Harvesters Heading for Bristol Bay Are Cautiously Optimistic

The Hannah, Northline Seafoods newest processor vessel coming to Bristol Bay for the 2024 sockeye salmon fishery, has advanced ultra-low-temperature preservation technology, and the capacity to hold 14 million pounds of frozen salmon.

Some of the Bristol Bay commercial fishermen gearing up for the 2024 harvest of the world’s largest run of wild sockeye salmon say they’re anticipating a good season ahead, despite challenging market conditions, buoyed by cautious optimism that comes with the territory.

Veterans of the fishery, in fact, told Fishermen’s News that they’re already seeing it as a year they can bank on.

“I’m feeling real good about it,” said Antonio Arena, of Dillingham, Alaska, for whom this will be his 15th year fishing the bay, “I’ve seen upswings and downswings (over the years). I think (this season’s) going to be really solid.”

Arena said that this year he’ll be selling his catch for the first time to Northline Seafoods, which is introducing its new vessel, The Hannah, to Bristol Bay. The salmon are to be frozen and transported to Washington state for custom processing as orders come in.

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game has predicted a point estimate of 39 million fish, in a range of 24.89 million to 53.12 million fish, with a harvestable surplus of over 25 million sockeyes in Bristol Bay and 1 million red salmon in the South Peninsula.

“I’m really excited about some of the programs they have, the innovation they are bringing to Bristol Bay, how they are going to process the fish,” Arena said. “Having the barge to receive and freeze the fish, it will cut the timeline between when the fish is caught and processed. They are streamlining the shipping process.”

The Hannah, Northline Seafoods newest processor vessel coming to Bristol Bay for the 2024 sockeye salmon fishery, has advanced ultra-low-temperature preservation technology, and the capacity to hold 14 million pounds of frozen salmon. Photos: Northline Seafoods.

“They have a lot of good things going on and that will really benefit the quality,” he added, noting that a lot of issues that impacted the price of the catch last year are not as much of a concern this time around.

Last year, Russia flooding the market with low-cost fish, something Arena doesn’t see as being much of an issue this year, nor does he anticipate Russia squeezing into U.S. markets with fish it has processed in China. Leftover fish are a lesser problem as well, he said.

“As far as I understand it, the fish (are) starting to move, and I don’t believe there will be as big of an overstock going into this season as was going into 2023,” Arena commented. “Prices are coming up. Processors are putting out profit shares. They will be giving bonuses this year.”

“Sometimes it will be a penny a pound, but when it starts getting to 10 cents to 15 cents a pound that’s a significant amount of money,” he said. “That gives me a lot more confidence.”

‘Positive Outlook’

Ben Blakey, CEO of Northline Seafoods, has his own reasons for optimism in the upcoming season.

In the wake of turmoil in the seafood industry for the past couple of years, “we are now looking at a more positive outlook,” Blakey said in a May 6 interview.

“Projections are for a slightly lower (run) forecast and that may help (take out existing inventories),” he said. “It’s looking better than in 2022 and 2023.” The company’s last freezer vessel was wrecked in 2020 and this will be Northline’s first season in three years back in the Bristol Bay.”

Northline will be staging The Hannah in the Nushagak district of Bristol Bay. Meanwhile, the Miss Molly, a fish buying station and ice production platform, will be at Egegik, and transferring its fish on a daily basis to The Hannah, Blakey said.

Northline introduced the Miss Molly, its first at-sea processing facility, in 2023. The vessel, with a crew of five to six people, operates as a buying station that offers ice services and other benefits to its fleet, plus a fish holding capacity of 400,000 pounds.

The Hannah, with a crew of 75, has a capacity of 14 million pounds of frozen fish. She was built with advanced ultra-low temperature preservation technology, to ensure that each fish is flash frozen in its prime state, and act as a cold storage unit before being shipped south at season’s end for processing for customized orders on demand, according to Northline’s website.

Once back in Bellingham at season’s end, Northline expects to produce fillets and portions for clients from all over the United States, plus Asia, as ordered.

Blakey said he feels wild Alaska salmon is the healthiest product people can eat. The challenge is “to put out the best product we can and convince consumers it is worthy of their pocketbook,” he said, adding that the farmed salmon industry has done a great job building a consistent supply chain and that the wild fish industry can learn from them.

Caribbean Son, an adrift gillnetter captained by Antonio Arena of Dillingham, at work in the Bristol Bay wild sockeye salmon fishery. Photo: Katherine Carscallen.

“It’s been a tough couple of years for wild salmon in Alaska,” he said.  “We believe Northline Seafoods can be part of the contribution to success (this year).”

Other veteran Bristol Bay fishermen are upbeat as well.

‘Cautious Optimism’

“I’m approaching the season with cautious optimism,” Fritz Johnson of Dillingham said, adding that he doesn’t make predictions regarding price.

“In 2022 there were so many fish that it became a problem,” he said. “This year’s forecast is it will be something like normal.”

And Robin Samuelsen, a third veteran fisherman from Dillingham, said he’s also somewhat optimistic.

“I personally think this season’s going to be better than the one we had last year, but I don’t have strong feelings,” he remarked. “I have very little information to make that assessment, but I don’t think it can get any worse than last season.”

Arena, Johnson, Samuelsen and other members of the Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Association are also banking on the intense 2024 marketing effort announced by the association in collaboration with the Copper River & Prince William Sound Marketing Association.

