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Eager buyers proceed with caution into Alaska's Copper River salmon season

The commercial fishing season in Copper River begins May 16.

Alaska is predicting a below-average season for Copper River salmon in the Prince William Sound Fishery, and buyers are reacting with cautious optimism that maybe this year will be better than the last.

Patrick Wagner, who works in strategic sourcing for Seattle Fish Company, told IntraFish his retail customers in Colorado, who include Kroger and Whole Foods as well as boutique retailers, are eager to purchase a product they view as premium, and even seem to enjoy the competitive process.

"It's an unofficial kickoff to wild salmon season, "he said of the hype surrounding Copper River sockeye salmon. "Copper River has done a really good job marketing that fish. They have a following. People get really excited about it, and are wiling to pay higher prices for it."

And while he still expects prices to soar, Wagner is hopeful this season will provide a more consistent volume of the fish to sell to retailers such as Kroger, who look to Seattle Fish for inventory to freeze for refresh programs.

"The competition for some of the fish just going into the freezers will also be strong, which will keep fresh pricing up," he said.

For Matthew Davis, the director of strategic sourcing and support for Santa Monica Seafood, a dismal 2018 Copper River sockeye season has not diminished consumer's appetite for it this year.

"We are of the opinion we should expect similar market conditions to last year," he told IntraFish, noting he expects demand for the first-of-the-season fish to be on par with previous years.

With the opener set for the week of May 16, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADFG) is predicting that 756,000 sockeye will be harvested in the Copper River District in 2019, which is 39 percent below the 10-year (2009–2018) average of 1.25 million fish.

Jeremy Botz, ADFG's area management biologist, told IntraFish while the department is seeing lower returns for sockeye than in previous years, it should be a brighter year for coho and Chinook.

"For Chinook, it's a higher than average forecast, we've rebounded quite a bit," he said in comparison to runs since 2016. "We don't do an involved forecast with coho, but there's a lot of availability. It's been a higher level of productivity recently, with the average going up year after year."

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