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Surge of farmed salmon to market, leaves Alaska fishermen fretting

Margaret BaumanThe Cordova Times
flickr / echoforsberg

Frozen fillets of wild sockeye salmon are selling online for up to $24.95 a pound, but seafood processors and economists alike are still waiting to see what most domestic and overseas markets will pay for this famed Alaska seafood.

While many processors remain concerned over the large quantities of Chilean and Norwegian farmed salmon competing with Alaska wild salmon, there isn’t enough information yet on a variety of data to draw any conclusions, said Gunnar Knapp, an economics professor at the University of Alaska Anchorage Institute of Social and Economic Research.

“There’s a lot of stuff going on, but I don’t feel comfortable until I see some hard wholesale price data on what this season’s harvest is selling for,” Knapp said.

Dropping farmed salmon prices

The base price of $1 a pound for Bristol Bay sockeyes is the same as 2011, which in itself would indicate no change in markets, he said.

Still, Knapp said he also heard of an interview with one processor who did not expect post-season bonuses to fishermen to be as high as a year ago.

It is entirely plausible that farmed salmon prices, if they get much lower, could cause wild salmon prices to fall, but whether that will actually happen and to what extent, nobody knows until a significant amount of salmon is sold, he said.

Meanwhile, in Juneau, Keith Criddle, director of the fisheries division at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, said resulting declines in ex-vessel, wholesale and retail prices of Alaska salmon in domestic markets could be reasonably attributed to resumption of Norwegian exports to the US as it can be attributed to the expansion of Chilean exports to the US.

Criddle said increases in Chilean or Norwegian production of Atlantic salmon primarily affect domestic markets for king and silver salmon, while increases in Chilean production of coho and steelhead primarily affect demand for Alaskan sockeyes in the Japanese market.

Salmon substitute for beef?

Neither Knapp, Criddle or Quentin Fong, a seafood marketing specialist and professor at the University of Alaska campus at Kodiak, believe that drought conditions driving up beef prices would persuade many retail customers to turn to wild Alaska seafood. It’s more likely that consumers who like T-bone steaks might substitute with hamburger, Fong said.

Rising beef prices can be expected to lead some consumers to decrease their beef consumption. While this might create a positive influence on Alaska salmon prices, the effect is likely to be very small because Alaska salmon is only one of many possible substitutes, Criddle said.

Consumers worldwide are incredibly diverse, Knapp said. While some are equally comfortable with beef and salmon, most people who eat a lot of beef don’t eat much salmon, he said. Instead, they are more likely to look further down the meat counter, and maybe consider other meats, pork and chicken, he said.

Meanwhile, this is the time of the year when very high stakes negotiations are taking place between processors and buyers, Knapp said. “Suddenly there is a lot of production and the processors are trying to sell as high as they can and buyers are trying to buy as low as they can.”