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Bristol Bay processors expected to keep sockeye fillet output high this season

New survey shows canned, H&G are losing favor as market demand grows for fresh products and fillets.

A new survey of processors who operated in the 2018 Bristol Bay salmon fishery shows a continued move away from canned sockeye salmon, with the portion of raw product purchases used for canned products falling to a record low of 14 percent.

The report, recently released by Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Association (BBRSDA), also documents a trend toward fillet production over frozen headed and gutted (H&G) fish, which still make up the largest amount of production at 42.4 percent.

The portion of raw material used for fillets was 61.1 million pounds, making up 28 percent of the 218.6 million pounds recorded as harvested into product in 2018, a record-high level according to the BBRSDA.

Between 2017 and 2018, the portion of H&G frozen salmon decreased by 13.7 percent to to 92.7 million pounds. During the same time period, the portion of raw product for fillets increased by 9.2 percent.

"Everybody now has a fillet program," Andy Wink, BBRSDA's president, told IntraFish. "We've see that volume increase, even though we have large harvests. It takes longer to take meat off of the bone than to just freeze H&G, so there is an economic incentive to do that."

Wink said retailers are also driving the trend.

"When we're out in the marketplace doing promotions, some operators will do a true refresh program where they slack out H&G, and some will slack out vacuum-packed fillet," he said.

The 2018 Bristol Bay sockeye run was 69 percent above the average run over the last 20 years. The Alaska Department of Fish & Game estimated the total Bristol Bay salmon harvest at 232.7 million pounds, 13.4 million pounds more than in 2017.

"In terms of sales success, there is also a lot of optimism because there's been a total paradigm shift in quality, evolving product forms, and a premium brand identity that is really performing well," Wink said.

In recent years, the BBRSDA has developed a nationwide marketing effort that includes partnerships with retail chains to increase sales of Bristol Bay sockeye salmon. It recently reported that Rouses, a 62-store grocery chain in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, saw a 340 percent increase in year-over-year sales of Bristol Bay sockeye in 2018 while running summertime seasonal promotions.

Wink told IntraFish this year the company is launching fresh promotions at New York-based Wegman's, which has around 100 stores; Washington-based Rosauers Supermarkets, which boats 22 units; and Texas-based HEB, which has 350 stores.

A growing market for sockeye

This year may not be as historic in terms of run size as last year, with the sockeye forecast predicted to be down from 2018, but the industry remains excited, according to Wink.

"We've had four straight years of large harvests with increasing value and haven't had any major carryover problems -- that confirms that the quality is excellent, and demand is growing," he said.

The dynamics of this year are also different because last year Bristol Bay benefited from filling a large market gap left by the Copper River's dismal returns. This year, Copper River salmon is doing better than anticipated. Prices at US retailers spiked to typically high levels when the fishery opened, but now are settling as low as $12.99 (€11.45) per pound for sockeye.

"As far as the fresh market and competing with Copper River goes, we don't expect there will be much impact on the Bristol Bay fishery," he said. "Usually what happens is Copper River prices start out high and decrease as the Bay and other sockeye fisheries come online with more volume."

Wink noted even if both fisheries hit their forecast this year, Bristol Bay would produce 10 times as many sockeye as Prince William Sound (of which Copper River is a component).

"And even though most Bristol Bay salmon is frozen, Bay processors still shipped out the equivalent of 3.5 million sockeye as fresh product last year, about 40 percent more than the forecast Copper River harvest," he said.

There's a large and growing market for fresh sockeye, he said.

"Also, the timing works out well for fresh buyers," Wink added. "Typically as the Copper River sockeye run starts declining, the Bay starts taking off and runs pretty strong through late July. This creates a longer and larger window for fresh product than either fishery could offer alone."

A trend toward alternative forms

The BBRSDA has also reported increases from 2015 to 2017 for forms going into the "other" product category, which it said could be related to emerging markets in countries such as China.

One example of a processor creating an emerging market is Northline Seafood, which in 2017 launched a unique floating fish processor that was a former helicopter barge.

"The owners claim that growth of markets in China create demand for fish heads, skins, bones, and roe that can be reasonably preserved by freezing fish whole," according to the BBRSDA.

"Alternative product forms like whole fish could develop into a larger share of the market, if parts of salmon that are normally ground up as waste can be sold overseas."

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