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Fit for a king

With chinook demand off the charts, buyers look to other wild Pacific species and farmed product

By Steven Hedlund
July 01, 2008

Coveted for the immense fat reserve it amasses to migrate hundreds of miles up river - the source of its pronounced, buttery, rich flavor - chinook, or king, salmon is among the world's most prized delicacies, on par with foie gras, Kobe beef and Jamón serrano. The fish almost sells itself.

"Pound for pound, there's no better eating fish in the world," says Wade Wiestling, VP of culinary development for Oceanaire Seafood Room. "As a chef, it's something you look forward to every year."

However, this year's market realities put king salmon out of reach for most seafood buyers during the first month of the summer salmon season. The closure of the California and Oregon fisheries, a weaker-than-expected Copper River harvest and burgeoning demand for king salmon resulted in tight supplies and high prices.

Buyers were forced to decide whether selling king salmon at $40 an entrée or $30 a pound was a disservice to customers during an economic lull or an opportunity to cash in on those willing to shell out a pretty penny for the esteemed fish.

Buyers were also reminded just how imperative customer education is. Consumers may erroneously assume overfishing is the cause of the unprecedented California and Oregon shutdown and avoid eating salmon altogether. They may fail to realize if wild kings remain out of their price range that farmed kings and four other species of Pacific salmon - sockeye, coho, chum and pink - are also available, and more affordable.

During the first month of the summer salmon season, which unofficially kicked off May 15 with Alaska's highly anticipated Copper River fishery, kings were anything but affordable. Due to inclement weather, the first 12-hour Copper River opener yielded only 800 kings, well shy of the 5,673-fish projection. It was a sign of things to come. The next four Copper River openers through June 2 produced less than 7,000 kings.

Meanwhile, Southeast Alaska's troll fishery yielded only about 12,500 kings in May. The region's 2008 quota (all gear types) is set at an eight-year low of 170,000 kings, down from 329,400 fish last year. Hatchery-raised fish should bridge the gap, but the region's 2008 total catch is unlikely to eclipse 240,000 kings, which would be down from 352,000 fish in 2007.

Statewide, Alaska's 2008 king salmon catch is expected to reach 500,000 fish, which would be down from 562,000 fish last year.

'Astronomically expensive'

Most retailers waited until the Copper River fishery was in full swing to buy kings, while some passed on the fish altogether due to high prices. Tim's Seafood in Kirkland, Wash., didn't sell Copper River kings during the first two weeks of the fishery.

"My customers asked, 'Where are the Copper River kings?' And I said, 'I don't want to charge you $60 for them,'" says co-owner Tim Caluya. "I was afraid to scare my regulars away."

By the third week of the fishery, Caluya received his first batch of Copper River kings, which he retailed for $36.99 a pound. He also sold Southeast Alaska troll-caught kings for $29.99.

Monterey Fish Market in Berkeley, Calif., retailed Alaska and Columbia River kings for $25.99 in mid-May, more than double the price of two years ago, says founder and owner Paul Johnson. Due to the California and Oregon closure and the economic slump, Johnson expects salmon to represent just 5 to 10 percent of his total summertime seafood sales; they usually account for one-third. He anticipates his total seafood sales will be off 15 to 20 percent.

Doug Denny, owner of The Fish Guys in Columbus, Ohio's historic North Market, doesn't plan to sell Copper River kings this season.

"They're just too pricey. They're astronomically expensive," says Denny. "I really have a hard time charging over $30 a pound for any salmon. If I have to buy a H&G salmon in the $20s, then I won't do it. When it dropped below $20, that was the first time I bought any at all. Otherwise, it's too steep."

By mid-June, prices were more realistic. Gillnet-caught Copper River kings had dropped to the mid-$10 to mid-$11 range for fresh whole fish, while Southeast Alaska troll-caught kings had slipped to the low- to mid-$7 range, according to Urner Barry Publications of Toms River, N.J.

Casual dining chains like King's Seafood Co., which operates 12 King's Fish House restaurants in California, Nevada and Arizona, are conscious of their value-oriented image, particularly during an economic lull, and are therefore wary of menuing a salmon entrée at $20 or more.

"We want a lot of our guests enjoying wild salmon, and we want them to do it frequently. We want them to bring their friends back," says Matt Stein, the Costa Mesa, Calif., company's chief seafood officer. "We're definitely conscious of our guests not spending too much money with us."

In late May and early June, King's Fish House featured Copper River sockeyes prepared four ways - Salmon Cakes for $12.45, Summer Salad for $15.95 and Cedar Plank Roasted with Dry Rub and Hazelnut Crusted, both for $17.95.

