Alaska’s 2010 salmon season could be one for the record books. Based on preliminary data, it looks likely that a combination of stronger prices, hefty fish and a good haul will make the fishery the most valuable in two decades.

“We will be at least at the $450 million level and probably at or above $500 million for salmon ex-vessel (dockside) value,” said market expert Chris McDowell at the Juneau-based McDowell Group. “That’s the highest value since 1992 when it was $607 million (ex-vessel).”

A bumper return of pinks yielded a catch of 103 million humpies, 40 percent more than expected. The fish were larger than usual and averaged 30-40 cents a pound to Alaska fishermen. The 10-year average price is closer to 15 cents, McDowell said. Chum salmon prices also received higher prices, reflecting a growing demand at retail counters and chain restaurants.

“Chum has the most desirable roe in the marketplace and historically, a lot of the chum ex-vessel price has been driven by the roe. But in the past two to three years, while there have been peaks and valleys in the roe prices, underneath that has been a steady increase in the wholesale value of chum salmon meat products, fillets, portions and so on,” McDowell said.

Chum prices have nearly tripled this decade to average 50-60 cents a pound or more.

“At 65 cents for a chum that averages 7.5 to 8 pounds, you’re looking at $5 per fish. At a 17-18 million fish harvest, you’re getting pretty close to $100 million for chum salmon,” he said.

The ex-vessel price represents only 40 percent of the total value of the salmon industry each year. It’s the first wholesale price that represents the full picture, McDowell said, and information from the summer season should be available this month from the state Department of Revenue. The Alaska Salmon Price Report provides triennial sales, prices and volumes for fresh and frozen salmon, fillets, roe and cans.

“One of the things the May through August report tells us is what is happening in terms of the pace of sales. Does the market expect a shortage in the future or a major price change? Are they snapping up the product now or holding back and waiting to see what is developing?,” he said.

“Ten years ago most sales occurred right after the season, McDowell said, but the recent pattern is sales of — what we are seeing in recent years is sales becoming more evenly spaced throughout the year, especially sockeye.”

The preliminary Alaska 2010 statewide salmon catch is 164 million fish, slightly higher than last year.

Big Bay pay day

A summary of Bristol Bay’s 2010 salmon fishery shows that the total catch of 31 million fish — of which 29 million were sockeye — will give fishermen a $153 million pay day. That doesn’t include post-season bonuses or other adjustments. That compares to $146 million last year, and is 35 percent above the 20-year average.

With all the salmon fisheries going on across Alaska you might ask why so much attention is focused on Bristol Bay. The answer can be summed up in two words: sockeye salmon.

Sockeyes comprise Alaska’s most valuable salmon fishery — based on last season. Of the five species of salmon harvested, sockeyes were worth nearly $232 million, over half the total value of the entire statewide catch.

Other fishing regions, like Prince William Sound, Southeast, Kodiak, Cook Inlet and the Alaska Peninsula, might get sockeye catches ranging from 1 million to 4 million fish each year.

Also in the Bay this year, the chum harvest of over 1 million fish and the coho catch of 104,000 were 15 percent and 7 percent above the 20-year averages. Lots of market interest in pink salmon resulted in the first directed fishery since 1984. The Bay-wide harvest of 1.3 million pinks was almost 800 percent higher than in the past 20 years.

Market watch

Bering Sea crabbers are out on the grounds with the Oct. 15 start of the famous red king crab fishery at Bristol Bay. The 15 million-pound quota is down by 7.5 percent and supplies from competing sources, notably Russia, are down as well. Less crab has the Alaska fleet of 82 boats looking for higher prices.

That sets the stage for bidding wars between two big buyers: Japan and the U.S. Japan needs crab and with the yen at 82 to the dollar, they are poised to buy. Japan could take as much as 75 percent of Alaska’s king crab production, said Seafood Trend’s Ken Tally. Prices to crabbers, Talley predicts, could top $6 per pound.

Halibut prices have topped the $6 mark in Homer, ranging from $5.95 to $6.40 a pound. At Kodiak, prices ranged from $5.40 to $5.90 per pound.

Demand for halibut is strong despite the high prices. With overall reduced supplies and four weeks left in the fishery, prices could climb even higher.

Trollers in Southeast Alaska began their winter Chinook fishery on Oct. 11. They will be out on the water through the end of April, or until 45,000 kings are landed, by treaty agreement with Canada.

Check out the lineup for the Pacific Marine Expo, Nov. 18-20 in Seattle,

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