Friction mounts between processors, harvesters over grounds price of salmon

Retail sales of fresh and frozen seafood are dropping in spite of prices, according to a Florida firm studying the complexities of consumer behavior. Meanwhile, processors and harvesters of Alaska’s wild salmon are at odds over prices being paid to harvesters.

It is, in short, the making of a perfect storm involving processors, harvesters and retail markets, with issues ranging from general overall inflation to the glut of a record Bristol Bay salmon harvest still unsold and the questionable quality of some of those fish.

“It is a random situation,” said Robert Cheyne Blough, a veteran commercial gillnetter from Hoonah who harvests salmon from Bristol Bay, where processors are offering a grounds price of 50 cents a pound for wild sockeye salmon. “We are asking for help anywhere we can get it.” 

Processors in Cordova meanwhile were paying $1.50 a pound for freshly caught Copper River sockeyes and $1.05 a pound for Prince William Sound sockeyes.

“The sockeyes this year were robust, very large,” said John Renner the vice president of Copper River Fishermen United, with some of the sockeyes weighing eight to 10 pounds. Meanwhile, overall prices to harvesters for red chum and pink salmon “took a 50% haircut,” he said.

The online publication Seafood Source was quoting the Florida firm Circana, which reports on the complexities of consumer behavior, as saying fresh seafood sales fell 2.8 % to $624 million in June and frozen seafood sales fell harder, dropping 5.3% to $627 million.


Processors of Alaska’s wild salmon were not commenting, but veteran fisheries economist Gunnar Knapp, now retired, said the 2022 glut of unsold salmon from Bristol Bay appeared to be a factor in depressing prices.

“Current wholesale prices are low and there is a lot of uncertainty of what prices will be going forward,” Knapp said. “That makes processors very concerned.”

“Then too, from a fisherman’s point of view, they are totally frustrated,” he added.

Knapp said various sources who communicate with him have also said a lot of processors are on shaky financial grounds, having trouble getting loans. A copy of a letter from Trident Seafoods that Knapp received from one source said consumer demand for salmon is down due to economic conditions, he said.

“What this all adds up to is complex, but it is all part of the picture, affecting wholesale prices of wild and farmed salmon,” Knapp said.

The Ukrainian war is also part of this perfectly awful storm, and the only possible bright side of these low prices is that over time they tend to be self-correcting, Knapp said.

“It tends to be cyclical,” Knapp said. “If prices are really low, you build demand. What keeps prices low is uncertainty. If wholesale prices tend to be better than feared, there is the potential for post-season bonuses. If they can the processors will be under a lot of pressure to try to offer a bonus to make these fishermen a little less pissed off.”

Blough said an undetermined number of Bristol Bay fishermen were planning a peaceful protest of their drift gillnetters on Thursday by the docks at Naknek, in Southwest Alaska, where millions of salmon are delivered to processing facilities.

“We have no idea how many people will show up,” Blough said. “We are just random fishermen. We need to show our dissatisfaction. This is devastating. This is not a blockade. We are just all showing up. We are not naming processors. We were going to try to get some signs, but we really don’t have much ability to do that. We are going to tie all the vessels in a line.”

Blough said that when he started commercial fishing back in the 1980s, the fish they delivered were not chilled or bled, but they got more money for those fish than the chilled, bled fish they deliver to processors now.

Gillnetter fishing boats that used to cost $100,000 or less in the 1980s cost as much as $1.3 million now, he said.

“The issue for me isn’t the cost of the vessels, but what is contributing to the prices over 30 years. If we were getting $4 a pound, that would be okay,” Blough said. “If the processors are unable to do better

(with their prices to harvesters), we will get attention from our legislators to find out what is going on with our industry.”

“The main thing is we want to draw attention to the problem. We need help figuring it out,” he said.