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B.C. sockeye prices plummet as supply runs high

Bob Wilson, right, and his 24-year-old son Rob Wilson, both of Victoria, B.C., unload their catch of sockeye salmon at Steveston Harbour during a 32-hour fishery window in Richmond, B.C., on Thursday August 26, 2010.

Darryl Dyck/ The Canadian Press/Darryl Dyck/ The Canadian Press

On Monday, Vancouver-based Choices Markets was selling fresh Fraser River sockeye pin fillets - boneless cuts preferred by some consumers - through a special promotion at $7.99 a pound.

That's about 50 per cent lower than the company's regular price for B.C. sockeye and about half the price of wild Copper River salmon from Alaska that Choices was promoting earlier in the summer.

"We've dropped our price down to reflect what we are being charged by the fish companies right now," said Choices manager Rob Hunt, adding that the special will be available at most of the company's eight stores.

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Other retailers reported similar prices, as the ripple effects of an unexpectedly strong sockeye salmon run spread from fishers' boats through the processing chain and, in some cases, to consumers.

But while shoppers might be finding sockeye bargains, the historic run - estimated to be the biggest in nearly 100 years - is putting a strain on B.C.'s creaky fishing infrastructure, including processing capacity and refrigerated warehouse space.

VersaCold, a cold storage company with 10 warehouses in the Lower Mainland, is handling big volumes of sockeye salmon at the same time it's handling season crops such as blueberries. About half of its Lower Mainland facilities are equipped to handle fish, and they are rapidly filling up.

"We're trying to balance off the demands from the fishing industry, and specifically salmon, against some of the other commodity crops, which would be fruit and berries and vegetables - and they're all coming in at the same time," said VersaCold senior operations vice-president Bob Lewarne.

As B.C.'s commercial fishery withered over the past two decades, canneries closed, experienced workers retired or changed careers and equipment was sold. Last week's commercial fishery openings for Fraser River sockeye were the first since 2006.

"Most people have got out of processing or freezing or holding that product in cold storage because the fishery has been in such a steep and long decline," Mr. Lewarne said. "To have this sudden spike has caught all kinds of people off-guard."

VersaCold, for example, used to freeze millions of pounds of fish each year, but in recent decades moved out of that business as catches dwindled. This year, it has dusted off its freezing equipment for the first time in a decade.

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"We've lost a lot of capacity, capability and expertise," said Jeremy Law, a spokesman for wholesaler Blundell Seafoods.

Blundell, for example, no longer buys fish directly from fishing boats as it does not have employees to unload and handle the product. The company is urging its customers, including retailers and restaurants, to carry and promote sockeye salmon instead of the Alaskan product typically available at this time of year.

French bistro Salade de Fruits plans to feature Fraser River sockeye as its fish of the day as early as this week, said chef and owner Antoine Bonard.

"For local people, it will be wonderful," said Mr. Bonard, who plans to showcase the fish with other B.C. produce.

In Victoria, cold storage facility Minus 28 is near capacity, said manager Mick Farup. "This run has taken a lot of people by surprise," Mr. Farup said. "It's pretty clear that we have a greater capacity to catch the fish than we do to process them."

The Pacific Salmon Commission on Friday raised its estimate for the Fraser River sockeye run to 30 million fish, which would be the largest run since 1913.

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Last year, only 1.5 million sockeye returned to the river. A federal judicial inquiry into the decline of sockeye salmon on the river was launched last fall and is now under way.

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About the Author
National correspondent

Based in Vancouver, Wendy Stueck has covered technology and business and now reports on British Columbia issues including natural resources, aboriginal issues and urban affairs. More

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