Pollock season got off to a slow start this year because of the unexpectedly fruitful pink salmon harvest during the summer. The delay comes as the price of pollock and other groundfish has dropped by up to 30% this year due to a variety of factors.
Although pollock season typically starts on Aug. 25, this year most of the seafood processors were still fully engaged in processing pink salmon on that date.
Local biologists had estimated that the 2020 pink salmon harvest — Kodiak’s largest salmon fishery — would reach 12 million fish this year, but as of Monday, fishermen had harvested 20.2 million pink salmon.
The majority of the processors began to switch over from processing pink salmon to pollock on Sept. 1, said Julie Bonney, executive director of the Alaska Groundfish Data Bank.
“The fleet came up with management plans which would allow each processor to start when they were ready. We've gotten off slow,” Bonney said.
She said the fleet has just started exploring the fishing grounds and are in “search mode” as they look for pollock of the right size for harvesting.
With salmon season continuing to ebb, Bonney said she hopes pollock fishing will increase as more fishermen get out to the fishing grounds.
This season’s pollock quota in the central Gulf of Alaska is nearly 37 million pounds, a decrease of about 20% from last year.
The decrease is due to the fact that a large number of pollock that hatched in 2012 are now aging and dying. Pollock are typically large enough to be harvested commercially when they reach 3 or 4 years of age.
As small fish grow up into the fishery and become large enough to be harvested, the quota increases, Bonney said.
Bonney does not foresee any large-scale decreases of the pollock quota for next year. The decision will be made by the North Pacific Fishery Management Council in December and will be based on an assessment of the walleye pollock stock.
Pollock is a $461 million fishery in Alaska, with a statewide harvest of 3.4 billion fish, according to the 2020 Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute report on the economic value of Alaska seafood. The numbers are based on data collected in 2018.
However, a variety of factors are affecting the seafood market, such as increased operating prices, inspections and tariffs on exports into China, said Garrett Evridge, a fisheries economist with the McDowell Group.
James Turner, a plant manager at OBI Seafoods, said groundfish prices are down 30%. Kodiak primarily produces headed and gutted pollock to be reprocessed abroad.
“People just aren’t buying right now,” he said. “They are not buying fresh seafood like they were nine months ago.”
Evridge said Chinese officials have been increasing inspections of seafood containers, adding another challenge in the supply chain, from harvesting and processing to exporting seafood.
He noted that while prices can vary depending on the product — roe, sarimi, headed and gutted fish, among others — the value of seafood in general has declined.
Evridge said the decline is due, in part, to increased operating costs for processors in addition to market uncertainty.
He said the prices of pollock fillets are relatively stable, but sarimi and headed and gutted fish are down between 5% and 10%.
“Our perspective of the future is much different than a year ago, and that has affected markets and has been contributing to change in prices as buyers and sellers try to grapple with how the final consumers will be affected,” Evridge said.