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Top Species: Wild salmon in Alaska? Think pink

Always popular, rarely predictable

By Joanne Friedrick
September 01, 2013

Planning, projecting and prophesying can’t accurately predict the outcome of the yearly running of the salmon. After all, it is subject to all the vagaries that come with being a wild species.

The salmon arrived early this year in several Alaska rivers, the largest domestic wild salmon source. According to Andy Wink, an analyst with The McDowell Group in Juneau, Alaska, both Bristol Bay and Prince William Sound sockeye came in early but were likely to fall below projections, he says.

“It’s too early to tell, but Southeast chum might miss the projection, too,” he adds. Data was preliminary, so Wink was taking a wait-and-see approach on both pinks and chums. 

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game had predicted the 2013 salmon harvest at 179 million fish, or 14 percent above the five-year average and 5 percent higher than the 10-year average.

Pinks were expected to be the biggest factor in the overall total, with a projected 117 million fish.

In late July chum prices were down about 30 percent, or 25 cents per pound, Wink says, while Bristol Bay sockeye prices were $1.50 a pound, up from $1 a pound last year. (For more pricing information, see the salmon Market Report)

That jives with pricing seen by Dan Kim, general manager at Alaskan Feast at the Fulton Fish Market in the Bronx, N.Y. The distributor deals in fresh kings and sockeyes.

Kim says prices have been higher than normal, although “they haven’t been grossly obscene.” Customers are still buying, he says, so the price isn’t out of line.

Educated buyers know there usually is a premium to be paid for wild salmon, he says. But there is also a difference in the texture, taste and color profile, which appeal to connoisseurs.

Many of Alaskan Feast’s customers are white-tablecloth restaurants that prefer wild over farmed salmon. Yet most don’t make an issue regarding the traceability of an individual fish, says Kim.

With the exception of Copper River, which Kim says has done a good job of marketing its locale, just knowing that the salmon is wild is enough. “Some chefs ask where it was caught, but they don’t want anything in writing,” he adds.

Requiring labeling for sustainability and traceability is more a function of national retailers, says Kim. 

In early August Walmart told its suppliers it would only purchase wild salmon that was Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) certified, or from a fishery involved in a Fishery Improvement Project.

Last year, Alaska’s major salmon processors decided to switch from MSC certification to Responsible Fisheries Management Certification, which is based on criteria from the United 
Nations Food and Agriculture Organization. This is the same type of certification program that was adopted by Iceland previously for its haddock saithe and golden red fish.

“The demand for wild Alaska salmon remains tremendously strong regardless of any one certification or another,” says Tyson Fick, communications director for the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute (ASMI).

“Customers understand that the fishery is one of the most well managed in the world and the product is very high quality, healthy and delicious. The letter from Walmart [to its suppliers] just underscores the concerns many in the industry and the state of Alaska had with the NGO model of certification, market access and brand erosion, which is why [some Alaska processors] dropped the program in the first place,” says Fick. “Regardless of what Walmart plans to do in the future, the market for wild Alaska salmon remains solid.”

Walmart officials were scheduled to meet with ASMI early this month to discuss the sourcing issue, added Fick.

Savoring while protecting 

While sustainability certification is one topic on the minds of the salmon industry, the Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Association (BBRSDA) is trying to step up awareness of the potential threat from Pebble Mine, a proposed mineral exploration project that could impact salmon spawning and rearing habitat at the headwaters of Bristol Bay.

Beth Poole, marketing coordinator for BBRSDA, says Bristol Bay represents the largest sockeye run and encompasses 1,800 fishermen. Through a program called “Savor Bristol Bay,” the group is working with chefs and retailers to raise awareness about the fishery, how salmon is harvested and how the potential mine could impact that fishery.

The program involved 80 restaurants nationwide, says Poole. Some held one-night events, others created month-long specials in June and July and others offered dinner-and-a movie nights at which they showed the documentary on Bristol Bay called “Red Gold.” The events were coordinated in partnership with the Chefs Collaborative in Boston, she adds.

On the retail side, more than 3,200 retailers have been promoting Bristol Bay sockeye at their counters using various POS materials such as posters, recipe cards and brochures. Poole says Kroger was among the major retailers involved, featuring sockeye from mid-August through this month.  

Poole says BBRSDA is working with a coalition of supporters to protect Bristol Bay “through education and awareness on all levels.”

The mine has been in the permitting process off and on since 2004, first with Northern Dynasty Minerals and then under the Pebble Partnership, which began but then delayed the permitting plan in 2010. In the meantime, the Environmental Protection Agency [EPA] conducted a watershed assessment using three hypothetical mine proposals. A new project proposal is expected to seek permitting this year. According to EPA, the mine could impact hundreds of miles of streams and thousands of acres of wetlands.  

Always in demand 

Fresh wild salmon, whether from Bristol Bay or elsewhere in the Pacific Northwest, is sought after throughout its short season.

Liz Horan, a counterperson at Atlantic Seafood Market in Old Saybrook, Conn., says fresh salmon is a limited-time item at the market and thus highly prized by customers.

“People are really going for the sockeye,” she says, which was selling for $14.99 a pound for fillets in August, while king was priced at $16.99. The store’s customers are moving away from farmed salmon, especially when prices are comparable. Atlantic Seafood was offering farmed Norwegian salmon for the same price as wild sockeye.

“People like the idea that it is fresh-caught in Alaska,” she says.

Smoked salmon is also getting more traction among buyers, says Kim from Alaskan Feast. His company offers the Benefishal brand of smoked wild keta and sockeye. 

“Customers are looking for different uses for wild product and we’ve seen an increased demand for it,” he says, whether it’s cold or hot-smoked product.

Not all wild salmon stays within the U.S. market; some of goes to Japan, the European Union and Canada.

The McDowell Group’s Wink notes sales of sockeye to Japan, the leading export market, were down last year, but the domestic market picked up the slack. 

And more sockeye was also processed as canned salmon, he adds. As of January 2013, canned sockeye inventory was estimated at 475,000 48-tall case equivalent, up from the low point of 358,000 cases in January 2011, according to ASMI.

Because of some issues with imported farmed salmon —mortality issues with Chilean product and a recent port strike that slowed shipments — Wink estimates the sockeye market would be tight this year. 


Contributing Editor Joanne Friedrick lives in Portland, Maine



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