Alaska's salmon fishermen and processors are just over a month away from the state's first test of commercial salmon fishing under new conditions necessitated by the coronavirus.
Fishermen, processors and others in the supply chain are preparing for the mid-May opening of the Copper River sockeye and king salmon fisheries, and concerns are high regarding finding workers and fears in Alaska of "outsiders" infecting locals.
"It’s been an evolving thought process," Bill Webber, owner of Cordova, Alaska-based Paradigm Seafoods, told IntraFish.
While the city of Cordova, Alaska, where the Copper River fish are landed, hasn't passed any measures to halt the fishery, Webber noted several residents want to isolate the Prince Williams Sound community as a safety measure.
Cordova’s year-round population of approximately 2,300 increases by about 860 fish processing workers at the peak of each summer season, the Anchorage Daily News reports. In addition, roughly two-thirds of the nearly 540 commercial fishing permits for the area are held by individuals from outside the community, the news site reported.
With no coronavirus cases reported as of April 1, the city is requiring anyone traveling into the area to self-quarantine for 14 days, and is requiring companies coming into the city from outside to agree to the quarantine and other preventative conditions by Friday to be able to participate in the fishery.
Webber said he feels fortunate that his crew of three, which includes his wife, is entirely local and vertically integrated.
"We are a different fishing business model where we are the catcher and also processor," said Webber, a third-generation Alaska fisherman.
Webber supplies the US domestic market and ships product into 43 states. The company was also recently approved to ship its salmon internationally, where Webber noted he is seeing an uptick in sales to Italy and Israel.
"I potentially see some opportunities for us to pick up a lot of slack if the marketplace can’t get Copper River product from normal channels," he said.
In an average to good year, Webber said his small operation processes about 13.6 metric tons of salmon.
Webber agreed his market potential with foodservice is diminishing with restaurants across the United States struggling to stay afloat, but he is seeing a growing customer base with individuals buying online who are looking for a specific quality.
Rich Wheeler, one of the owners of Alaska salmon supplier Sixty North, told IntraFish he still plans on fishing this season, but is taking new precautions. Wheeler, who lives in Washington State, normally operates with a crew of 25 people. A third of his staff lives in Cordova, and the rest of the team is from California, Oregon and Washington.
"We’re going to get our crew and staff onsite by April 24 and follow state mandates for the 14-day quarantine," he said. "We're all going to do it together, but realistically, we're looking to have a smaller staff this year and stay open later to facilitate the purchasing of longline fish."
Wheeler, whose crew consists of friends and family, said he plans to use 18 people at the most this year in response to coronavirus-related costs and logistical challenges.
E-commerce demand for fish
Like Webber, Wheeler's business is vertically integrated. His company sells primarily frozen product to retail and uses fresh product as a way to pay the bills throughout the summer when they are on-site fishing, he explained.
"The wintertime is our savings account with the frozen," he said. "Paying the bills during the summertime with fresh is going to be drastically reduced."
The company has seen an uptick in e-commerce for frozen fish since quarantine measures hit the United States, he added.
"We do a lot of value-added to our product, and we’re seeing tremendous e-commerce that w’ere shipping to the end-user," he said.
Sixty North is currently exploring whether or not it has enough cold storage capacity this year at facilities such as the one it leases in Kent, Washington, he said.
Getting product to consumers remains a concern for both Webber and Wheeler.
Alaska Airlines, a leading cargo carrier for Copper River salmon, has not made an announcement specific to the fishery, but it has announced significant reductions -- as high as 70 percent -- in flying capacity for May.
Webber noted his product is mostly shipped on passenger aircraft.
"If we have a big fishing period out here, Alaska Airlines can mobilize aircraft in addition to its twice-daily service," he said. "It’s a juggling act every fishing period."
Wheeler, who uses Alaska Marine Lines' barge service to transport mostly frozen product at the end of the season, also anticipates some issues with getting product out of Cordova this year with coronavirus impacting ferry schedules.
Opener on time (so far)
Planning is proceeding without disruption, Alaska Department of Fish and Game's (ADFG) Area Management Biologist Jeremy Botz told IntraFish of the Copper River's opening fishing day.
"I anticipate the season opening per normal timing," he said. "We will adapt management throughout the season to provide reasonable fishing opportunity on salmon surplus to escapement needs."
He added management of the fishery will also be adjusted in the case that coronavirus does impact processing capacity or fishing efforts.
ADF&G in January projected a sharp decline in the catch of Copper River sockeye, one of the world's most valuable wild salmon, whose early-season catches fetch astronomical prices early in the market.
Buyers such as Matthew Davis, with Santa Monica Seafood, remain wary about this year's season, and not only because of the forecast. He pointed to the current lackluster demand for halibut as a one indicator of how this year's Copper River season could go.
"A lot of people still have more than adequate freezer inventory they will be looking to/needing to blow through into the new wild season, and current food service demand is near nonexistent nationwide," he said.
Davis, who serves as Santa Monica's director of strategic sourcing and support, said there could be a bright side if the myriad US state-imposed quarantines are lifted by May.
Then Copper River fish could see demand from pent-up consumers who haven't been able to eat out.
"Even so, pricing will not be where it was in the last couple of years," he said, noting the seafood industry could even see a 30 percent or more decline compared to last year with a down economy and excess frozen inventory.