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IN SEASON

Red Fish, Blue Fish

June 04, 1997|RUSS PARSONS

The spring run of salmon is on in the Northwest and Alaska and, to put it mildly, fishermen are knee-deep in fish. Prices are even lower than they have been for the last couple of years.

On Alaska's much-heralded Copper River, which delivers some of the best salmon to be had every spring, prices to fishermen have fallen by two-thirds since 1988.

The reason? This year's run looks like it may come in as much as six times larger than preseason predictions. According to Slim Morstad of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, 1.2 million fish have been caught a quarter of the way through this sockeye season. Compare that to a predicted total of 1.5 million for the entire year.

Fish are coming in so fast that processors are unable to keep up. As a result, the twice-weekly harvest periods have been reduced from 24 to 12 hours.

"This year's run is absolutely biblical," says Jon Rowley, the Seattle marketer who was instrumental in setting up the Copper River appellation. "This is Old Testament kind of stuff. One day there's nothing in the water and the next day the water is just full of these magnificent creatures."

The problem is that this flood of fish is falling on an unreceptive market. It's not that people aren't eating salmon, it's just that with the huge amounts of farmed fish available, prices have fallen even for the wild catch. When you consider how little waste there is, salmon fillets on sale now are nearly as cheap as chicken breasts.

Combine that with a yen that has fallen 15% since last year--Japan used to be the prime customer for choice salmon--and you've got a situation in which some fishermen aren't even going out.

Furthermore, though all salmon fishermen sell on the same market, they don't all pull from the same stocks. And while the Alaskan wild salmon catch is booming, things are bleak along the rest of the Pacific Northwest because of a number of factors, including damage from logging and the damming of rivers.

This has led to fishermen pushing into areas they may not have fished before, which in turn has spawned a particularly nasty trade dispute between the U.S. and Canada. Early last week, talks were called off after Canada seized four American boats it said were fishing in their waters.

The most recently reported price right off the boat for Copper River salmon was $1 a pound for sockeyes, slightly more for kings. You won't find them that cheap in Southern California, but you will find farmed salmon for less than $6 a pound. And several Southern California fish markets, including Santa Monica Seafood, Glendale's Fish King and Bristol Farms markets, do carry Copper River fish when available. Prices run $11 to $12 a pound for kings and about a dollar cheaper for sockeyes.

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