Alaska sockeye salmon processors are putting limits on what they are able to buy from fishermen in Bristol Bay due to a surging harvest in recent days.
On July 6 there were 3 million sockeye caught, the second-largest daily harvest since at least 2012, a much-needed boost for a season that began with far lower catches than usual.
"Instead of being long and drawn out the salmon showed up all at the same time," Tom Rogotzke, who is currently fishing in the Nushagak district, told IntraFish. "We haven't been on limits like this since 2017."
Rogotzke and other fishermen in the Bay confirmed with Intrafish Leader Creek Fisheries and Peter Pan have both limited and temporarily suspended the amount fish they can purchase over the last several days in reaction to the onslaught.
John Blue, who was fishing this week in Naknek, told InraFish Thursday he caught plenty of salmon with his crew, but was still working on delivering them to Alaska General Seafoods and Trident Seafoods as those processors were already filled up.
Dean Pugh, a sales manager with Deep Sea Fisheries, a small processor operating on Big Creek near Egegik, told IntraFish his company has also put limits recently on fishermen.
"Egegik is in full swing now," he said. "We have our fishers on limits to maintain the quality of our fish, but are still taking fish every opening. Everyone in Big Creek is working at maximum capacity and probably will continue to do so for a while."
The bay's daily catch across all districts was over 2.6 million on Tuesday, according to the latest report from local news site KDLG, with the run at nearly 20 million fish.
Longtime Bristol Bay Fisherman Michael Jackson told IntraFish the issue with a compressed run is that it puts pressure on fishermen in the bay.
"You have to hit a home run everywhere you go every day," he said of the fishing expectations. Jackson has already switched between multiple fishing districts in the bay either because the catches were so small and the fishing district was loaded with boats, or because too many fishing limits were being placed on a district.
The fishing season, which started late in the bay, remains a ways away from its peak, according to Alaska Department of Fish and Game Area Management Biologist Tim Sands. He told IntraFish Wednesday the peak of the season is likely to happen sometime next week.
While the compressed salmon run is largely to blame for the backup in production, the reduced numbers of processors in plants to maintain necessary social distancing to prevent coronavirus outbreaks is also playing a role, according to several fishermen and processors.
Several major processors in the region have suffered infections among workers, including Ocean Beauty and Cooke's newly formed group OBI, Silver Bay Seafoods and Trident Seafoods.
The run is picking up, but will the market?
Despite volume increasing following a slow start to the Alaska salmon season, there continues to be dismal foodservice sales worldwide and ongoing issues with outbreaks at major processing facilities, which could ultimately impact prices.
"The market is falling pretty rapidly," Matthew Davis, a buyer with Santa Monica Seafood, told IntraFish. "It’s not good for anyone in the best of times -- distributors are losing money by the time the fish shows up at their dock, and packers are getting push back for the same reason."
Fresh sales typically geared to foodservice operators remain down from last year, according to an executive with a major processing plant in the Alaska.
"[There are] not a lot of fresh markets available. With COVID going on here in the Lower 48, there isn't huge demand," the executive said.
That means product is instead being processed as frozen or canned to be sold over the next year. But even the booming frozen seafood market isn't an entirely safe bet.
The executive said one of the processor's reliable European buyers for frozen salmon is leery of committing to product this year with unknowns surrounding consumer demand and whether reprocessing plants will even be able to operate efficiently, or get shut down again due to the pandemic.
Some US retailers have signed on to promote and sell the salmon this year, despite ongoing market challenges.
On Thursday the Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Association (BBRSDA) said several salmon promotions are happening at retailers around the country, and told IntraFish it has secured even more fresh promotion contracts than last year.
BBRSDA promoted fresh sales in five US retail chains last year versus six this year, Kate Consenstein, a spokesperson with BBRSDA, told IntraFish.
Last year, 546 retail stores ran fresh promotions for Bristol Bay sockeye, and this his year there are 813 stores, she said.
Cleveland-based Heinen's and Texas retailer H-E-B are both promoting fresh Bristol Bay sockeye salmon in their stores in the United States. Midwest retailer Hy-Vee also will feature fresh Bristol Bay sockeye salmon in its stores this year. Raley’s, a family-owned chain in Northern California, is promoting Bristol Bay sockeye salmon year-round and focusing on fresh while it is available.
Rosauers Supermarkets, a chain based in eastern Washington state, is featuring whole Bristol Bay sockeye salmon fillets and portions.
Seattle-area Kroger Owned Quality Food Centers (QFC) are executing a fresh promotion in the second half of July, and will feature a sales contest in lieu of traditional in-store chef cooking and sampling demos.