Zero info on salmon prices. Bristol Bay fishermen are angry, frustrated.

Bristol Bay fishermen: "It's not a sustainable way to do business."

by | June 29, 2023

Point to high prices at retail and value of salmon roe

By Corinne Smith/Alaska Media, LLC. Distributed by NewsBank, Inc.
June 29, 2023

Headed into the season, many fishermen are frustrated and concerned about prices. While Alaska seafood companies have not officially announced a base price, there are some signs of what could be a dramatic drop this season.

Earlier this month, Trident Seafoods announced a base price of 60 cents per pound for False Pass sockeye in Area M, with some handling incentives. The trade publication Intrafish reports fishermen and processors are anticipating Bristol Bay base prices to be around 50 cents per pound, with a potential for up to 80 cents per pound for refrigeration, icing or bleeding fish.

KDLG spoke with fishing crews at the Dillingham harbor last week about this season’s price forecast.

Elliot Dawson is seventeen, and this is her third season as a deckhand fishing in the Ugashik district with her family. “They said that it will be between 50 to 75 cents. And a lot of people are pretty unhappy about that,” Dawson said. “It’s hard to be paid three times. Last one, all costs for everything else are three times higher this year.”

KDLG reached out to the large seafood processing companies -Peter Pan Seafoods, OBI Seafoods, Silver Bay Seafoods, and Trident Seafoods -to comment on the base price concerns, but did not hear back before airtime.

Last year, fishermen for Peter Pan saw an initial base price of $1.00 per pound, which the company announced ahead of the season. That went up to $1.15 per pound.

Ollie Olsen, a longtime fisherman in the Nushagak says he offered to let his crew quit the season and go home.

“I got three crewmen here all going to college. I went to my crew last week and I said, I don’t think we’re going to have enough money, you’re not gonna make enough money to go to college.” Olsen said. “I said, I paid for your tickets up here. $1, 500 bucks apiece from Montana, and wherever they came from. I said, you can go home. I feel nothing wrong. I’ll send you home. And you can go home right now and try to make more money and do what you can do with it there. That’s because they’re my crew. And they said no, we’ll stick it out. I guess what doesn’t kill you will make you tougher.”

Aaron Sexton is the captain of the F/V Sonora, and fishes in the Ugashik District.

‘The rumors and the price of fish are so low that we’re looking at barely making any money at all,” he said. “At 70 cents a pound, even if we were catching what we caught last year, which was one of the best years in Bristol Bay history, we would be less than half of what we ended up making last year. So by the time it’s all said and done with the price of inflation, the price of fuel going up, the price of airfare for all your deckhands, the price of food being substantially high or we’re not looking at making veiy much this year in actual profits.”

Sexton says he hasn’t received any letter or direct communication from his processor about this season’s prices or market conditions, leaving frustration and a lot of uncertainly.

“I would be really curious to know what are the margins between buying fish at $1 a pound and selling them in the markets for $16 to $18 a pound?” Sexton said. “The other question I would have is how much do they make on the roe?” Alaska seafood companies and market analysts say last year’s record-breaking harvest is part of the reason for the price drop. Last year, fishermen hauled in 60 million fish -over double the 20 year average -and the ex-vessel harvest value was estimated at over $351 million baywide. Wholesalers and retailers say they are still selling some of that product from last year, grappling with lower consumer demand, as many are dealing with tighter budgets and inflation.

Third generation fisherman Justin Arnold echoed the calls for more transparency.

“We are treated like a partner with these companies, but we have no information,” he said. “I can get more information on a publicly traded company that I have no stock in, then I can get on a company that essentially, I mean, we don’t know what we’re going to make till after the season. We still do n’t know if we’re going to get a retro for last season. So we’re almost a year in, and we’re still waiting to know what we’ll make for last year’s fish. It’s not a sustainable way to do business.”

Elliot Dawson’s father, Ugashik fisherman Brent Dawson didn’t mince words, expressing his frustration. “If you look at what we were getting paid 40 years ago is similar to what we’re getting paid now. And if you do inflation at 3% a year, on average, it should be 12 bucks a pound,” he said. “And so we’re getting screwed by the companies and it’s time to strike. It’s time to strike again, I’m sick of it” He says he got a letter from Peter Pan Seafoods in November celebrating a successful year, with markets looking up, so he doesn’t believe sockeye aren’t selling.

“We’ve got more people now in the world than we’ve ever had, more people that want to eat healthy. And this is the only fishery in the world that hasn’t failed. So you can’t tell me that there’s an overabundance of sockeye, they can’t get rid of,” he said. “BBRSDA (Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Association], they’re clouting that they’ve got their brand in every store over the US and we’ve got overseas markets everywhere. It’s like, the fish are getting taken care of, they’re getting eaten. So like, don’t tell us that we’re storing fish over the winter and can’t get rid of them. It” s bulls-.”

Processors could still publish a base price for this season, which is usually lower than the final ex vessel harvest price. But the last time the final average price dropped below a dollar was in 2016, at 96 cents per pound, and in 2015 it was 64 cents per pound, according to the Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Association.

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About Laine

Laine Welch has covered the Alaska fish beat for print and radio since 1988. She also has worked “behind the counter” at retail and wholesale seafood companies in Kodiak and on Cape Cod.


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