Pacific salmon supply drying up


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    Salmon boats sit idle at Oregon's biggest commercial fishing port.

    - Mitchell Hartman

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    Local Ocean Seafoods, an open-air fish market and restaurant, is being forced to cope with a lack of local fish to sell.

    - Mitchell Hartman

TEXT OF STORY

Kai Ryssdal: The Japanese fishing industry got some relief from high fuel prices today along with a stern talking to. The government in Tokyo says it'll subsidize some fuel costs, but in return fishermen have to promise to figure out a way to use less of it.

Energy prices are hitting American fishing fleets too. For the wild salmon fisheries along the Pacific coast, it's just adding to a whole host of problems. Salmon runs in West Coast rivers are dwindling due to agriculture, hydropower and urban development. The fleet's completely shut down from the Mexican border up to the Oregon Coast, which means prices are up too and consumers are shopping around.

From Newport, Oregon, Mitchell Hartman reports.


Mitchell Hartman: The scene at Oregon's biggest commercial fishing port is postcard perfect -- except the salmon boats have been sitting idle at anchor all season.

And that's a problem for Laura Anderson. She owns Local Ocean Seafoods, an open-air fish market and restaurant right across from the jetty. Wild salmon caught in nearby waters is usually the specialty of the house, but because the boats aren't fishing, she doesn't have anything local to offer. Instead, she has a single cut of premium Chinook caught much further north near the Canadian border.

Laura Anderson: This product is $29.50 a pound right now, which is a pretty good price considering a lot of wild salmon in the marketplace is over $30. Five years ago, it probably would have been about $14 a pound.

A hundred miles away in Portland, Richard Knutson oversees the seafood counter at New Seasons Market. It's an upscale local grocery chain. Knutson says he's got wild salmon for sale, but it's all coming from Alaska and it's expensive.

Richard Knutson: Fuel prices are a huge issue with the salmon.

Knutson says as a barrel of oil goes up in price, so does a pound of fish.

Knutson: Boats are not going out unless they know they can catch full loads of seafood. It's harder to book flights to get them sent here and also the transportation issues for the trucks to bring them to us are just getting out of hand.

Retailers try to push cheaper, more plentiful fish like ling cod, tuna and halibut, but Knutson says it's hard to teach consumers new tricks.

Knutson: Salmon is a very hard fish to substitute for. Our meat and seafood merchandisers have been trying to bring in more sustainable salmon, less fished, like keta, chum, pink salmon.

Chum? Isn't that the stuff that usually ends up in a can? But at comparatively bargain prices, Knutson says shoppers are beginning to try it.

Some customers may be tempted to switch to farmed salmon. It's readily available despite health and environmental concerns. But diners may not necessarily know what they're getting.

Chef Diane Morgan is the author of "Salmon: A Cookbook." She says she's noticed a bit of bait-and-switch at high-end restaurants lately.

Diane Morgan: You'll see Scottish organic salmon and so people are drawn to that like, "Oh, I like to eat organic." It doesn't say on the menu that it's farmed. If you know enough about this industry, you know that any salmon coming out of the Atlantic is farmed.

At the upscale New Seasons Market, the farmed stuff isn't even on offer. Customer Leslie Davis is a Portland local and she's still hooked on wild salmon, but the high prices have forced her to adjust her shopping list.

Leslie Davis: I'm eating a lot more chicken thighs and having a lot more vegetarian meals.

Hartman: And at what price would you simply walk away from the salmon, do you think?

Davis: Oh, I don't know if there's a price I'd walk away from salmon. Salmon is so good. I suppose $20 a pound, I'd really have to look at something else to eat.

Davis's purchase today: Steaks of budget wild sockeye at the bargain price of $14.99 a pound, so she's still got a little wiggle room.

In Portland, I'm Mitchell Hartman for Marketplace.

About the author

Mitchell Hartman is the senior reporter for Marketplace’s Entrepreneurship Desk and also covers employment.

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