Story last updated at 12/23/2009 - 12:19 pm
Sales of fishing permits and catch shares is a good way to gauge how confident people feel about the economy, and brokers say the past year has been a mixed bag in their business.
"It's been the slowest year I've ever had, but with the most phone time ever. There's a lot of interest, but not a lot of movement," said Olivia Olsen at Alaskan Quota and Permits in Petersburg. "A lot of guys want to buy and they had the money, but the world situation and some declining fish stocks didn't give them a lot of confidence."
Mike Painter at the Permit Master in Anacortes, Wash. agreed, but added the tide seems to be turning.
"Most fishermen seem to have money saved up and they've been hanging on to it during the downturn in the economy. Now things look like they're starting to loosen up and guys are starting to spend," Painter said.
In the past six weeks, Painter said business has picked up considerably, most notably for salmon permits at Bristol Bay and Prince William Sound. Many people waited to see what decisions the Board of Fisheries made earlier this month in the Bristol Bay fishery, he said, and then they started putting down their money.
"Drift permits are at $90,000 now and they are hard to find at that price. That indicates that they are going to continue to creep up," Painter said.
Another hot item is drift and seine permits at Prince William Sound, where prices are going up daily, Painter said.
"In the past month almost overnight offers went from $105,00 to $110,000 to $120,000 for Copper River permits. Seine permits have moved up from $60,000 to $65,000. Those are the two that have moved the most in the least amount of time," Painter said.
Much of that is being fueled by Exxon settlement checks that are being paid out now.
"A lot of people are getting some pretty big checks, so if they want something they're not afraid to pay for it," he said.
Olivia Olsen said she talks to a lot of people about Kodiak salmon permits, but there hasn't been much action. Painter said he is selling a seine permit now "that's in the high $20's-about where it left off before the season."
"Kodiak has had some decent seasons, but the interest in the permits doesn't reflect that," he added.
Neither broker sees much interest in fishing permits further west. Painter called the Kuskowkim and Yukon "the quietest areas as far as permit trading goes."
Prices for catch shares of halibut are on a downward slide, due mostly to big price drops at the docks and uncertainty about the stocks.
For several seasons, halibut routinely topped $5 a pound to fishermen; this year prices were down by more than a dollar. Shares that a year ago were fetching $30 a pound for prime areas in the Central Gulf are now going for $23-$24 per pound.
"I think prices will stay there for awhile. I don't think sellers are going to want to come down, particularly after they have to take a cut in what they can sell," Painter said, referring to halibut catch limits that have decreased 10 percent again for 2010.
In Southeast Alaska, Olsen said there is lots of interest in buying catch shares of halibut, but uncertainty is dampening sales. The fishery has been slashed by more than 25 percent for two years in a row, and just 3.3 million pounds might be available for longliners in 2010. Olsen said catch shares of halibut in Southeast range from $21-24 a pound.
Many people picked up smaller permits this year to "fill in the gaps" from shortfalls in the larger fisheries. Black cod permits at Chatham and Clarence Straits are some of the most desired, and Olsen said there is a great deal of interest for Southeast salmon seine and gillnet permits, and lots of sales for hand troll permits.
Neither broker does much business with catch shares for Bering Sea crab because there are so few sales offered. Shares of red king crab top $30 a pound and Mike Painter said the estimates in general are "six to seven times what the ex-vessel price is."
Both brokers said the overall mood among Alaska fishermen is good, and they are hopeful about the future.
"Everything needs to stabilize within the whole economy and with the fish stocks so people know what's happening. I think it will be slow for another year or so, but the product is only getting better," Olsen said.
"The last couple of years have been pretty decent fish wise," said Mike Painter. "There are some bad spots here and there, but the value of the fish is coming up and demand is strong. It all looks good to me."
Laine Welch has been covering news of Alaska's seafood industry since 1988. Her weekly Fish Factor column appears in a dozen newspapers and web outlets. Her daily Fish Radio programs air on 27 stations around Alaska. Welch lives in Kodiak.