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