Dismal salmon prices trigger plunge in sale of Alaska permits

Unsettled best describes the mood among brokers in the business of buying, selling and trading Alaska salmon permits and quota shares.

For salmon permits, "the dust hasn't really settled" since the season ended, said Doug Bowen of Alaska Boats and Permits in Homer. But prices are tanking across the board at the moment.

"There were a few bright spots, but several areas in the state did not do well, either because of production or price or both. That's put a downward press on permit prices," he added.

Bristol Bay drift gillnet permits have taken the biggest hit after another huge sockeye run ran into a perfect storm of backlogged markets, depressed global currencies and record imports of foreign farmed fish. Bay fishermen were shocked to earn a base price of 50 cents a pound, down from an average of $1.34 last summer.

"Permit prices in the spring were as high as $175,000, and last week we sold one for $112,000. That's a big drop in just a few short months. And we see a similar pattern with other salmon gillnet permits," Bowen said. "There is almost no interest – not yet anyway."

Likewise, there's little action in the salmon seine permit market.

"It will be interesting to see what happens at Prince William Sound," Bowen said. "They had a record year with 97 million pinks but got just 20 cents a pound. So great production, lousy price. There are several permits on the market at $200K, but no interest. And at Kodiak, several seine permits are listed at under $40,000, but again, no interest yet."

Salmon power troll permits were the only ones moving in Southeast Alaska, according to Olivia Olsen at Alaskan Quota and Permits in Petersburg. At listings of $35,000 to $46,000 "those are still down $5,000," she said.

Both brokers agree as salmon forecasts come out for 2016, buying interest may tick up. But a less profitable fishing season means there is not a lot of excess capital floating around to upgrade, buy a new boat, or add another permit to a fishing portfolio.

"It was a dismal season the way the prices were," Olsen said. "They might be catching more fish, but prices were too low to come out ahead. And if salmon prices stay down, guys are going to turn their interest to other areas."

Halibut shares higher than ever

Anticipating that Alaska's halibut catch limits might increase again next year has brought quota share sales to a wait-and-see standstill. Halibut quota is valued by region and in various categories.

"You can survey all the broker sites and sometimes you won't see a pound of 2C (Southeast) or 3A (Central Gulf) and very little 3B (Western Gulf) quota on the market," Bowen said. "Sellers who do decide to sell quota want top dollar. And there are enough buyers out there who believe the catch limits in those areas are going up, and they are willing to pay record high prices."

The price spike is driven by continuing high dock prices for halibut that this year often topped $7 a pound at major ports.

Last week, Bowen's shop sold Central Gulf of Alaska halibut quota shares for $50 a pound, "the highest it's ever traded for," he said. For the Southeast region, Olsen said there is "big demand, but no quota to sell," adding prices have gone up to $55 a pound in some categories.

"I hope these folks who think these catch limits are headed up are right, but I'm not convinced," Bowen said. "It's been a long downward trend, and just last year in the Central Gulf we took a 34 percent cut. We did get a little bit of an overall increase, but I don't know if that signals that we are out of the woods and the resource is rebounding."

The industry will get a glimpse at preliminary halibut catch limits at the International Pacific Halibut Commission's interim meeting in early December. Final numbers will be announced at the commission's January meeting in Juneau. This year's total catch limit for Alaska was 17 million pounds, up from 15.5 million pounds last year and the first overall incease in a decade.

Selling crab quota shares

New rules for owning shares of Bering Sea crab are prompting more sales action, especially by skippers and crew.

A federal requirement went into place this year that restricts quota share ownership to active participants in the crab fisheries.

"In the past there were no restrictions as far as participation and future ownership. But if you are not participating now and don't participate in the future, a revocation of quota could occur by July 1, 2019," said Jeff Osborn, a crab share specialist at Dock Street Brokers in Seattle.

"There are a number of guys who were awarded or purchased crab shares and have since gone on to other careers or had health issues, and they've been able to have their annual shares harvested and receive a royalty," he explained. "But if they are unable to fish anymore, they can't continue to do that. The new rules require him to get rid of the shares, or they'll be taken back and redistributed."

That has prompted the recent uptick in listings, he said, and pushed down prices.

"I think the intent of the rule change is to provide people who are continuously involved in the fishery better access to crab. Although the intent is admirable, I think the effect is negative," Osborn said.

There is an assumption a big pool of people are interested in acquiring quota shares, he said, but Osborn believes that is wrong on two counts.

"For one, you've got to be able to come up with financing in order to purchase it. And if you're working on a crab boat now and interested in picking up some crew quota, but you know you'll be forced to sell it if you have a career change, it takes a bit of the shine off the prospect of ownership," Osborn said.

Bering Sea crab shares fall into four categories, and the value for crew shares is down roughly 20 percent. Dock Street listings show Bristol Bay red king crab at $45 a pound, snow crab ranging from $14 to $20 and Tanner crab at $8 to $14 a pound.

"Those prices … are based on last year's catches," Osborn said. "Everything will change in two weeks when this year's catch numbers come out."

Celebrating salmon

Thursday is being hailed as National Salmon Day in a promotion spawned by Chicken of the Sea.

"Tuna has a day, lobster, crab, even clams have a day. We thought that the second most popular seafood in the U.S. deserved to have its own day. We are trying to make it accessible to everyone," said company spokesman Bob Ochsner, adding that Chicken of the Sea is a leader in canned and pouched salmon sales.

San Diego and Chicago are having special Salmon Day celebrations. Visit Chicken of the Sea for free downloadable coupons, recipes and more.

Laine Welch is a Kodiak-based commercial fishing columnist. Contact her at msfish@alaskan.com.

CORRECTION: In an earlier version of this story Alaska's 2014 halibut catch was incorrect. It was 15.5 million pounds.