With the end of a season comes reflection, anticipation of prices and prep for next year. Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Association board member Larry Christensen offered thoughts while he was tied up for some quick repairs last week.
Docked up at Silver Bay is Larry Christensen and his crew on the Lyra. They are fixing a head gasket, but will be out on the water again soon enough. This record breaking season has served Christensen well, but he said the limits have been a damper.
“I personally have driven through and away more fish than I’ve ever seen in my life during a legal fishing opener. And that hurts," he said. "So there’s still things we need to figure out how we can utilize these fish better.”
And when Christensen is not behind the wheel of the Lyra, that is exactly what he is doing on the board of the BBRSDA.
He serves on the marketing and finance committees, and for the past three and half years he has helped with this idea of branding Bristol Bay. So rather than retail Alaskan Sockeye in the stores, his goal is for a clear distinction of Bristol Bay Sockeye Salmon.
“There’s so much of a market place that doesn’t know who we are. What I like to say is they don’t know they want our fish yet," he said. "Because they’re gonna find them eventually and we just have to keep that quality up and we’ll have those repeat customers. Because we after all do have a limited supply and as you increase demand the value of that product will go up and that’s my job.”
And as a fisherman Christensen said he realizes prices need to go up, but not just for the fleet, but for processors and retailers too. And that is just all part of the branding Bristol Bay, as well as sockeye in these high dollar retail stores.
“My job’s really not done until we get an x-vessel price of pushing in the $2 to $3 pound range and I don’t think that’s crazy. I think the market place supports it. It’s just a matter of developing those markets," he said. "When I see halibut in the same case selling for $26 dollars a pound and sockeye selling for $10 a pound I think there’s something drastically wrong because sockeye is a much better fish than the halibut. And so that’s all about marketing.”
Christensen said he thinks these changes will really take a foothold in 10 years.
But in order to get better prices, quality is a concern too. Christensen is a big advocate for icing and RSWs. He’d like to see 100 percent of the Bristol Bay fleet chilled, and in 20 years, maybe even 100 percent with RSWs.
“I was just talking to someone earlier today and saying 50 percent of the guys really care and 25 percent are trying hard and there’s still a percentage that could really work on it," he said. "And so that’s part of our job on BBRSDA is that everyone understand the importance of genuine quality not just perceptive quality.”
With a run like this year, Christensen said it is tricky to chill the fish even with an RSW. The fish is being transferred so quickly that logistically they cannot be chilled until they are on the tender. He said even though on paper the fish are not chilled, the turnover is so quick that they are just as fresh.
“It’s not always a reality because you can’t get these fish cold when you take a big catch on board like we experienced where all of a sudden you bring 10,00 pounds of fish on board and there 50 some degrees and the periods about over and you gotta go deliver and you haven’t chilled them down yet. You know our system won’t chill them down," he said.
In the heat of the moment Christensen says it is easy to get caught up in numbers - how many pounds of fish, what the prices are, when the next opener is…
He says it is important not to lose sight of the natural phenomenon Bristol Bay provides.
“In this healthy environment we get to harvest roughly 75 percent of the resource and escaping 25 percent regenerates an entire whole full 100 percent," he said. "There’s nothing else on this planet that does that that regenerates that fast and that healthy and is a protein source. So it’s a lot more than just making money and catching fish. It’s feeding people, taking care of people. One of the most amazing things on this planet.”
So for now, Christensen will head back out on the Lyra to finish out the season. When he is done he will put his BBRSDA hat back on. His goal for the next season is to have more boats with RSWs and to continue with the overall branding of Bristol Bay Sockeye salmon.