Let’s put this article into some context. Copper River opened a few weeks ago. The Alaska Department of fish and game is projecting a harvest of 6,000 Kings. That’s not a typo. Of the one billion salmon that’s projected to come out of the state, a mere 6,000 of them will be Copper River Kings. Don’t expect to see any discounts there.
Notice how we’re indicating both region and species when we talk about Alaska salmon? Because you need to. Referring to all salmon harvested in Alaska as “Alaska Salmon” is about as useful as writing an article about California Wine and only using the term “wine” when talking about price. No mention of different grape types, wine growers, wine producers. Simply lumping all wine together in one category. People who read Food & Wine magazine are certainly more discriminating than that. Do you drink wine? No! In fact, you don’t even drink Red Wine. You drink Zinfandel, preferably from California, preferably from Dry Creek Vineyard’s 2012 harvest.
Same story with Alaska salmon. Dozens of different regions, gear types, production methods - each yielding a different type of end product. You want a huge troll caught spring King harvested by a hand troller off Yakobi Island, pressure bled and delivered within 24 hours of harvest? You want set net caught sockeye from a third generation fishing family from the Cut Bank in Naknek? What about some smoked Yukon River Chum Salmon or steaks from a big fat fall coho from Prince William Sound? It’s not as easy as just saying “Alaska Salmon”.
Yes, Alaska is predicted to have a record breaking season when ALL the salmon from ALL the regions harvested in every manner is all lumped together. But that’s the problem. The vast majority of the predicted state-wide run is pink salmon. In 2013, over 80% of the salmon harvested in Alaska was pink salmon. Pink salmon is a solid fish best used for commodity type products. It’s the salmon equivalent of a generic canned tuna. Putting a FAS troll caught king or coho Salmon from Southeast in the same bucket as those fish - not fair to the producers or the consumers.
Huge runs can equal overloaded fishermen and processors and result in a poorly handled product. Not always, but if infrastructure isn’t in place to deal with the increased run size, then quality will suffer. It’s maybe hard to imagine what the logistics are like up in Bristol Bay, but processors can’t afford to be wrong - meaning they aren’t going to ship up extra people and equipment at huge expense to handle more fish, and then have the run not reach maximum forecast numbers. Economics rules and companies are trying to make as much money as possible - running things close to the bone. Fish just gets pushed through faster (or sits on boats waiting to be offloaded) and every step of the way quality is degrading.
As you can infer, the highest quality salmon comes from the lowest volume fisheries. For instance, David and I can catch, clean and freeze about 150 high-quality coho a day. Compare that to a seiner working near us and pouring 30,000 unprocessed pink salmon a day into their hold. Our freezer can only handle so many fish at a time before we start to raise our temperature past an acceptable level. Even if we were in the middle of a “huge run” we cannot bring more fish on board the boat and still produce a quality product. It’s just a matter of quantity vs. quality. That quality is what you’re paying for.
Are you still with me? I’m going to rant on a bit more here. There are over 300 million people living in the US. Let’s knock it down to 200 million who would answer YES to a question on a survey that asked “do you like seafood”. If we use industry standard yield numbers to adjust the predicted “1 billion pound salmon harvest” we come up with 450 million pounds of “edible” salmon. That’s only 2.25 lb. of salmon per person this coming year. I eat that much salmon in a week! If you ate one meal that featured a 6 oz. piece of salmon each month you’d eat 4.5 pounds of salmon in a year. All of a sudden a record breaking run isn’t even enough!
Think about other foods you splurge on once a month. Maybe a chunk of artisinal slab bacon (no nitrates added) from some Gloucestershire Old Spots? Dry Aged Bone-in Rib Eye from a Grass Fed Angus? Calculate the per pound price of your favorite Emmentaler or wild Hen-of-the-Woods mushrooms.
If you're on a budget you can find good quality canned Alaska salmon in almost any grocery store. It’s usually the most affordable way to get a healthy fish into your weekly routine. Mix it with cooked potatoes and onions and have a delicious hash for breakfast. Fold it into a potato chowder for an easy and satisfying soup. Canned salmon is the perfect end use of a huge run. The fish can be quickly and affordably processed into something with a long shelf life that can sell at an affordable price. You’ll find pinks, chums and sockeyes in cans - all harvested from abundant runs. If you add the word “canned” into the Food & Wine article, you’re getting a more accurate picture of the result of a record breaking salmon season in Alaska.
“All of this, though, is good news for (canned) salmon eaters. The huge harvest could mean more wild (canned) salmon at lower prices.”
Should there be even more cost-effective canned salmon on the market this coming year? You betcha. However, if you’re looking for high-quality fish from independent small fishermen, then don’t expect to see prices plummeting. Or, start imagining a world where wild salmon from Alaska is just another commodity, with marginal quality and mysterious provenance.