"It's been about five years since we've focused on kings," explains Stein. "When kings hit the menu, there were terrific supplies of Monterey kings and/or white kings. So we'd reach out and grab it for two weeks here, three weeks there. But now we're working mostly with sockeyes in the beginning of the season, and then with silvers."

Coho's time to shine

Oceanaire, which operates 15 upscale casual seafood restaurants nationwide, is paying about $4 a pound more for kings this year and is buying less. In mid-June, the chain launched an Alaska salmon promotion that runs through next month.

"In this economy, we don't want our chefs running a $45 salmon dish," says Wiestling. "People are very sensitive about how and where they're spending their money. So we have to retain that mass appeal, and I don't think a $45 salmon dish necessarily has that mass appeal. And we won't run a 6-ounce piece of salmon unless it's an appetizer or salad just to keep our costs down. Our chefs really dig [kings], so they'll buy it as long as it stays in that $12 to $16 range. They'll buy it and sell it all day long. But they can't afford to buy $24-a-pound whole fish."

But adversity spawns opportunity. Tight supplies and high prices of chinook salmon are opening the door for other Pacific salmon species, particularly coho, or silver, salmon, which doesn't garner as much hoopla from chefs, retailers and food editors as its larger, fattier cousin.

"Last August, we ran an Alaska coho promotion, and coho is [a species] that not many of our chefs had a lot of experience with. A lot of them questioned why we were doing it, because kings and sockeyes are the bigger story," says Wiestling. "But we got tremendous play out of it. It got a lot of press. It turned out to be a fantastic promotion for us, and we're looking forward to doing it again [this August]."

Alaska's coho harvest is projected to yield 4.4 million fish this year, which would be up from 3.6 million fish in 2007.

Though it often steals the limelight, kings represented only 6.4 percent of Alaska's $416.8 million salmon catch last year.

"We'll see [buyers] working more species of Pacific salmon into their product mix this season," says Laura Fleming, communications director for the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute. "Everyone always worries about [price resistance], but I'm not sure where that point is. We won't see [kings] fall off menus or out of cases. But we'll see people trying out different species at a price they can afford."

Down on the farm

Farmed king salmon is also a viable alternative to wild product. The United States imported 7.3 million pounds of farmed kings last year and 10.2 million pounds in 2006. Most of the product originated from British Columbia, the rest from New Zealand.

Farmed king demand is growing worldwide, says Paul Steere, CEO of the New Zealand King Salmon Co., which opened a new 3-acre salmon farm, its fifth overall, in February. The company raised just under 6,000 metric tons of kings from June 2007 to June 2008, and about 10 percent of its production is exported to the United States.

"We enjoy price premiums in the United States now," says Steere. "King salmon is a much more fragile species to husband and handle [than Atlantic salmon]. It also has a higher feed conversion ratio, so we are conscious that it is already more expensive in the water."

New Zealand King Salmon does not use antibiotics or vaccines in its grow-out, and there are no wild salmon runs near its farms, notes Steere. The company markets its environmental attributes to avoid getting swept up in the barrage of negative press damaging salmon aquaculture, including sea lice infestations in British Columbia (see International Sourcing on Western Canada, p. 24) and infectious salmon anemia outbreaks in Chile.

Reaching out to consumers is also a challenge for the West Coast salmon industry, which is fearful the market for California and Oregon kings won't be there if - and when - the fish return, says David Goldenberg, CEO of the California Salmon Council. The 2009 fisheries are up in the air, he adds.

"We're losing ground. If we go dark for too long, when we finally come back it will be like marketing a brand new product," says Goldenberg. Changes in ocean temperatures, water diversions and habitat destruction, not overfishing, are likely to blame for the collapse of the Sacramento River salmon population, which produces about 85 percent of the kings harvested off California and Oregon, he explains.

For Alaska's salmon industry, the California and Oregon closure is a mixed blessing, notes Gunnar Knapp, an economist at the University of Alaska-Anchorage's Institute of Social and Economic Research.

"It's [beneficial] in the short run, but your traditional customer base may resist [higher prices]," he says. "Your customers may look somewhere else, and if they like what they see, they may not come back when you lower your price. High prices are good, but it opens the door for competitors. A price rise is better if it's driven by growing demand than by a supply shortage."

With supplies as tight and prices as high as they are, buyers can't rely on solely kings to drive their summertime salmon sales. Promoting other Pacific salmon species and farmed kings may just be the difference between a lucrative summer and a lackluster one.

Associate Editor Steven Hedlund can be e-mailed at shedlund@divcom.com

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