The U.S. Department of Agriculture is on a salmon-buying binge. It usually spends $6 million a year buying pink salmon. This summer, it is spending a total $39 million.
That's a relief for fishermen who caught pink salmon in record quantities back in 2013. A year-and-a-half's worth of pink salmon was caught in that year, and now millions of cans from that year are still sitting in warehouses.
The large supply has already pushed prices lower. Now that pink salmon from the 2014 catch are ready for sale, the downward pressure on prices was set to intensify – until the USDA again sprung into action.
After a summer gorging on pink salmon purchases, the USDA announced it would buy yet more, just as the price for pink salmon was being set.
“Wild salmon come out of the water once a year. They come out of the water in the summer,” said Tom Sunderland of Ocean Beauty Seafoods, one of the Puget Sound region’s canning and distributing giants. “And then we have to work real hard to figure out exactly what the value is. So that’s what we’re doing right now, and we figure out every year. Once the price is set, it’s set."
Pink salmon is among the lower-cost salmons available on the grocery store. King, coho and sockeye are expensive and at the fish counter. Keta and pink are on the shelf.
But at Fishermen’s Terminal, pink salmon is the fish that is most important. “Pink Salmon are the bread and butter of our industry,” said Gary Stewart, owner of the Polar Lady. “It drives everything else. It’s got to be be 60 or 70 percent [of the annual catch].”
The purse seiners based in Seattle rely heavily on them. Tenders – boats that ferry fishermen’s catches from the sea to the cannery – can expect that most fish they take in will be pinks. The big companies that can and distribute the fish also depend on profit from pink salmon.
That means the annual haul of pink salmon has a far-reaching affect on the economy. Jobs are on the line, which means politicians in Alaska got involved when the glut of pink salmon became a concern. Their pressure moved the USDA to buy more salmon.