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Market factors a "perfect storm" for Alaska's seafood industry, says Undercurrent's Kirsten Dobroth

Boats get ready for the 2024 season in the Dillingham Harbor.
Jessie Sheldon
Boats get ready for the 2024 season in the Dillingham Harbor.

It’s been a really interesting time for the Bristol Bay Sockeye Fishery. The 2022 season brought the highest number of fish to Bristol Bay ever, with a 79 million fish run. The following 2023 season then brought some of the lowest prices ever seen for sockeye. And this year, even though there’s a more average run size forecasted and higher prices, the processor scene is changing significantly, with Peter Pan seafoods going into receivership this spring, and a new floating processor in the bay–Northline Seafoods.

Kirsten Dobroth reports on Alaska’s fisheries for Undercurrent News–a commercial fishing and seafood industry trade magazine. KDLG’s Jessie Sheldon sat down with Dobroth to talk fish.

KDLG: Hey Kirsten.

Dobroth: Hi Jessie, thanks for having me.

KDLG: With all of that change in the last three years, can you tell me a little bit about what’s happening this year at the statewide level for Alaskan seafood markets?

Dobroth: Yeah, what a wild time. As you noted, ex-vessel prices have picked up for sockeye in Bristol Bay this year, and at least one processor has posted a base price ahead of the season–which is great! I live in Kodiak and it sounds like ahead of this salmon season guys are a bit more optimistic and that’s also what I’m hearing here. But it’s been a really tough time for both fishermen and processors statewide and across species, which is really unusual to see so many fisheries in such a slump.

KDLG: Why are so many fisheries in a slump? Can you tell us a little more about that?

Dobroth: It sounds cliche at this point but it really has been this perfect storm of market factors. For example, trade has changed with China over the years. Japan has traditionally been a big buyer of seafood from the US and Alaska in particular – but the strength of the US dollar compared to the Japanese yen has made it a tougher sell recently. Inflation is a big one–and then you have just a lot of product on the market in some of these fisheries and consumers aren’t buying as much fish. At the same time costs for both fishermen and processors have gone up. High interest rates have really weighed on processors. And then of course Russia’s impact on the market has gotten a lot of attention over the last year, too.

KDLG: I’m curious what, if any, the silver linings of this situation are, or, I guess, what new solutions or ideas are emerging to deal with these unprecedented changes?

Dobroth: Yeah, that’s an interesting question, a couple things – one is that I think you have a lot of different stakeholders from different fisheries and parts of the industry that are normally pretty separate that are now working together saying “how do we do things differently or better? How do we change the model?” I think you look just at the Bay, and a company like Northline is a good example of that.

Another interesting thing to watch has been this push for more support from the federal government for seafood, which has really been led by Alaskans and the state’s congressional delegation. For instance, there was also this really big push last year to get seafood specific provisions in the next farm bill, which is currently in the process of being reauthorized. Seafood historically has been left out of the bill, but there’s been some progress there. The latest framework released just this month by Senate Republicans in the committee that writes the bill included a handful of provisions that cover the commercial fishing industry – including access to the Farm Credit System for fishing businesses and country of origin labeling for salmon. That’s preliminary and has a long way to go before the final version, but any mention of seafood so far is big news.

KDLG: A big difference this season for seafood markets is the US’ embargo on Russian seafood imports. How is this affecting Alaskan seafood markets and does that mean better prices for Bristol Bay salmon?

Dorbroth: It’s a little early to say how it’s affecting the US market and specifically Alaska’s market or how that will shake out to what’s being paid at the dock. Russia is typically known more for big harvests of pink salmon as opposed to sockeye, which might have more of an impact on pricing elsewhere in the state. Russia has also dumped a lot of money into pollock processing over the years, which is now covered by this expanded ban. I’m wary of speculating on prices, but I think it’s important to note what I mentioned before that there’s a number of things that have pulled down the market. I think we’ll just have to wait and see.

KDLG?: There’s been a lot of “bad” news, or hard news in the last year, do you have any good news??

Dobroth: Yeah–two things, one is that overall I’m hearing more tepid optimism from both fishermen and processors this year, which is a very different tone than last year and even earlier this spring.

I also mentioned that people aren’t buying as much fish earlier, but I think the upside to that is that there’s a lot of US consumer data that says they want to eat more seafood and they look for wild fish. They’re conscious about the environment, they want something that’s sustainable. And that’s a huge strength and opportunity for Alaska. In talking to some of these groups that market Alaska seafood like BBRSDA or the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute, they’re really pushing that Alaska story – small boat fishermen, fishing hubs like Naknek and Dillingham and Kodiak, and family operations that have been doing it for years.

I read a story in a regional newspaper in Minnesota recently about a father and son that have been fishing the Bay for years, and I was like, “I wonder how many people in that area read that story and went to the store and looked for sockeye to cook for their families that week?” Maybe they’ll buy it again.

Those stories are what introduces people to something that’s also a great product, and I think there’s a lot of them to tell.

KDLG: Well thank you so much for taking the time to chat today and for sharing your knowledge on Alaska’s seafood market!

Dobroth: Thank you for having me and thank you to everyone who’s spoken with me so far while I’ve been in town.

Jessie Sheldon is a fisheries reporter for KDLG. She has spent several summers working in Alaska, both on the water and in the recording studio. Jessie is passionate about marine ecosystems, connection through storytelling, and all things fishy.