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Top Species: Wild salmon

Strong Alaska projections counteract California season washout

Trident's Thai Chili salmon won this year's Symphony
    of Seafood retail award. - Photo courtesy of Trident Seafoods
By Joanne Friedrick
May 01, 2009

The wild salmon industry will be pinning its hopes on Alaska to keep restaurateurs and retailers well stocked, as Pacific Coast salmon fisheries are under catch restrictions for the second consecutive year.

Fortunately, if the projections turn out to be accurate, this year's Alaska salmon harvest should be the eighth largest since 1900.

Alaska, which historically accounts for about 95 percent of the U.S. wild salmon catch, will yield an estimated 175 million fish encompassing five species, according to Chris McDowell, project manager for the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute's Seafood Market Information Service.

Of that total, pinks will be the largest catch by far, accounting for 113 million fish. Odd years are best for pinks, which have a two-year running cycle, says McDowell. In 2008, the pink harvest was just more than 84 million fish, 27 percent above the projections.

While pink salmon was in oversupply earlier in the decade, that situation has changed.

"There is strong demand for pink salmon," he says, "and the fleets will catch all that is harvestable."

This year's sockeye catch is projected at 38 million fish, slightly less than last year. Although sockeye numbers have been strong, they are down from highs in the 48-million-fish range in the early 1990s, says McDowell. Bristol Bay will continue to be the state's key site for harvesting sockeye, with about 70 percent coming from that area.

Coho and chum harvests are predicted at 4.6 million and 18.5 million, respectively, up from 4.4 million and around 18.2 million in 2008.

The marquee salmon species, king or Chinook, fell well below projections in 2008, with about 351,000 fish harvested, or approximately half the pre-season projection. Early estimates for this year put the king harvest in the 350,000 to 370,000 range, says McDowell.

 

California season a bust

For the second year in a row, California is canceling its wild salmon season, citing ocean conditions for the loss of juvenile salmon. Without the north wind to churn up the ocean bottom to aid the feeding of the smaller fish, there was greater loss of juvenile salmon, says David Goldenberg, CEO of the California Salmon Council.

The Pacific Fisheries Management Council (PFMC), which sets the season structure for wild salmon fishing in California, Oregon and Washington, recommended no commercial or recreational salmon fishing in California again this year, says Goldenberg. Oregon and Washington will have a coho and king season, he says. And the latter will include 200 king salmon that could have been harvested in California, but will be allocated to the Oregon/Washington season.

"We're hoping in 2010 we'll get a season structure," says Goldenberg, "but we won't know until [surveys are made] in fall 2009."

Goldenberg says California salmon fishermen qualified for economic disaster relief in 2008, but no additional funds have been offered for this year. There is about $50 million left from the $170 million allocated in 2008, he says, and after the PFMC adopted its season structure on April 9, the remaining funds could be reallocated. Goldenberg says some in the wild salmon industry hold multiple state licenses, but the majority make their way into other fisheries when the salmon season is eliminated.

The absence of a California 
season and the conservative projections elsewhere will likely keep wild king salmon prices high.

McDowell says the winter fishery is an early indicator of what is likely to happen with the price of king salmon. Although the total harvest was just 141 fish, they were selling for ex-vessel prices of $7 to $8 per pound.

Some Alaska species, like halibut, have seen price corrections, says McDowell.

Pacific cod is another species that has undergone a price adjustment, says Tom Sunderland, VP of marketing at Ocean Beauty Seafoods in Seattle. "High-priced fish are harder to move," he notes.

Everyone is keeping an eye on the currency situation and how that will impact the wild salmon market, he says.

"As currency (like the Euro) goes down and credit is tighter to get, it will have an impact," says Sunderland. Ocean Beauty does about one third of its business outside the United States, he says, although that includes Japan, which hasn't been impacted as strongly by the recession. The issues in Europe could also impact the salmon roe market, he adds.

"That's almost all an export product," he says, adding that it's doubtful the U.S. market would be able to absorb the extra roe supply. Roe prices were unusually high in 2008, says McDowell, and increases ranged from 15 percent to 135 percent higher than 2007. Chinook roe, for example, was $3.76 per pound wholesale in 2007, but $8.83 in 2008. Chum roe soared to $13.45 per pound compared to $6.89 in 2007. This year, McDowell expects the roe segment to "settle down a bit."

Despite the supply and price volatility, Sunderland says he's looking forward to a good season.

"I don't see pure doom and gloom," he says. "In this business, where we are so accustomed to uncertainty, we're better attuned to handle it."

Product development continues to be a focus, adds Sunderland, especially with value-added products. Once-frozen salmon fillets are popular. And Ocean Beauty's latest products incorporate microwavable steaming technology.

IQF frozen chum and sockeye portions are emerging as recession-friendly offerings in the wild salmon marketplace, according to John van Amerongen, spokesman for Trident Seafoods.

"Both are abundant, hearty fish with firm flesh and a size that lends itself well to portioning," he says. "Pricewise, they offer our customers a couple of great value options depending on their menu, their clientele and the economy."

While van Amerongen describes sockeye's flavor as "the epitome of wild," chum, or keta, offers a milder flavor that works well with marinades.

 

Demand remains strong

Within the foodservice industry, restaurateurs continue to build a following for wild salmon, including branching out beyond kings.

At Salty's on Alki Beach in Seattle, Executive Chef Jeremy McLachlan has added wild coho to the menu. "Three years ago I only did king," he explains, "but now I'm using a lot of cohos because there just aren't as many kings."

McLachlan sources his frozen wild coho from Washington. He also uses Copper River sockeye in banquets and as a menu upgrade. "We have one staple salmon (the frozen coho), but then the customer can upgrade (for $6 more) to whatever is running," he says.

Until the Columbia River kings are in season, McLachlan is offering wild cohos and frozen kings on his menu.

Prices continue to be a challenge, he notes. "I've seen the market go up and down. For the most part, the market has flattened out at the high end. Prices have been as high as $28 to $30 a pound for Copper River wild salmon, "but hopefully we'll get it at $24 to $25 a pound after the first week."

Although pink salmon is more reasonably priced, McLachlan says "pink fillets are too small for us. We'd only get one cut out of a side."

Salmon is the No. 1 item on Salty's menu, he says, in large part because of its strong Northwest association. The restaurant prepares it in many ways: fried, cold smoked then grilled, seared, braised and as salmon and chips.

In Chicago, Shaw's Crab House is menuing frozen Columbia River king salmon, says Steve LaHaie, managing partner. While fresh wild king is available now from the winter harvest, LaHaie says they are staying away from it because of the price.

"Although fresh wild salmon is our preference, we have enough frozen to get us through May," says LaHaie. At that point, the restaurant will offer Copper River kings, followed by sockeyes and chums in the summer.

Frozen wild salmon is preferable to fresh farmed, he says, and that was proven in training with service staff in March. During a taste test of frozen wild and fresh farmed salmon, the wild won.

Customers are also more aware of wild salmon, he says. During the National Restaurant Show in May, LaHaie says Shaw's sells between 85 and 100 servings of Copper River salmon each night.

"The whole seafood industry has done a better job of promoting the health aspects and sustainability of salmon," says LaHaie.

 

Contributing Editor Joanne Friedrick lives in South Portland, Maine

 

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