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Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute all in to sell off last year's record Bristol Bay harvest

Sockeye salmon on sale in Fred Meyer in Spokane, WA
Courtesy of Brian Venua
Sockeye salmon on sale in Fred Meyer in Spokane, WA

Seafood industry analysts say last year’s record-breaking Bristol Bay harvest is still being sold in retail markets worldwide, and a factor into what could end up being a dramatically lower price for fishermen this year.

Bruce Schactler is the global food aid director for the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute, and a commercial fisherman of over 50 years, based in Kodiak. He says 2022’s record-breaking harvest flooded the market.

“Well, I don't think it's any secret to anybody,” he said. “All you have to do is look at the size of the harvest, and what normally is sold around the world and realize it was a pretty overwhelming challenge for everybody to figure out what to do with so much product.”

There’s still no official word from Alaska seafood companies on a base price for Bristol Bay fish this season - or replies to KDLG’s requests for comment.

Schactler it’s too soon to say how the fallout from last year’s historic Bristol Bay season and how those challenges will play out across the supply chain.

“There's a big difference between a booming year and something that's double a booming year,” he said. “So I don't know that we've ever seen anything quite like this before, to where you harvest enough product, it'll take two years to sell it. So I think we're all on new territory here. And everybody from one end to the other, is sort of just learning as we go almost, on how to deal with something like this.”

The Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute is a public private partnership between the State of Alaska and the seafood processing industry, focused on increasing the economic value of Alaskan seafood.

Schactler says the organization, as well as other trade groups and wholesalers, increased their budgets to market and sell sockeye after last year’s massive harvest.

“They (ASMI) modified the budget to move a tremendous amount of more money,” he said. “Several million dollars more into the marketing of strictly just sockeye. I know the local organization there, the RSDA (Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Association) has also spent several million dollars on trying to help that happen. The buyers themselves, the suppliers themselves have all modified their marketing budgets. So it's been a worldwide effort too, and we're not just talking about marketing to the United States, this is working at selling it all over the world. So it's really been an all hands on deck effort.”

Schactler says seafood wholesalers and retailers are trying to make Alaska salmon a hot commodity in stores this summer.

But one major challenge retailers are facing is lower consumer demand for salmon, in the United States and global markets, due to inflation and shoppers looking at higher grocery bills.

He says that’s reflected in the data of retail stores tracking customer’s purchases.

“We see that from retail information,” he said. “Every time you go and buy a can of soup, or that head of lettuce in the grocery store that goes into a national database. They know who's buying what, where, and when, and how much, and that all shows a downturn in seafood. But other things as well. And, you know, the significance of seafood in that manner is because, A, it's expensive, in the grand scheme of things, compared to prepared foods or compared to chicken or something like that, pork. It's an expensive protein. And so it’s just a fact of what's happening in real time.”

Schactler says looking at the salmon supply chain, retailers like Safeway and Costco have a lot of power in setting prices, based on consumer demand, which could be a cause for the lower prices.

“The retailers that are really are the ones that are deciding what the stuff goes for,” he said. “They know what's going on in Bristol Bay. They can listen to your forecasts, they can go on Fish and Game and look at the harvest figures of every single day. They know what's being harvested, and where, how much and can assume what the product forms are. So when you look at all of that, it has an effect on what this new product is going to be potentially sold for. And I think that's what we're seeing.”

Earlier this year, the USDA announced its intent to purchase $67 million of canned and tinned Alaska sockeye for its food assistance programs. That big bulk purchase could provide some relief to the industry, Schactler says, but when the actual purchase will be made is still unknown.

Corinne Smith is an award-winning reporter and producer who grew up in Oakland, California. She's reported for KFSK in Petersburg, KHNS in Haines, and most recently KBBI in Homer. This is her second season as a fisheries reporter, and now returns as director of the Bristol Bay Fisheries Report.