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Bristol Bay fishing crews outraged at "lowest price of a lifetime" for sockeye

A fishing crew pulls their boat out at the Dillingham harbor
Jack Darrell
A fishing crew pulls their boat out at the Dillingham harbor

The Dillingham harbor is buzzing with crews returning from the fishing season. It’s an early end to the season, and they’re ready to talk about prices. Many were shocked and frustrated at the recent price announcement.

Trident Seafoods has announced a base price for their Bristol Bay fishing fleet of 50 cents per pound of sockeye. That’s less than half of last year’s price of $1.15.

Tyone Raymond is at the gates of the PAF boatyard, waiting for a coffee. He’s been fishing in Bristol Bay for five decades When he heard about the low base price he decided he was done for the season.

"It's utterly demoralizing," he said. "It was a great season, we were catching fish doing really well. And we knew that the price was going to be weak. But this is extraordinarily weak."

He said adjusting for inflation, it's the lowest price he's ever seen.

"This is even weaker than the 40 cent price that we were offered back in the early 2000s in the collapse," he said. "I get it that there's a glut on the market. But when you go into the grocery store, where I live down in the lower 48, frozen salmon from last year is still $9.99 a pound, or down to like maybe $12 a pound, but it's still the same price that it always is. And so it's a total slap in the face to be offered something so ridiculously low."

He says it’s especially demoralizing, because this year’s fish are some of the best he’s seen.

"This is one of the best packs we've seen. This is big quality fish being caught all season long. They're they're really beautiful," he said. "And you know, what else? How many other things do you know have gone down in price, especially in the last couple of years, everything has just about doubled around here. You know, the price of fuel is high, the boat storage is high. Everything is going up? And how is the price of salmon going down? You know, this is just, it's utterly demoralizing."

Prices for supplies for fishers are up too. He says it’s hard for them to turn a profit when prices this year are less than half of what he and his father made almost 50 years.

"When I started here fishing with my dad in 1978, we got paid $1.05 pound," he said. And $1.05 a pound, if you just that for inflation was worth about $5.30 in today's money. And in those days, you could buy a house or a car for you know, you probably buy a car for something like around five grand. And so what you've seen is everything else has gone sky high. But despite even our best efforts at producing quality, having refrigeration, and whole works. We're getting paid less now than when I started. Less money now than when I started in 1978."

Fishermen Scott Johnston sits on top of the pilot house of his boat with a crew mate.

"You go and you work super hard, you try your best all season and then they tell you $0.50 a pound. What do you do with that?" he said. "That’s just archaic, man. It’s 2023, not 1993 or 1983. This isn’t happening. It sucks that we have to take the hit. Some people are going to be leaving this season in the red."

Across the dock, Leo Jennings is offloading his boat. He’s calling an early end to his season because of the price announcement. He has been fishing since the 1980s and says the price is worse than it has ever been.

"In 1988 we got $2.30 a pound per fish and not in brailers and dry fish holds, no ice. Now we’re getting 50 cents?" he said. "I’ve got $50,000 worth of refrigeration equipment here. It’s frustrating! You've been to the store. You know how expensive everything is, hard to believe that that's what we're getting."

Jennings says he’s concerned about covering costs this season. Others say that prices this low will put them in debt.

Some even say they are considering leaving the fishery. Tyone Raymond is one of them.

"How can you fish for 50 cents a pound?" he said. "I want to tell people, I just don't think that it's good for people to go back out and scratch and scrape for 50 cents a pound. I just don't think it really serves anybody. I mean, yes, you're gonna make a few more dollars but really, is it worth not having any sort of point of view and holding to it? I think people shouldn't fish."

Back on top of the pilot house, Scott Johnston says that while their prices are slashed, the quality of fish and the price consumers are paying for it are going up.

“We manage our brailer weights, pick up sets before they soak too long, the quality of fish is going up on our end but the price is going down," he said. "Maybe they need to absorb and not make as much money but we are out there doing better and better and better.”

KDLG reached out to Trident Seafoods for comment, but did not hear back before airtime. Other Alaska seafood companies have not yet announced their base prices, but are expected to announce a similar price.

Fishermen say they felt blindsided by the low price, and criticized the price secrecy from processors in the Bristol Bay fishery.

Scott says it can often feel like the only people standing up for fishermen are each other.

"To manage this fishery, we need voices to stand up for the fishermen and fight for our rights.

Across the dock, Leo Jennings says fishermen often have to bear the brunt of fluctuations in the market, even while assuming all of the personal risk.

"If the guys that make those decisions had to do what we do for six weeks, they’d probably pay us more. It is a hard way to live for six weeks. And there’s a certain amount of danger."

Heading into the season, seafood market analysts cited many factors that could drop prices for fishermen. Last year, the Bristol Bay fleet caught a record amount of sockeye. That fish flooded the market, and is still being sold off in stores. Add to that a decrease in wholesale prices for sockeye, a drop in consumer demand in grocery stores, and competition on the global market.

As fishermen offload and ferry totes up the dock, they say they are holding out hope that processors will offer bonuses and an overall better price. In past years the price has been posted before fishermen start catching. One skipper named Logan Branstiter says it’s especially frustrating to be hit with the low price at the end of the season.

"We don't have the ability to plan, to project, nothing. It's just a big secret until the end," he said. "It's one of the only fisheries in the US that there's no price posted before you go to work, and that just doesn't make any sense."

Trident announced it will be offering bonuses of $0.15 cent per pound for RSW, or refrigerated sea water and ice handling. They’re also offering $0.05 for floating and $0.10 for bleeding, but for the drift fishing fleet only.

The Bristol Bay run is expected to wrap up by the end of the month. So far, fishing fleets have had a strong harvest, an estimated 35 million fish, nearing the forecast of 36 million this season.

Fishermen are planning to stage a protest in the Naknek River entrance on Thursday, July 20. Organizers say they will anchor from 6am to 6pm across the river entrance to oppose the low price from processors.

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Jack Darrell is a reporter for KDLG, the NPR member station in Dillingham. He is working on the Bristol Bay Fisheries Report and is passionate about sustainable fisheries and local stories that connect communities and explore the intersections of class, culture, and the natural world.
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.