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Alaska Fish Factor: Seafood Marketers Facing Strong Headwinds

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US - Alaska seafood marketers are facing some strong headwinds heading into 2015, notably, for sockeye salmon and crab.

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Snow crab is Alaska’s largest crab fishery, underway now in the Bering Sea. The fleet has a slightly increased 61 million pound catch quota; boats also are tapping on a hefty bairdi Tanner crab catch, the larger cousin of snow crab.

A 25% increase in snow crab, the unexpected 15 million pound Tanner fishery, a weak Japanese yen, plus several million pounds of Russian snow crab from a new fishery in the Barents Sea, (not to mention all the pirated crab) – all are combining to give buyers plenty of choices, said market expert John Sackton.

Another twist: lower king crab prices have given retail and foodservice buyers more alternatives, including a new entry - Argentinean Southern red king crab.

Global market forces also are causing downward pressure on Alaska sockeye prices. The unanticipated big run at Bristol Bay had processors producing more frozen reds than expected (while at the same time the 10 million sockeye catch from the Fraser River took some of the wind out of Alaska’s fresh sales).

In the face of another huge sockeye salmon run expected at the Bay again this summer, unsold sockeye inventory remains piled up in freezers.

According to reports by Japan’s Minato-Tsukiji, frozen H&G (headed and gutted) production topped 20,000 tons, and – in the face of another huge sockeye run to Bristol Bay this summer, “the industry believes that 5,000-8,000 tons of products are unsold, because buyers in the EU and USA could not catch up with the high prices.”

Adding to the mix – record numbers of farmed salmon are coming into the US from Norway and Chile. (A strong US dollar means it’s cheaper for the US to buy foreign fish, and more expensive for other countries/currencies to buy US seafood.) Food commodities tracker Urner-Barry reports that Chile’s farmed coho volumes last year were the highest since a virus wiped out their fish farms in 2010. And Russia’s ongoing seafood ban prompted Norway to turn to the US as an alternative market, with US sales of fresh fillets through the third quarter reaching 18.5 million pounds, a five year high.

The holidays boost seafood demand, and Urner-Barry said the upswing could carry over into the New Year. The Lenten season begins early–on February 18, just four days after Valentine’s Day.

Halibut hot seat – Amidst some optimism that the Pacific halibut stocks appear to be stabilizing, the stage is set for some tension when halibut managers and stakeholders gather for the International Pacific Halibut Commission’s annual meeting later this month in Vancouver. The IPHC, which oversees halibut science and harvests from Oregon through British Columbia to the Bering Sea, will set catch limits, the fishery start and end dates and take up regulation proposals.

Only one catch limit comment was submitted by the December 31 deadline. To reduce handling and wastage in the fishery, the Seattle-based Fishing Vessel Owners' Association is asking the IPHC to reduce the minimum size requirement for commercially caught halibut from 32 inches to 30 inches. The FVOA claims that, based on observer data, a two inch size reduction could reduce handling by 58% and wastages from 1.35 million pounds to .58 million pounds.

Two regulation proposals will be considered – one would set a maximum size limit for halibut in both the commercial and sport sectors. Protecting the larger fish, which are the breeders, would help the halibut stocks replenish at a faster pace, it recommends. A second halibut charter proposal suggests retaining a first 29” or less halibut in the Central Gulf to decrease throwbacks of injured fish.

The biggest fish story in the room will be Alaska’s halibut bycatch problem, and driving the tension is a perverse situation in the Bering Sea.

The IPHC doesn’t set bycatch levels - that falls to the North Pacific Fishery Management Council. The NPFMC in December allotted six million pounds of halibut as bycatch to Seattle-based trawlers in the two billion pound Bering Sea flatfish fisheries (based on a formula that has not been adjusted for 20 years). That left just 370,000 pounds for small boat halibut fishermen at the Pribilof Islands for the upcoming fishery, a 70% reduction. At that harvest level, the IPHC estimates that 93 percent of all halibut removals in the Bering Sea would be from bycatch and not the directed fishery.

The communities of St. Paul and St. George, along with the six Alaskan members of the NPFMC and Dept. of Fish and Game Interim Commission Sam Cotton have sent an emergency request to the US Secretary of Commerce seeking a 33 percent reduction in the 2015 halibut bycatch limits in the groundfish fisheries.

The IPHC meets Jan. 26-30 in downtown Vancouver. The meetings are streamed live at

Salmon at a glance - Everything you want to know about Alaska’s 2014 salmon season - prices, sales, harvests, exports and more – is in new Seafood Market Information bulletins from the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute. The bulletins, compiled by the McDowell Group in Juneau, cover every salmon species and region, and show yearly comparisons from 2010. They reflect all the preliminary tallies of the salmon season, but don’t include bonuses or retro payments.

Some highlights: The 2014 salmon catch of 157 million fish was the 27th year in a row that the catch has topped 100 million. Southeast had its best Chinook salmon harvest since 2005 at 423,000 fish. Bristol Bay’s 29 million sockeye catch was the largest since 2010, although the average size of the fish was the smallest in over 15 years. Kodiak salmon fishermen grossed $46 million, the lowest since 2010.

Alaska’s Revenue Department tracks sales of salmon products all year - fresh and frozen, fillets, canned and roe. May through August reflects over 90% of the year’s fresh salmon sales and gives a hint of how wholesale markets are responding to the recent harvest. Prices for most salmon products were down, except for frozen pinks and chums, called keta in the ASMI bulletin. Salmon roe sales changed dramatically in 2014, down 55 percent from the year before. (There’s that Russian seafood ban kicking in for pink salmon roe sales.)

Seafood is still Alaska’s most valuable export totaling $2.6 billion from January through last September. Our number one customer is China, doubling Japan’s purchases. South of the border: Seafood sales to Brazil last year were up more than 400%.

Symphony of Seafood dates: Thursday, February 5 at 5 pm, Palace Ballroom, Seattle, WA; Tuesday, February 17 at 6 pm, Rockwell Ballroom, Juneau; Saturday, February 21 at 6 pm, Hilton Ballroom Anchorage; March 15-17, Boston, MA, Seafood Expo North America.