KODIAK — Heading into the 2019 salmon season, markets are looking good as global demand exceeds supply.
That’s due in part to constraints on the world’s biggest producers of farmed Atlantic salmon — Norway and Chile. While farmed production continues to tick upwards, growth in both countries is limited as to the maximum amount of fish regulations permit them to have in the water.
Chile also is still recovering from a deadly virus that wiped out millions of fish in 2016, and Norway is battling pervasive sea lice issues. All told, the days appear to be over when both countries could count on double digit increases in production to meet setbacks in supply.
“Now it appears the salmon farmers don’t have any rabbits left in the hat. They are still increasing production but not to the extent in percentage terms that it used to be,” said Andy Wink, a fisheries economist and director of the Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Association.
Couple that with expanding salmon demand and current market conditions, you create a larger niche for wild salmon, Wink said, not only in the U.S. but also in China.
“Demand for salmon in China is growing in a big way,” he explained. “News reports say they expect farmed salmon consumption in China to go from 90,000 metric tons (198 million pounds) this past year to around 250,000mt (550 million pounds) by 2025. There’s a lot of opportunity for all wild salmon.”
Market watchers are awaiting the last four months of sales data, but all salmon species have been selling well and holdover inventories are not expected heading into the coming season.
“We saw strong pricing on the wholesale side and volumes moved at a quick clip,” Wink said. “As far as sockeye goes, people I’ve been in touch with anecdotally say things are moving nicely even though prices are up.”
Another good sign is that the value of the dollar has held steady.
“For the past year the dollar has been going sideways in terms of its strength,” Wink explained. “If it moves a lot, that will have a huge impact on fish prices, but for the time being we haven’t seen a lot of change.”
Demand continues to increase in the U.S., where Wink said more appreciation has grown for wild salmon in general. He pointed to Costco, which rolled out a national sockeye salmon program last year, as a new market channel.
That really gave sockeyes a boost, and Wink said it was clearly shown in Bristol Bay’s branding promotion that has grown from a small pilot program in a handful of stores in Boulder, Colorado, in 2016 to 1,000 stores across the country and growing.
“When we approach a retailer they are generally very receptive and excited to work with us,” he said. “They know their customers want wild salmon, they want to know where it comes from and that connection with the producer, and that it’s a quality product. Whether it’s from Bristol Bay or other places in Alaska, there’s great demand for that in the U.S.”
Wink said the decades of hard work by Alaska’s salmon industry is really starting to pay off.
“A lot of great work has been done to develop the quality of the pack, push new products and new markets are opening up,” he said. “Even though they’ve taken years to cultivate, we’re seeing a lot of those investments bear fruit now.”
A lack of knowledge about seafood is the biggest hurdle to increasing sales and U.S. consumption. That’s the main take away from one of the industry’s most popular events — the Global Seafood Market Conference held this month in California.
Results of a first ever Power of Seafood Survey of over 2,000 Americans by the Food Marketing Institute yielded some surprises about why Americans aren’t buying more seafood and revealed hurdles that prevent them from buying more.
A recap of the FMI survey by SeafoodSource found that only 56 percent of Americans eat seafood twice a month — a far cry from the twice a week recommendation by the U.S. government. Just one in five adults said they meet that weekly threshold.
Freshness and flavor have a major impact on seafood purchases, the survey revealed, but most shoppers said they feel “turned off” by their lack of knowledge. Nearly half of consumers said there is not enough information about how to judge quality and freshness and 42 percent said they wanted more information about different species of fish and shellfish.
Guy Pizzuti, seafood manager for the Publix supermarket chain, called consumers’ worries over evaluating freshness a “failure of the industry.”
Just 29 percent of the respondents said they feel very knowledgeable about how to buy seafood; only 28 percent said they felt confident in how to prepare or season it.
Buyers from major grocery chains said they can’t focus on the appeal of raw seafood; instead, they must stimulate consumers to believe they can easily cook it at home.
Pizzuti added that for decades the industry has been talking about teaching consumers how to prepare seafood and it still hasn’t been figured out.
Dave Wier, of the Meijer chain, added that the industry is “too busy telling customers what boat caught the fish instead of how to cook it.” He said they’ve taken their eye off what consumers really want and that the industry is “terrible at this and must improve quickly.”
The survey found that the average seafood eater spends more on food in weekly shopping than non-eaters, and frequent seafood eaters spend even more — showing it to be a small but lucrative demographic group.
FUNDS FOR SAVING LIVES
Saving lives and reducing injuries is the goal of fishing safety grants available to nonprofit groups, municipalities, academics and businesses involved in the fishing and maritime industries.
The Fishing Safety Research Grant Program was funded in 2010 as part of the Coast Guard Reauthorization Act, and the money is finally available.
“These are moneys that came to the Coast Guard first and we are partnering with them to administer these important safety training and research grants. This is the first time that these funds have been available,” said Jennifer Lincoln, co-director of the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health Maritime Center for Safety and Health Studies.
The grants will provide up to 75 percent of the costs and range from $250,000-$650,000 per grant over two years.
Academics and nonprofits already involved in research and training are likely applicants, but communities and businesses also are encouraged.
“They could partner with a training organization to offer training for fishermen in their area,” Lincoln explained. “There also are small business grants that include things like developing new technologies for industry. It’s those types of ideas that I would potentially expect from municipalities or businesses.”
Different fishing fleets have different hazards and proposals can be targeted to what works best for a particular fishery, gear group or region.
“A group of fishermen might want to focus on fatigue related issues,” Lincoln said. “Other ideas could include improving a piece of deck equipment that is particular to a fleet. Catcher processors or the head and gut fleet might want to focus on ergonomic issues and improved processes on their vessels.”
Lincoln said ideas continue to evolve on improving safety equipment such as life jackets and she expects some grants will target vessel stability training. Another potential opportunity, she said is exploring hearing protections for fishermen.
February 21 is the deadline to apply in two categories: safety research and training. The “opportunity numbers” are RFA-OH-19-004 and RFA-OH-19-005.
TOP FISH SPOT
Sam Rabung has been named as the state’s Director of Commercial Fisheries. He first joined the department as a fisheries technician in 1983, and since 2015 has been serving as chief for the division’s statewide Aquaculture, Planning, and Permitting section. He also has overseen hatchery operations around the state and is vice chair of the Governor’s Mariculture Task Force. He will be based in Juneau.