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ASMI conference identifies storm of issues in seafood market conditions

Commercial Fishing boats docked in Kodiak’s St. Herman Harbor, Oct. 11, 2023. (Brian Venua/KMXT)
Commercial Fishing boats docked in Kodiak’s St. Herman Harbor, Oct. 11, 2023. (Brian Venua/KMXT)

The Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute, a partially government-funded organization focused on promoting the state’s seafood, held its All Hand on Deck Conference in Anchorage from Nov. 1st through the 4th. Some of the seafood industry’s top experts presented on the state of the market.

Kirsten Dobroth is the Alaska reporter for Undercurrent News, a commercial fishing and seafood trade magazine. She was at the conference and sat down with KMXT’s Brian Venua to chat about the state of the seafood industry.

Brian Venua: So Kirsten, this was ASMI’s annual meeting, can you tell us a bit about what it was like? (Processors, fishers, marketing agencies etc) What would you say were some of the overarching themes at the conference?

Kirsten Dobroth: The big consensus was definitely how bad market conditions are across Alaska’s fisheries right now.

There’s been a lot of attention on low base prices paid out to fishermen for salmon this year, but I think it’s worth pointing out that ex-vessel and wholesale prices – that’s money paid to harvesters and then money paid to processors for bulk product – are at some of the lowest levels they’ve been at in decades if not ever across multiple species in Alaska, including salmon. Prices have crashed across the pollock sector and also for typically really lucrative species like sablefish, or black cod. So, that really set the tone for the conference.

BV: Would you say that was the elephant in the room?

KD: Definitely.

I heard the situation compared probably a dozen times to a term fishermen in Alaska are familiar with – a williwaw, which is a kind of violent storm that comes down to the sea suddenly from the mountains.

ASMI’s board of directors published an open letter before the conference even began citing what they called “extraordinary circumstances” that have led to this price collapse. In the letter they said fishermen were having trouble making boat payments right now. On the other hand processors are also struggling with cash flow. It painted a pretty dire picture. And that was really a pervasive theme at this conference – both how to navigate this historic situation that’s hitting pretty much every species in Alaska and then what the year ahead might look like.

BV: Salmon fishers have been outspoken about frustration over pricing this year and processors have been blaming low prices on the huge hauls over the last few years. How much is that playing into things, and are there updates on moving older inventory?

KD:  Yeah, both of those things – huge harvests and leftover inventory has continued to be difficult, and again not just for salmon. But there are a lot of market conditions that are making moving that product tough – inflation is a huge one. One analyst who presented at the ASMI conference pointed out that grocery prices are up 30% from before the pandemic. Other panelists at the event talked about struggles with the Japanese economy – that’s a big trading partner for the Alaska seafood industry. The ASMI board of directors letter I mentioned before also outlined ongoing effects of the trade war with China – that’s also historically been a big market for seafood products from Alaska. Russia had big harvests of pollock and pink salmon this year, just like in Alaska. Another big takeaway from the conference is that consumers have just changed since the pandemic, and that also presents a real challenge.

BV: You mentioned Russiathere’s also been a lot of finger pointing at Russia’s role in this. Alaska’s congressional delegation has said part of the issue is that while Russia has embargoed American seafoods, the U.S. is still buying Russian products after they get processed in places like China.

KD: Right. Senators Murkowski and Sullivan and Rep. Peltola have continued a pretty united push to close this processing loophole you mentioned of Russian seafood, which is banned in the US, entering the domestic market by way of processing facilities in China. They have reiterated that demand in interviews and at every gathering of seafood industry people I’ve been to this year, including during pre-taped remarks at the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute conference. Sen. Dan Sullivan’s office has indicated there’s been some progress with that. But Congress is on a time crunch to fund the government by Nov. 17, so it’s unclear what will happen by then.

BV: ASMI’s focus is obviously marketing and stirring demand – including developing a stronger consumer base here in the states. Have you heard of any interesting efforts or bold strategies to build more interest domestically?

KD: Well, a bright spot is purchases from the US Department of Agriculture for domestic food aid programs – so far USDA has purchased more than $200 million worth of mostly Alaskan pollock and salmon products this year. But there’s also been a push across the industry to increase some sort of “Alaska” or “Product of USA” labeling standard and that was a big conversation piece at the conference. Several analysts who study consumer behavior told conference attendees that people look for products that say they’re “wild caught” or Alaskan in the store. It’s worth pointing out that Sen. Murkowski has also been very vocal about creating some sort of Alaska specific brand.

BV: So with all of this said, what do you think are the most important things for our listeners, especially fishermen, need to know about ASMI’s efforts/the state of seafood markets?

KD: One thing that came up several times including during ASMI’s board of directors meeting the last day of the conference was the need to better communicate with the fleet – both market conditions so commercial fishermen know what to expect and also what’s actually happening to market Alaska seafood products. But, like I said before, this is a really tough time for the entire industry, prices are down for just about everyone and I think the biggest takeaway that I heard was that there’s a lot of people working on how to get through it.

Editor’s Note: As a disclaimer, Kirsten Dobroth is a former news director for KMXT.