What's A Salmon Worth?
by Buck Meloy

In the first decade of the 21st century, it wasn't much. Here is the history of that story.

Most of the press I see salmon getting is about their life cycle, their imperiled status, their hardiness, their toothsomeness, or how much fun they are to catch. Little note is made of their economic value, probably because that topic is of direct interest primarily only to those who catch them for a living, and to their families and immediate communities.

As one such person, I am keenly aware of what has happened to the value of my catch in the face of the flood of pen-reared "feedlot" salmon on markets worldwide. At one time, my primary concern was the environmental and human health ramifications of substituting a low-quality, polluting, capital-intensive form of production for a perpetually self-renewing and healthful resource. Those impacts have only gotten worse. Yet the economic devastation that has been wreaked on an entire industry by the explosive growth of the salmon net-pen industry is also a human disaster.

That growth is almost beyond comprehension. Despite difficulties with some salmon stocks, primarily in the dammed rivers of the West Coast, the overall production of wild salmon worldwide has actually increased over the last several decades. Additionally, since 1980 when farmed salmonids* represented a mere 1% of the world's total annual production of 567,000 metric tons, the total (capture plus farmed) has escalated steadily to 2,390,000 metric tons in 2001, 68% of it farmed. To put that another way, the amount of salmon on the market last year had quadrupled. And the aquaculturists have been selling theirs for less each year at prices that are often below their cost of production. The price of wild salmon has plunged right alongside.

With very few exceptions, fishermen are receiving less for their salmon than they have in modern history. In 1977, the total Alaska salmon harvest was worth $514 million to fishermen, on an inflation-adjusted basis, and climbed to $1,164 million in 1988 when plentiful salmon and high prices in Japan combined fortuitously. Then the long descent began. By 2002, the pack's value had fallen to $142 million. The 2003 salmon harvest was the seventh largest in Alaska's history, but it was worth only slightly more than the previous season's.

This has been catastrophic for fishermen. Boats and permits that even 10 years ago had great value are, in many cases, available for pennies on the dollar today. Retirement is not an option for older fishermen who assumed that their businesses would provide a nest egg when they sold out. Now no one spends money on his investment unless it is absolutely necessary. Boat builders and repair shops are closing their doors if they cannot find alternative opportunities. In the fishing village of Cordova, where I live and work seasonally, one of two foodstores has closed, restaurants have closed, many boats that would have been warehoused for the winter are being left outside to avoid that expense, and repair shops and the fuel dock have cut their hours. The raw fish taxes that once supported many coastal villages' infrastructures like police, social services, and fire protection have fallen steadily with the fall in value of salmon. The fishermen-funded revenues of the state's fish marketing arm have fallen by over 40%.

You will rightly wonder why the price of wild salmon is still often high in the retail cooler since, with a few notable exceptions like Copper and Yukon River kings, the wholesale prices have plummeted. Some of that is inefficiencies unique to Alaska, like the necessity of air shipment for most fresh fish. And wages are high, often more per hour than foreign fishfarm workers earn in a day.

The tribulations faced by fishermen and coastal communities are great, and the consumer alone cannot solve them. There is, however, the choice that each of us can make for healthful diets and sustainable economies: choosing omega-3 rich wild salmon over its feedlot cousin is like choosing free-range chickens over cooped and chemicalized ones, or like choosing organically raised beef or pork or, if sustainably available, choosing uncorrupted wild meat. Or, perhaps, choosing not to eat meat at all.

*salmonids = salmon plus "salmon-trout", which are mostly steelhead, and other salmon-like species that compete with salmon on world markets.

copyright 2003, Buck Meloy

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