Alaska & Pacific SALMON

Bristol Bay sockeye stocks still rising;

West Coast quotas on par with 2014

By Charlie Ess

A huge Bristol Bay sockeye forecast and holdover inventories of canned pink salmon are among the factors setting the stage for this year’s salmon season in Alaska. West Coast trollers, meanwhile, can expect harvest quotas mimicking last year’s season.

Overall, Alaska’s 2014 salmon crop for all five species totaled 156.67 million fish valued at $576.64 million. The backstory on the sockeye situation began last summer, when the industry expected a 16.9-million-fish harvest in Bristol Bay. As July unfolded, the area saw an onslaught of 28.8 million fish, and ex-vessel prices dropped there and in other harvest areas in reaction to the surprise influx of sockeyes.

“We came off 2013 with a pretty tight market,” says Andy Wink, senior seafood industry analyst with the McDowell Group, in Juneau. That means buyers went into the 2014 season hungry for both frozen and canned sockeye.

“But inventories went up a lot last year, and this coming season we’re going to be even bigger,” Wink adds, noting the Alaska Department of Fish and Game is predicting a harvest of 38.5 million sockeyes.

Last year’s ex-vessel prices for Bristol Bay sockeye averaged $1.20 per pound for the season, with the statewide sockeye price averaging $1.37 per pound. In 2013, the Bristol Bay price was $1.50 and the statewide average was $1.78. The 2014 statewide sockeye harvest of 43.55 million fish was worth $349.29 million.

The 2015 Copper River sockeye season starts in May, when the fleet will begin working to catch a predicted harvest of 3.19 million fish.

Landings of pink salmon, the other Alaska mainstay, totaled 95.3 million fish in 2014 worth  $97.72 million. Ex-vessel prices averaged 30 cents per pound, down from 43 cents in 2013 and 48 cents in 2012.

This year, pink-salmon production in Southeast Alaska could hit 58 million fish, according to Fish and Game’s pre-season forecast. It’s predicted that the potential catch for Prince William Sound, the state’s other bread-and-butter pink fishery, will reach 15.4 million fish.

Supply and demand will determine the ex-vessel prices for pinks this year. In 2013, pink-salmon seiners set a record harvest of 219.16 million fish, which put 6.1 million cases — an extra two years’ worth of surplus inventories — into the market.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture  spent $33 million to purchase 300,000 cases of one-pound cans in 2014 for food aid programs. Though the acquisition liquidated only a portion of warehouse inventories, every bit helps, Wink says.

“The USDA purchase took a lot of talls off the market, which is good for pinks,” he says. “But the half-pound sizes weren’t really affected by the USDA.”

As for West Coast salmon in 2015, the Pacific Fishery Management Council was to choose from among three harvest-management alternatives at its meeting in April.

Though calculating the number of fish for each of the options is complicated, and the harvest levels in any given year are a function of allowable fishing time, West Coast trollers can expect a season on par with last year’s, if not better.

According to abundance estimates, Sacramento River stocks — the main drivers of the California and Oregon fisheries — are up slightly from last year.

“The short answer is that things are generally positive,” says Chuck Tracy, deputy director of the Pacific council, in Portland, Ore. “This is similar to last year.”

The health and abundance of king salmon continue to ride on water levels in their natal streams and rivers, according to Zeke Grader, executive director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations, in San Francisco.

“We’re really suffering from this drought,” says Grader. “We’re really worried about the next few years to come.”

* * *

Gulf/So. Atlantic YELLOWFIN TUNA

Inconsistent domestic supply plus rise

in imports keep market in blue funk

By Hoyt Childers

For reasons unrelated to the quality or salability of fresh Gulf of Mexico/South Atlantic yellowfin tuna, the market remains in the doldrums as the peak summer harvest season approaches.

According to 2014 preliminary statistics, yellowfin landings in Louisiana and Florida decreased from 2013 totals, while North Carolina’s harvest increased slightly. Overall, the harvest from the three states dropped to about 2.6 million pounds in 2014 from nearly 2.9 million pounds in 2013.

Marketing this prime finfish remains an exercise in frustration, says David Maginnis, vice president of Jensen Tuna, in Houma, La., one of the largest fresh yellowfin tuna suppliers in the country.

“It’s a combination of things,” he says, noting that inconsistent domestic supply is itself a victim of multiple causes. Initially, yellowfin tuna landings appeared to be on the way back after the 2010 BP oil spill, with decent increases in 2011 and 2012. But Louisiana landings dropped in both 2013 and 2014.

Maginnis disputes BP’s recent report suggesting that the Gulf of Mexico has rebounded and that none of its species have suffered any long-term effects.

 “It’s a freaking joke,” Maginnis says. “Tuna have not rebounded.”

Fishermen and seafood dealers worry that the oil spill has hurt tuna stocks, a concern bolstered last year when Barbara Block, a Stanford University marine sciences professor, published research showing that hydrocarbons from the spill, which occurred near spawning areas, could be especially damaging to the hearts of juvenile tunas.

Gulf States Marine Fisheries Commission data pegs 2014 Louisiana landings at just over 900,000 pounds in 2014 compared to 1.2 million in 2013 and 1.9 million in 2012.

“Your strength is with numbers,” Maginnis says. “If you don’t have [consistent] supply, you can’t stay in the market.”

The strength in numbers Maginnis covets currently resides with foreign imports.

“Trinidad and Venezuela are killing us,” he says. “It’s an ongoing battle.”

For example, imports of fresh tuna from the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago alone surpassed landings from Louisiana, Florida and North Carolina combined in 2014. U.S. imports from this island nation increased from 3.6 million pounds in 2013 to 4.5 million pounds in 2014.

Also, U.S. restrictions designed to protect bluefin tuna in the Gulf of Mexico have depressed yellowfin landings there.

“Actually, with the restrictions on bluefin, a lot of boats are shut down,” Maginnis says. “They don’t want to have any interactions with bluefin.”

There is very little, if any, targeted bluefin fishing in the Gulf of Mexico, and universal use of special hooks and baits reduces bluefin bycatch. But gulf tuna vessels pay the price for bluefin fishing abuses by foreign fleets operating outside U.S. waters.

“There’s a lot of issues with that [U.S.] law I don’t understand” that make targeted yellowfin fishing unnecessarily difficult, Maginnis says. “The trips are longer. It hasn’t been fun.”

The brutal winter over much of the United States, especially in the East, also depressed the market.“The other thing is the East Coast storms; [they] just killed business,” he says.

Maginnis emphasizes that the market problem generally is not lack of demand for domestic tuna; given the choice, consumers prefer fresh, domestic Gulf/Atlantic tuna.

“Branding is not a problem,” he says. He cites domestic supply and price competition from imports as the culprits.

The domestic yellowfin tuna fishery is experiencing flat or decreasing domestic supply resulting from environmental and regulatory problems and a more-or-less flat price because of robust pressure from imported tuna.

In Louisiana, the ex-vessel price dropped from $3.79 in 2013 to $3.71 in 2014. “We have no strength in the marketplace, because we have no supply,” Maginnis says.

The domestic fishery has seen a lot of market cycles come and go, however, and this one is likely to be no different.

As Maginnis says, “We just keep plugging away.”

 

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