Bristol Bay fleet chilled more salmon in 2016 than ever before, according to study

May 17, 2017

Survey of processors shows number of chilled deliveries has climbed from 24 percent in 2008 to 71 percent in 2016, the highest on record. Stakeholders like BBRSDA point to a quality revolution underway in world’s largest sockeye fishery.   

2016 BBRSDA Processor Survey
Credit Northern Economics

The Bristol Bay salmon drift fleet sold more chilled salmon to processors last year than ever before. Bristol Bay is the world’s largest salmon fishery, and is making efforts to sell a larger portion of its catch as fillets, rather than canned. Filling those fresh and frozen orders requires chilling at the point of harvest, which more fishermen are apparently doing.  

Audio transcript: The Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Association commissions the Northern Economics to survey fish processors in the area each year.

“Every year it goes out to the major processors in the region and we ask questions about the volume of purchases, and we focus on the portion of the raw product purchases that are being chilled,” said study project manager Michelle Humphry.

Last year’s survey showed record setting numbers for chilled salmon.

“When we started the survey in 2008 only 24 percent of all of the purchases were being chilled, and in 2016 we recorded that 71 percent of all the products we’re chilled,” said Humphry. “So that’s a huge jump in portion of purchases, but it’s also a really big jump because last year’s run was so huge … in terms of volume.”

According to the study, the total volume of drift fleet chilled purchases in Bristol Bay last year was more than 122 million pounds, which surpassed the previous record of less than 88 million pounds. While more boats are adding RSW each year, and there is access to more ice, many believe it is the processors who are helping lead the change. 

“Most of the processors in the region now offer chilling bonuses. Which many people think that is kind of a driver behind this change is that they’re being incentivized to deliver chilled product,” said Humphry.

According to the BBRSDA survey, chilling bonuses averaged 16 cents per pound last season. Depending on the base price, the percentage that 16 cents represents can be too large to ignore. While most new boats come with refrigerated seawater systems installed and more are added to older vessels each year, the study found there are still plenty of skippers who are holding out.

“It’s a big investment to install an RSW system, and they either don’t think it’s worth it, or they don’t have the funds to pay for that upgrade,” said Humphry.

Icing is considered to be the most effective way to chill fish quickly after harvest. But providing ice to all the drift boats in Bristol Bay’s high volume fishery is expensive and not proving practical. The BBRSDA is among those pushing to make RSW the standard solution for commercial fishing vessels in Bristol Bay.

The market has driven the Bay’s buyers to produce more fresh fish and frozen filets. Some processors are giving up on canning fish altogether. But filling fresh and frozen orders needs better deliveries from the fleet, which should be in everyone’s interest. Through its own incentive programs and a public outreach effort, the BBRSDA is targeting that 29 percent of the catch that is still not iced or chilled at the point of harvest.

Continuing to make improvements to the quality of the overall harvest should be in everyone’s interest, said Humphry.  

“By increasing the value of the raw product by chilling, it’s essentially increasing the value of the entire fishery.”