Alaska salmon fishermen fume over low prices, but processors say they’re hurting too

Bristol Bay fishermen are calling for strikes, lawsuits and “the goddamn picket signs and pitchforks” in response to low salmon prices. But an industry expert says processors have been "screwed," too.

By Nathaniel Herz, Alaska Beacon - July 21, 2023
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Fishing boats in Bristol Bay this season.

A few times this summer, Jared Danielson, who fishes for salmon on the Alaska Peninsula, found himself fighting back tears in his bunk.

Aboard the F/V Five Star, his boat, Danielson and his deckhand put away as many pounds of fish as they could. They had no breakdowns. But his seafood processor is paying him 70 cents a pound for his salmon — half of last year’s price  — which means that instead of his usual six-figure haul for a summer of hard work, he might only break even, or go home to his family in Washington with $10,000, if he’s lucky.

“I’ve done everything right,” Danielson, 36, said in an interview this week. “It’s pretty demoralizing — you take all this risk, all this sacrifice, and you go home essentially without a paycheck.”

He added: “We’re up against something that’s out of our control, and that’s the processors killing us here.”

In the past few weeks, thousands of fishermen across the state have found themselves in a similar predicament: The price they’ll be paid by the processing companies that buy their salmon won’t be enough to cover their costs — or, at least, will make them far less profit than last year.

Some fishermen, like Danielson, have known about the weak market for fish since early in the summer salmon season. But the fleet’s frustration boiled over in recent days as processors announced a minimum price of 50 cents a pound in Bristol Bay — the site of Alaska’s, and the world’s, largest wild sockeye fishery.

Last year’s average Bristol Bay sockeye price was $1.39 a pound. Prices have fallen below $1 only twice since 2009, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

Fishermen have been fuming at processors since this week’s announcements, and dozens of boats staged a floating protest Thursday on a Bristol Bay river, according to local public radio station KDLG. One group assembled behind a hand-drawn sign: “50 ¢, FUK U.”

“Our operating costs have gone nothing but up, and yet we’re the ones who get paid less,” Bristol Bay skipper Jerry Matzen said in an interview this week. “This business would be nothing without us — absolutely nothing. So, why are we the ones who always take it in the shorts?”

But John Sackton, founder of industry publication Seafood News, said the story is more complicated than processing companies profiting by paying unreasonably low prices.

The Bristol Bay harvest, in particular, has unique features that can benefit companies at fishermen’s expense — namely, that boats often start fishing before prices are set.

But processors have also been struggling this year, as pandemic-fueled grocery store demand for seafood gives way to the slowing global economy and a glut in Alaska salmon after last year’s record catch of 75 million sockeye, according to Sackton, a longtime industry analyst.

A sockeye salmon. (Nathaniel Herz/Northern Journal)

Processors typically don’t sell fish directly to consumers; they sell at wholesale prices to commodity brokers, or restaurants and chains like Costco, which make their own decisions about the prices they’ll charge.

“The reason the processors are being aggressive on price is because they got hit hard with losses they didn’t expect on salmon,” Sackton said. “The warehouses and the freezer space were full of unsold products. When there was a slowdown in the velocity of sales, the harvesters and the processors were left with the short end of the stick.”

This year’s feuding over seafood prices is not limited to Alaska.

In eastern Canada, prices crab fishermen received collapsed this year, and were less than one-third of 2022 prices. Fishermen went on strike for weeks this spring, and the provincial premier had to intervene to help strike a deal with processors, who only agreed to make their initial offer the minimum price.

And in Alaska, salmon fishermen’s woes are not limited to Bristol Bay.

Danielson, who uses a drift gillnet to fish for salmon in a region of the Alaska Peninsula called Area M, said he will likely end his season early because of the low price he’s being paid.

Another gillnetter in the same area, Cody Trader, sent a statement on behalf of several fishermen that said this year’s prices would send a “significant portion” of the region’s fleet into forced sale or bankruptcy.

Deckhands are quitting early, forcing some skippers to stop fishing, Danielson said.

“A lot of these crew, they’re probably thinking, ‘Why am I up here? I could probably be making more money working at McDonald’s at home,’” he said.

In the Copper River and Prince William Sound gillnet fisheries, captain Patrick McCormick said he was getting at least $2.50 a pound for sockeye last year. This year, he said, most processors are paying $1.

“It is, quite frankly, unbelievable that the price of salmon would be that low compared to last year, especially when it is more expensive than ever in the store,” McCormick wrote in an email. He added: “I am not sure who is making the money, but it isn’t us.”

Sackton said there’s a clear explanation for why grocers’ salmon prices have remained high, even if fishermen are earning far less. Retail sellers, he said, would rather maintain high profit margins then sell more seafood at lower prices.

“This is very bad news for harvesters and processors, because we depend on the volume that we produce moving through the market,” he said.

Processors, Sackton added, “got screwed by the retailers.”

“They were left holding the bag, because retail customers who were going to take that fish off their hands never materialized,” he said.

One processing company official, speaking anonymously, said nearly the same thing as McCormick: “There’s clearly someone benefiting. It’s just not us.”

Representatives for two of Alaska’s largest processors, Trident Seafoods and Silver Bay Seafoods, declined to comment.

But in its letter to fishermen announcing its Bristol Bay prices this week, Trident asked for their trust “that the price put forward directly reflects where the sockeye market has landed.”

The company also promised that if it gets higher-than-expected prices for the 2023 harvest, it would share that “upside” through retroactive payments — a standard fishing industry practice.

In explaining its prices — which include bonuses above the 50-cent base for chilling and bleeding fish — Trident cited market trends such as high inventories, falling demand, inflation and even low-priced Russian salmon being sold to finance the country’s war in Ukraine.

Many fishermen, however, don’t accept those explanations. Facebook groups, in recent days, have lit up with posts by Bristol Bay fishermen calling for strikes, lawsuits and “the goddamn picket signs and pitchforks.”

One emerging theme is that Bristol Bay fishermen want price information from processors sooner, since skippers typically spend weeks or months preparing their boats and invest thousands of dollars in supplies and airfare before knowing how much their catch will bring.

“Every other fishery, we have a set price,” said Matzen, the Bristol Bay skipper. “We need to find out the price prior to us putting the net in the water — we need a price a couple months in advance of us coming up.”

Other fishermen say Bristol Bay salmon aren’t always the highest quality. Boats harvest in huge quantities, and when fish holds fill up, sometimes the catch has to sit on deck, unrefrigerated, before it’s delivered to processors.

Sackton, the analyst, said it’s not unreasonable for fishermen, who only sell salmon for a brief summer season, to be surprised and angry about this year’s crash in prices.

Given this summer’s circumstances, he added, they can push for more transparency from processors — and from government agencies — about the wholesale prices they get for seafood, and for postseason price adjustments if sales merit them.

But another way to look at it, Sackton added, is that a “cooperative approach” with processors to maximize salmon’s value would benefit the whole industry.

Fishermen, he said, “can’t focus their anger on the processors without asking the question of how to better market their fish and better their value,” he said. “Everybody benefits,” he said, when the price paid to fishermen is “as high a price as possible.”

Northern Journal is a newsletter written by Anchorage journalist Nat Herz. It’s free to subscribe, and stories are also free to Alaska news outlets to republish through a partnership with the Alaska Beacon.