They said their plan is to focus, as the fishery progresses, on the unique attributes of wild Alaska salmon, while partnering with retail partners to showcase both the fishery and its salmon, emphasizing sustainability, fishing narratives and environmental impact.

Together, they hope to boost the public’s overall knowledge of Copper River and Bristol Bay wild salmon as it moves from fishing boats to dinner plates, so consumers choose wild fish for consumption.

The efficiencies of the Northline and other processors aside, fishermen, processors and all support sectors of the seafood business in Alaska still face an unsettled market situation where it’s hard to say what will happen next, said Gunnar Knapp, of Anchorage, an internationally recognized scholar on fisheries markets and management of fisheries resources.

One thing that matters every season, he remarked, is how many fish are caught.

“If the supply is significantly lower, it tends to bring prices up and if the supply is up it tends to bring prices down,” Knapp told Fishermen’s News.

Another factor that impacts Bristol Bay and other Alaska salmon markets is the very strong U.S. dollar, which makes it harder to sell to export markets like Japan and Europe.

“Strong dollars are not good for the fisheries business,” he stated.

Under such conditions, farmed fish from Norway become relatively cheaper. Norway seafood entities announced late last year plans to spend millions of dollars to increase its market share for sales of farmed salmon and whitefish in the U.S.

“The fact hardest for me to understand,” Knapp said, “is what exactly is happening to consumer demand for food. Ever since the pandemic, that has been out of historic whack.”

Northline Seafoods’ buying station Miss Molly, which also offers ice services, is being stationed at Egegik, Alaska this summer to purchase fish and provide ice for its fishermen. Miss Molly, with a crew of five to six people, has the capacity to hold up to 400,000 pounds of fish. Photo: Northline Seafoods.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, sales to food service and restaurant customers dropped dramatically as many of these facilities were closed at least on a temporary basis and experiencing a much smaller customer base. Also, high value fish like king salmon tend to be sold in restaurants, with lower value fish at retail outlets.

Farmed Atlantic salmon is a food eaten by a higher income consumer who likes something better than hamburger, Knapp said. “Farmed Atlantic is a milder taste than wild salmon. It’s been popular for Alaskans to say farmed salmon is inedible, but four times as much (farmed Atlantic salmon) is purchased than wild Alaska salmon.”

Alaskans can still remember when farmed salmon was kind of new and viewed as suspicious, but now most salmon is farmed and there is a lot more of it, Knapp said, with Chile, Canada and Norway being the top producers.

“The point is: consumer demand has been really unsettled,” Knapp explained.  “People who look at what people are eating in general since the pandemic note that seafood in general is down. It relates to people who are looking to buy cheaper. Everyone moves down to the level they buy. A lot of people have switched from fish back to meat.”

“The general trend is down in terms of consumer demand, and this has put the squeeze on the market and who is taking the hit—seafood processors and fishermen, rather than the retail stores—or they lower their prices and pay processors a lower price,” he added. “This is a major part of what has been driving a number of companies.”

Unique Dynamics

Knapp said the economic dynamics of what’s going on in the seafood industry in Alaska is not representative of any place else.

“It’s really complicated,” he said. “Exchange rates and interest rates are also a factor.  It will be interesting if marketing efforts can do much to change that.”

Knapp said he felt the general situation is one where prices for the catch should be better than last year. “That’s not saying a lot, but overall the market situation remains highly uncertain and in certain parts of the state fishermen will be in a real bind” he said. “There is a lot of uncertainty and unhappy fishermen in some parts of the state.” 

The going rate for commercial fishing vessels and commercial fishing permits also figures into the overall economic picture for the Bristol Bay fishery.

“The market statewide and industry wide is depressed right now,” said Maddie Lightsey, a broker with Alaska Boats & Permits in Homer, the state’s largest full-service marine brokerage.

The company, established in 1997, specializes in the sale of sport and commercial boats, permits and individual fishing quota, permit leases, marine documentation, estate liquidation, trade agreements, seller-financed sales and more.

The company’s seeing fewer vessels for sale than last year and as of early May, there was also little demand from potential buyers, a notable decrease from a year earlier, Lightsey said, adding that boats are selling for much less than before.

“We sold a boat recently for $145,000 that two years ago would have sold for over $200,000,” she remarked.

“So few people are looking to buy boats right now. Part of it is the industry is in a slump ad interest rates are really, really high,” she said. “State loan rates are at 10.5% right now. Interest rates across the board in the country are high.”

Borrowers as of early May also had diminished purchasing power.

“We are working with some Alaskans, but there is an increased number of out-of-staters buying from us,” Lightsey said. “Sometimes they are at a disadvantage because they don’t have access to the state loan program or the Commercial Fisheries and Agriculture Bank.”

It’s getting pretty late to buy boats for the 2024 Bristol Bay fishery for those who need to borrow money. For actual purchases there is a good mix of cash and loans and out-of-staters are more likely to pay cash, because they don’t have any other options, she said.

Lenders have also gotten a little more conservative over the past few years as well, she stated.

Permit values meanwhile are also fluctuating. Bristol Bay permits that peaked at $260,000 in 2022 were selling in the spring of 2024 in the $130,000 range, up to about $135,000-$137,000. 

“It’s an open market on permits,”she said.   

Margaret Bauman is an Alaska journalist and photographer with an extensive background in Alaska’s industries and environmental issues related to those industries. A long-time Alaska resident, she has also covered news of national and international importance in other states on the staff of United Press International, the Associated Press, and CBS News. She can be reached at margie@maritimepublishing.com.