The value of Alaska salmon permits has ticked upward in regions that experienced a good fishery this year, while others have tanked.
Not surprisingly, the record sockeye fishery at Bristol Bay has boosted sales of driftnet permits to nearly $200,000, up from the mid-$170,000 range prior to the 2019 season. Another strong run forecast of 48.9 million sockeyes for 2020, with a projected harvest of 36.9 million, could increase the value even more, said Doug Bowen of Alaska Boats and Permits in Homer.
What’s really raising eyebrows, Bowen said, is values for driftnet permits at Area M (False Pass) on the Alaska Peninsula, where lots of people want in and not many want out.
“We sold one at $235,000 which is amazing - $40,000 more than a Bay permit,” Bowen said. Listings by other brokers reflect the same trend, with Area M seine permits also commanding over $180,000.
Wanting in are fishermen at Cook Inlet, where another poor season has seen the value of driftnet permits plummet.
“They got up as high as $40,000 before the season, we've sold a couple at $28,000 and they are down around $25,000 to 26,000,” Bowen said. “You have folks in Cook Inlet that have hung on for years and they’re trying to get out and go to Area M or Bristol Bay where they can hopefully make a living.”
At Kodiak, which had a strong 2019 fishery, the value of seine permits increased for the first time in many years, from $30,000 to $40,000.
The Kodiak fishery produced over 36 million salmon, well above the 10-year average of 21 million fish, of which nearly 33 million were pinks. The value to fishermen was nearly $46 million, compared to the recent 10 year average of $38 million. A fleet of 176 seiners accounted for most of the harvest, with each averaging $227,552 per permit, an increase of $80,000 over 2018.
Conversely, at Prince William Sound, seine permit values remain lackluster, in the $175,000 range, with drifts upward of $145,000. The estimated preliminary dockside value of the total salmon harvest was nearly $114 million, an increase of about $19 million from 2018.
Contrary to expectations, Southeast Alaska had a disappointing salmon fishery, which has put a downward press on permit prices.
“With the preseason optimism there, the Southeast drift was around $90,000 to $92,000. We have one now at $87,000. so that’s a lower asking price than what the preseason sales were. But there is no action there,” Bowen said, adding that Southeast seine cards are holding at $230,000, also with little activity.
Southeast’s 2019 salmon fishery was valued at under $102 million, compared to nearly $134 million in 2018.
Meanwhile, the Panhandle is projected to see pink salmon numbers catches plummet next summer. State fishery managers are forecasting a 2020 catch of just 12 million pinks, one-third of the 10-year average, and down from 21 million taken in 2019.
An advisory from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game stated: “It is possible that drought conditions present in Southeast Alaska from the parent year 2018 spawn through the spring of 2019 reduced spawning success or negatively impacted overwinter survival of developing juvenile salmon, but the exact reasons for the low juvenile abundance are not known.”
It added: “Like many recent years, a potential source of uncertainty regarding the 2020 pink salmon return is the anomalously warm sea surface temperatures in the Gulf of Alaska in 2019. Compared to sea surface temperatures since 1997, when NOAA first started the Southeast Coastal Monitoring project, surface temperatures in the Gulf of Alaska in 2019, immediately offshore of Southeast Alaska, were the warmest of the time series in July, the 4th warmest in August, and 3rd warmest in September.”
Uni undone - Uni, or roe from sea urchins, is a popular delicacy with sushi lovers but draws little interest by Alaska harvesters.
Alaska has a red urchin fishery in Southeast with a harvest guideline of 3.5 million pounds, although that number is based on older stock surveys, said Phil Doherty, co-director of the Southeast Alaska Regional Dive Fisheries Association.
“That's a bit of a ghost guideline average level, because there aren't that many sea urchins still here,” he said, adding that since the 1980s and ‘90s the bulk of the urchin beds have been wiped out by sea otters.
“That's the number one factor in the lack of production in Southeast, and there's nothing that's going to happen here in the foreseeable future to change that,” he added.
A second reason for the lack of interest, Doherty said, is the difficulty in getting the delicate uni from the softball sized urchins to Japanese markets in top condition.
“The Japanese market is very particular on how seafood looks and it's very difficult to crack open the urchins and get the roe out and pack it into special containers and get it onto the airlines and over to Japan, which is the main market,” he explained.
For the most recent Southeast harvest of around 700,000 pounds of red urchins in 2015, a handful of divers got 49 cents a pound.
Smaller, hockey puck-size green urchins found around Kodiak are preferred over the reds, but a lack of markets also has stalled fishing interest there. There’s been no urchin harvest since 2001, said Nat Nichols area manager for Fish and Game at Kodiak.
“It’s not that the harvest stopped because we had concerns about the stock – it was largely market driven. I think the major barrier for even a small scale fishery is finding a market and getting them there in good condition,” he said.
In the 1980s, landings of green urchins reached about 80,000 pounds; now the harvest limit is 55,000 pounds. Only one Kodiak permit was issued last year and this year, by a diver collecting samples for potential buyers.
Nichols said urchin uni is now more familiar to U.S. buyers, and perhaps there might be interest from more local markets.
“If you could develop a smaller local market, that would alleviate the issue of getting bigger loads of product sent out in good condition,” he said. “That might spur more participation.”
Ocean awards – The Alaska SeaLife Center is accepting nominations through Dec. 10 to recognize those who have made special contributions to ocean sciences, education and management. Awards and cash prizes will be given in five categories, including for youths age 12-19. Nominations can be made online at alaskasealife.org or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Tongass correction – In the comment period for the Draft Environmental Impact Statement and proposed rollback of the Tongass roadless rule, more than 80,000 comments have been received so far - not over 140,000 as was previously stated. According to Paul Robbins Jr., U.S. Forest Service/Tongass public affairs officer, those comments were from the scoping period last year and were not in reference to the current proposed rule. Comments are now being accepted online through Dec. 17, by email to email@example.com/ or by mail to the U.S. Forest Service, Attn: Alaska Roadless Rule, P.O. Box 21628, Juneau 99802.