Skiffs sit on shore in the Southwest Alaska fishing town of King Cove. (James Brooks via Flicker under Creative Commons license)
Skiffs sit on shore in the Southwest Alaska fishing town of King Cove. (James Brooks/Flickr)

Consumers think of seafood as a premium purchase, which is not a good image when household budgets are tight and shoppers are worried about inflation.

“The problem is not the fish,” said Jeremy Woodrow, executive director of the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute. “The challenge is in the global marketplace.”

Woodrow in February called the 2023 market for Alaska salmon “rock bottom” with low prices and weak demand, though maybe the industry was coming off that rocky bottom, he said then.

Now, as the season is getting underway this summer, “a lot of people in the industry are optimistic,” he said Friday, June 14.

At least the market “hasn’t gotten any worse,” he added.

Still, the pain is not gone. “A lot of buyers are barely holding on,” Woodrow said. “Our processors lost a lot of money the past year or two.”

Shoppers’ tight household budgets continue to be a problem, he said. “Consumers still view seafood as a premium.”

Markets were so bad last year that some processors paid just 20 cents a pound for chum, and others shut down buying early.

Last year is “nothing we ever want to repeat,” said Jeff Welbourn, Trident Seafoods’ senior vice president for Alaska operations.

“I do think that things are firming up,” he said last week of the outlook for this summer.

The inventory of last year’s Alaska salmon in warehouses “has mostly moved,” opening up the market for this summer’s catch, Woodrow said. But, unlike past years, “we’re not seeing significant pre-season commitments” from buyers to ease the worry and financing burden of processors.

“That creates some challenges,” Woodrow said, putting processors at risk of freezing and canning more fish than the market is willing to buy in a timely manner.

However, there are some encouraging signs for this summer, he said.

Pre-season base prices for Bristol Bay, the state’s largest sockeye fishery, are running about 80 cents a pound, about 20 cents above last year, but still far from the $1.15 of 2022, $1.25 in 2021 and $1.35 in 2019.

And the state has forecast an average year for the Southeast Alaska pink salmon harvest, less than half of last year’s catch. “Having an average year helps the industry correct itself,” Woodrow said of matching supply with demand.

Full U.S. sanctions on the importation of Russian seafood, which went into effect last month, will help Alaska products better compete in the domestic market, he said. Russia has been flooding the global market with low-priced seafood to boost its revenues.

A ban on Russian seafood into the U.S. started in 2022, but Russia got around it by sending its fish and crab to other countries for processing before exporting the products to the U.S. The full ban ended that practice.

But Russia is still unloading fish at rock-bottom prices elsewhere in the world, Woodrow said. The ban applies only to the U.S. market, where 30% of Alaska seafood is sold, leaving the other 70% of Alaska seafood still facing Russian competition.