Story last updated at 9/18/2013 - 1:53 pm
Alaska's record salmon season has permit brokers hopping as buyers seek to break into or expand their fishing opportunities in many fisheries.
Notably, brokers say there is "a lot of great buzz" at Bristol Bay, despite a lackluster sockeye fishery that saw the bulk of the red run come and go eight days early.
"Prior to the season the drift permits went for under $100,000, but we just sold one for $125,000," said Doug Bowen of Alaska Boats and Permits in Homer.
Most of the bump is due to optimism about the sockeye base price of $1.50 per pound, a $.50 increase from last year.
Data from the state Commercial Fisheries Entry Commission show that Bristol Bay driftnet permit values have remained near or well over $100,000 since 2010, and increased steadily each year after dropping below $20,000 in 2002.
This summer also was a great one for salmon seiners, which has driven up interest in those fishing permits.
"These folks had good seasons and made some money. They're going to be looking to expand their operations, pick up another permit, another boat or upgrade," Bowen said.
Salmon seine permits at Southeast Alaska have the distinction of being the highest priced at more than $300,000.
"There's very little on the market and it's hard to tell where that will shake out," said Olivia Olsen of Alaskan Quota and Permits in Petersburg. "Most people think the permits are headed up because they have had such a fantastic year, but they had moved up so fast prior to the season, that might not happen."
A Chignik seine permit recently sold for $225,000, Bowen said, and Prince William Sound seine permits just broke the $200,000 mark. At Cook Inlet, seine cards are stagnant after a disappointing season, but still valued around $70,000. That compares to a Cook Inlet permit value of about $54,000 last year and just $17,000 in 2010. Kodiak seine permits are still hovering around $40,000 and interest has picked up slightly; at the Alaska Peninsula, the seine value is holding steady in the high $60s.
"All of these permit prices are extremely volatile," Bowen said. "A good fishing year or forecast can make permit prices double in a year depending on the fishery. Then if they have a lousy year or it looks like they are heading into a bad time, you can watch permit prices tumble by 50 percent. But we are seeing a trend of better salmon prices and that has sparked enthusiasm with the fleet and buyers."
Find a list of all Alaska limited entry permit values (based on the average price of actual sales) at www.cfec.state.ak.us
IFQ funk - Brokers tell a far different story when it comes to sales of halibut catch shares.
"In a word, it's negative," said Doug Bowen, adding that it's been the slowest time for IFQ (Individual Fishing Quotas) sales in the 17 years he's been in business.
Halibut catch limits have been slashed by 70 percent over the past five years and the outlook, at least for the short term, is grim. Prices at the docks also have plummeted by a dollar or more.
"Buyers are understandably reluctant to purchase quota that they believe will be cut next year, and sellers are faced with the difficult decision to either hold out for their price, or hold onto their quota and perhaps have less to sell next year. That's pretty much taken all the wind out of the sails of the IFQ market, and demand is non-existent," Bowen said.
The one exception is Southeast Alaska, which has avoided halibut catch cuts for a few years.
"Fishermen here are real happy with their catch, the numbers per skate, and availability of the fish," said Olsen, from Petersburg. "They feel like maybe there won't be more cuts in Southeast and there might be increases. So this is the only area where halibut has been moving at all this year. I have zero interest in any other area."
The price for Southeast Alaska halibut shares also has "been out of sight," selling at between $38 to $46 per pound. "And as soon as it's in, it's moving," Olsen said.
Doug Bowen said he is confident the IFQ market will rebound for other Alaska regions, as it has in Southeast.
"When it hit bottom there and then turned around, the optimism came back and that's when we saw those prices take off," he said. "So I imagine we would see the same scenario in these other areas when the cuts bottom out."
Here comes the crab! - It's mixed results for Bering Sea crab, based on the annual summer trawl surveys. For nearly 40 years fishery managers have surveyed 360 regions to track the health and abundance of the various crab stocks. The annual report by NOAA Fisheries, dubbed the "road map" by crabbers, shows survey hot spots and other data prior to the season opener.
Some highlights: red king crab stocks at Bristol Bay appear stable. Legal males are at the highest level in four years, up nearly 40 percent since last year's survey. Mature females, however, declined 26 percent so chances of an increased quota are mixed. Last year's red king crab catch was 7.8 million pounds.
Catch numbers could decrease for Bering Sea snow crab - the number of legal males dropped 5 percent and mature females declined 20 percent. Last year just over 66 million pounds of snow crab were harvested.
The Pribilof region, which has been closed to king crab since 1999, is again unlikely to see a fishery. The surveys show that the male red king crab size has been stable for four years and abundance has increased, but a decrease in mature females is cause for concern. For blue king crab, both male and female abundances are extremely low with little evidence for improving.
Conversely, hair crab stocks around the Pribilofs, central Bristol Bay and west of Nunivak Island appear to be on the upswing. That fishery has been closed since 2000, but has been slowing rebounding since 2005. Another bright note: a small fishery for Bering Sea Tanners could reopen for the first time since 2010. The catches for the Bering Sea crab fisheries will be announced this month; the 2013/2014 season opens in mid-October.
Puny pinks - Alaska pink salmon set a record this summer but it turns out the fish in the three major producing areas were pretty puny. State data show the pinks at Prince William Sound averaged 2.76 pounds, down a full pound from last year.
At Southeast, pink salmon weight averaged 2.9 pounds this season, down 18 percent from the 3.77 pounds of last summer. And at Kodiak, pink salmon averaged 3.06 pounds compared to 3.58 pounds last year, a 14 percent decrease.
Alaska's pink salmon catch topped 215 million as of Sept. 13, bringing the all species total to 267.7 million salmon.
Laine Welch has been covering news of Alaska's fishing industry since 1988. She lives in Kodiak. Visit her website at www.fishradio.com