Roe—or fish eggs—make up four percent of sockeye round weight and eight percent of chum round weight, according to the Department of Commerce’s recoveries and yield table for pacific fish and shellfish.
In Bristol Bay, processors process salmon into various products but their highest profits per pound comes from roe products like sujiko and ikura. Sujiko are salted roe skeins sold mostly in Japan. And some of the most highly priced sujiko comes from wild Sockeye salmon. Ikura is essentially caviar, brined fish eggs that have been pulled out of their skeins. Ikura is mostly sold to eastern European or Russian markets and is much higher priced than sujiko.
With the record catches seen in the Bay in recent years, the possibilities of the roe market are huge.
Last year, with a total harvest of 31 million fish, Bristol Bay sold 850 tons of sujiko to Japanese buyers at $4.53 a pound—that’s more than the wholesale price for frozen and fresh H+G sockeye and only slightly less than the $5.06 offered for frozen sockeye fillets.
Earlier this week, Japanese Trade publication Minato Tsukiji reported that Japanese buyers are expecting this year’s harvest to only yield 550 to 600 tons of sujiko. That’s 63-70 percent the amount sold last year.
However, Minato also reported that Japanese buyers still managed to see a silver lining in this year’s harvest.
At 6.1 pounds, the average female Bay sockeye was larger this year, which resulted in higher roe recovery.
Exporters and Japanese buyers are expected to start price negotiations this week but an initial price of $5 a pound has already been batted around. That’s pretty close to the $4.93 Bristol Bay sujiko sold for last year.
In part, that stable price might have a cultural reason.
Joe Jacobson is the director of the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute’s International Program. He says that while demand for other fish egg products has dropped in Japan, sujiko is still a main stay.
“Sujiko is a Japanese item so if demand was to drop off in japan,” he said. “There would be a noticeable difference since there are no other markets.”
Andy Wink is an economic analyst with the McDowell group. He added that as Japan goes about rebuilding after the earthquake they experienced in March, the yen is showing up stronger than the American dollar, since Japan is selling more assets and demanding more yen for investment funds. And for the Alaskan seafood industry, that means that even if Japanese seafood prices stay the same as last year, they will appear higher to American seafood sellers.
“Even if the price doesn’t change from our point of view,” he said. “It will appear cheaper to Japanese buyers.”
Minato reported that Japanese buyers and Alaskan seafood exporters would be settling on a price this week