by Laine Welch
Salmon prices at wholesale show marked seasonal variations for both wild and farmed fish. It’s a pattern that has been tracked for decades by Urner Barry, the nation’s oldest commodity market watcher in business since 1895. Prices tend to decline through June, July, August and September, and they begin rising again from November through the following April or May.
Two things drive the well-established pattern, said market expert John Sackton, who publishes Seafood.com, an Urner-Barry partner.
“There’s a growth cycle for farmed salmon when they eat more and grow faster at certain times of the year, and so the harvests — particularly those that come into the U.S. market from Chile, for example — really peak in June, July and August, which are our summer months and the winter months in Chile,” Sackton explained. “Then there is the opening of the wild salmon season each summer, and all of a sudden you get a lot more diversity and availability of Alaska salmon.”
A big wild card for North American salmon this summer is the projected 72 million sockeye return at British Columbia’s Fraser River. Sackton said Japanese buyers have been somewhat priced out of the sockeye market in recent years because there has been so much demand elsewhere. A drop in the yen has made it harder for them to buy, but they are hoping that a big run will open up more opportunities for them.
Timing also will come into play, as the Fraser River run typically arrives in August, several weeks after the big sockeye haul at Bristol Bay.
The first week of June saw salmon fisheries opening across the state, and the streak of warm weather had fish showing up earlier than usual. Bristol Bay’s season officially opened June 2, and fishermen and processors are gearing up in anticipation of an early sockeye run.
No one wants a repeat of last year, when reds arrived eight days sooner than expected and caught many off guard.
Alaska’s total salmon harvest this season is projected around 133 million fish — down 47 percent from last year’s record catch of 283 million fish. That’s due to an off year for pink salmon; this summer’s catch of 75 million is a 67 percent decrease from last summer’s record take of 226 million humpies. The breakdown for other catches call for a 14 percent bump up in sockeyes to nearly 34 million; 4.4 million coho salmon, and nearly 20 million chums. A total catch of 79,000 Chinook salmon is projected in areas outside of Southeast and Bristol Bay.
You can track Alaska salmon catches by region and species on a daily basis with ADF&G’s “Blue Sheet.” Find it under Commercial Fisheries/Salmon/Harvest. A weekly in-season summary also charts the progression of all commercial salmon harvests and compares them with the five-year averages.
The summer pollock season opened in the Bering Sea June 10. Likewise, cod reopens for hook and line catcher processors. Halibut longliners have landed 45 percent of their 16 million-pound catch limit with the ports of Homer, Seward and Kodiak getting almost equal shares of landings so far.
For sablefish, 54 percent were taken out of a nearly 24 million-pound quota, with most deliveries going to Seward. Jig fishermen around Kodiak were still tapping away at their 7.3 million-pound cod quota.
One of Alaska’s ugliest and most abundant fish — the giant grenadier — is set to be tracked for the first time by federal managers. Also called rat tails, there are several species of the deep dwellers and little is known about their life history.
Trawl surveys by NOAA Fisheries in the Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska have shown that grenadiers are the most abundant fish, in terms of weight, in depths from 600-3,000 feet and have been caught deeper than 6,000 feet. The fish are most commonly taken as bycatch in the sablefish longline and Greenland turbot fisheries. Sketchy catch data estimates that 16,000 metric tons (35.2 million pounds) of grenadiers are discarded. Their mortality rates run at 100 percent, due to the pressure difference experienced by the fish when they are brought to the surface.
“There really is not a lot known on their niche in the ecosystem, but just the fact that they are so abundant, they likely have a large impact on other species on the slope,” said Cara Rodgveller, a biologist at the Auke Bay Laboratory in Juneau. “They are most likely feeding off both fish and invertebrates, and also as a prey species for other fish.”
There have been attempts to develop a fishery for giant grenadier, but because of their jelly-like flesh quality, high-water content and low-fat levels, there has been little interest in world markets. Likewise, endeavors to develop treatment processes to make the fish palatable have been unsuccessful.
Federal fishery managers in February included grenadiers in their oversight as an “ecosystem component” in Alaska waters. That means they will be tracked for overfishing officially, and their retained catch is required to be reported, Rodgveller said.
And while there is no directed fishery for the grenadiers, which can reach lengths topping six feet, genetic research continues to learn more about the fish. In aging studies, scientists discovered that the otoliths (ear bones) were variable in shape, unheard of within a species.
“Giant grenadiers have the potential to actually be more than one species,” Rodgveller said. “They have different otolith shapes that are dramatically different, and haven’t been seen in any other fish species.”
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