermen's union, the Copper River Salmon Producers Association, were expected to negotiate over the weekend.
"The entire fleet is at the dock right now," longtime Copper River fisherman and union president Bill Webber Jr. said Friday night. He said fishermen do not believe the contract prices are unreasonable, or that the market for frozen red salmon in Japan is that weak.