Fire sale salmon prices last year and a dim outlook for the upcoming season have caused the value of Alaska fishing permits to plummet.
At the other extreme, the prices for halibut catch shares have soared to "unheard-of levels," according to Olivia Olsen of Alaskan Quota and Permits at Petersburg.
Starting with salmon permits: "A lot of people had disastrous seasons last year, whether it was drift gillnet or seine permits, and the values have declined dramatically," said Doug Bowen of Alaska Boats and Permits in Homer.
At Alaska's bellwether Bristol Bay fishery, a base sockeye price of 50 cents a pound helped push drift gillnet permit prices into the $98,000 range, down from $175,000 last spring.
"That may be the bottom; they seem to have come up a bit," Bowen said. "But it's still way below what they were trading for at this time last year."
Lower prices haven't sparked much interest in Bristol Bay drift permits — nor for salmon seine cards across the state.
Seine permits in Prince William Sound are priced in the $150,000 range, down from more than $200,000 a year ago. Kodiak seine permits have sunk to less than $40,000, and a Cook Inlet drift permit is valued in the $60,000 range.
Bowen doesn't expect the tide to turn soon.
"I'm afraid a lot of the same factors that contributed to the low prices we saw last year are pretty much the same this year. It's not an optimistic outlook for salmon, and that is depressing the market for permits, and also the boats," he added. "There are lots on the market, lots of sellers, not that many buyers."
"There's not a lot of extra money floating around in the salmon industry. So folks wanting to upgrade their vessels or pick up permits in another area, we're just not seeing that happening."
The situation is slightly better in Southeast Alaska, where driftnet permits are generating some interest.
"More than I thought compared to all the other salmon areas," said Olsen of Alaskan Quota and Permits at Petersburg.
"We started at $78,000 in November and drifts now are going for $85,000 and they may creep up from there. Same with power troll permits. They've been pretty steady sales at about $35,000, which is down about $6,000 from last year but still a pretty good price when you listen to all the talk about bad salmon prices. Hand troll permits also are on the upswing to $12,000," Olsen said.
Both brokers said salmon permit prices tend to tick upward closer to salmon season.
"I think the main issue is what we are going to see for prices," Bowen and Olsen said.
This year's small increase in the halibut quota combined with hopes of a repeat of $6 to $7 per pound prices was enough to send quota share prices skyrocketing.
"There was a big rush after the halibut numbers were announced in late January," said Olsen of Petersburg.
For the first time in nearly two decades, the coast-wide halibut catch was increased — by 2.3 percent to nearly 30 million pounds. Alaska's share of 21.45 million pounds is up 200,000 pounds.
"Quota prices shot up $10 a pound since December," Olsen said of Southeast shares. "We have current sales pending at $63 and $65 per pound, with rumors of going higher. Those prices are just unheard of, and to jump up that high in that short period of time — oh, my golly!"
Are people buying at those nosebleed prices?
"There's a lot of people drawing the line, but there are a few who have bought," Olsen said.
The same holds true for quota prices in the Central Gulf, Alaska's largest halibut fishing hole.
"Those are bumping up to $60," said Doug Bowen of Alaska Boats and Permits in Homer. "We've had offers of $59 but no takers. Quota shares for the Western Gulf have increased by around $5 and are in the $40s if you can find it. There is strong interest there and also in Bering Sea regions. But it's the same scenario — more buyers than sellers and the market is really tight."
A grassroots push is underway in Kodiak for a self-pay icehouse and crane at Oscars Dock in the downtown harbor.
"It's common in fishing communities throughout Alaska and the nation," said Theresa Peterson, a fisherman and outreach director for the Alaska Marine Conservation Council. "It's kind of strange that Kodiak doesn't have this facility, being that we are the No. 2 port in the nation and home to the largest and most diversified fleet in Alaska."
The need and benefits go far beyond commercial fishing, Peterson stressed. It would serve Kodiak's five outlying villages, whose residents travel by boat to town and load/offload provisions, sport charter operators, recreational anglers and hunters.
Fisherman Darius Kasprzak, who calls Kodiak's lack of a public icehouse "flabbergasting," is worried that without one, the island's fleet of small salmon boats may be driven out of business.
"More processors are requiring RSW (refrigerated sea water) systems and are phasing out all the iceboats. Only a few processors are still accepting fish iced in holds, and most of those are grandfathered in," Kasprzak said. "So all these little boats that don't have room for RSW or don't have the money are walking on pins and needles. But if there's public ice, that will change things dramatically."
Kasprzak said there's another reason ice is especially important for a community like Kodiak.
"Our waters are warming. Right now temperatures are at 7 degrees over normal. Last summer the water at Prince William Sound reached 60 degrees. Our RSW systems aren't built to handle those temperatures. The Kodiak processors didn't have enough ice for boats last salmon season because it was so hot. There's more of a need now for a community icehouse than ever."
The Kodiak City Council will hear the issue on March 15.
Laine Welch is a Kodiak-based commercial fishing columnist . Contact her at email@example.com.