Fish Factor: Good fishing season pushes up permit prices

Vessels in Cordova Harbor. (Aug. 25, 2020) Photo by Zachary Snowdon Smith/The Cordova Times

Optimism is the word that best sums up the attitude among most Alaska salmon fishermen after a good season, according to people in the business of buying and selling permits and boats.

Most fishermen in major regions ended up with good catches and dock prices were up from recent years. That’s pushed up permit prices, notably, at the bellwether fishery at Bristol Bay where drift net permits have topped $200,000.

“The highest has been $210,000. But it’s a pretty tight market,” said Maddie Lightsey, a broker at Alaska Boats and Permits in Homer. “A lot of fishermen had a great year out there and made a lot of money. But buyers are hesitant to pay these really high prices. Many are hoping it’s a pretty short spike.” “Meanwhile, sellers are holding out for high prices, while at the same time expressing concerns over increased tax burdens if they sell this year following such a good season. Those two things combined have really restricted the market and there haven’t been that many sales,” she added.

“There is plenty of interest in Bristol Bay permits and boats, but the permit price is really high so right now there is a lot of talk,” echoed Lisa Gulliford at Permit Master in Tacoma, WA.

Permit values are published monthly by the state Commercial Fisheries Entry Commission (CFEC) and reflect the average of sale prices over the last three months. They need at least four transactions to calculate an average and some permits don’t sell frequently enough to do that, so they have to incorporate sales from prior to three months ago, explained Lightsey.

“But the market changes so quickly that CFEC’s permit prices are typically off, either on the high or low side. The value of salmon permits is quite literally whatever a buyer is willing to pay for it!” she added.

Other salmon fisheries also are attracting interest “which is good news and means that optimism is spreading throughout the fisheries. Permits that have been relatively quiet for a few years are now getting inquiries,” Gulliford said, adding that “troll permits in Southeast are making a comeback.”

Before the summer season, power troll permits were selling in the low $20,000s and are now in the $28,000-$30,000 range. Movement in other Southeast salmon permits, however, is lackluster, added Lightsey.

“Before the season drift permits were selling for around $55,000 and our lowest asking price now is $65,000 but we’ve had no offers,” she said. “On the seine front, we sold a permit for $140,000 after the season ended, which was the first I believe since 2019. It’s a really slow market down there.”

Likewise, permits at Prince William Sound have yet to gain much traction despite a great year for pink salmon.

“A few drift permits have sold in the $110,000 range. No seine permits have sold yet that I’m aware of. And quite a few folks are moving from Prince William Sound seine to Bristol Bay,” Lightsey added.

Conversely, drift permits at Cook Inlet have ticked upwards from lows of $16,000-$17,000 to $30,000.

“A lot of folks had the best season they’ve had in years. Not everyone, of course, but many broke six figures,” she said.

Likewise, seine permits at Kodiak have been on a steady rise from the mid-$30,000 range up to $40,000 since the season ended.

At Area M on the Alaska Peninsula, drift permits are rebounding in the high $150,000 to mid-$160,000 range after topping $200,000 in 2019 and then dropping to no sales in 2020.

Lightsey said she hears a lot of concern from fishermen over climate change and salmon bycatch in trawl fisheries, but it’s not enough to deter them from buying permits.

“It’s kicking them into gear to take action, which I think is great,” she said. “I think a lot of this new guard of fishermen are young and energetic and incredibly driven and dedicated to sustainability and preserving the future of their industry. Together with the old guard, they’re really making a difference. They’re writing letters and networking and forming advocacy groups and all those things are coming together and instilling a sense of pride and ownership in their fishery and making them more inclined to invest in it.

Another indicator of confidence – both brokers said boat sales are brisk.

I think good things are happening!” said Gulliford.

Alaska’s statewide salmon catch this year topped 222 million, 32 million more fish than projected.

Harbor surveys

Are your local harbor waters clean? Are there sewage pump outs, rest rooms and adequate disposal stations for trash and debris? Do Alaskans even notice or care?

Two quick surveys for boaters and communities aim to find out.

“We want to hear from boat users in the harbors as well as community members. And we’ll be doing a survey for harbor masters and harbor staff as well,” said Tav Ammu, a Bristol Bay fisherman and Alaska Sea Grant fellow who is leading the project.

Disposal of sewage, called blackwater, is a top concern, he said. There’s a scarcity or no pump out stations in most Alaska harbors and Ammu said many boaters don’t use good disposal practices.

“Probably half of the people I’ve talked to have Marine Sanitation Devices (MSDs) on board, but they just weren’t being utilized. That was kind of an “a ha” moment for me,” he said. “It’s not that people aren’t interested or unaware, it’s just that they don’t have options or they have the capability but they don’t use them.”

In the words of one fisherman: “I can tell you that it is obvious that all we are doing is paying lip service to ‘no poo in the blue’ as there is not a single pump station in Bristol Bay, and we pretty much know what 5,500 fishermen are doing every day.”

“At Bristol Bay at the end of the season there’s plastic debris floating all over the place,” Ammu added. “I know a couple of fishermen who go around at the end of the season and fill up garbage bags of floating trash that people tossed overboard or it fell overboard or whatever. And if it wasn’t for those individual fishermen, there’d be plastics just floating and dissolving into microplastics.”

The harbor surveys will let Alaskans pinpoint problems and offer solutions, which Ammu will discuss at the Harbor Master’s Conference later this month in Anchorage.

Find the surveys at www.surveymonkey.com/r/BoatUsers and www.surveymonkey.com/r/CommunMembers/

Help with halibut

Halibut stakeholders are being asked to weigh in on two important issues: bycatch in the Bering Sea and halibut fishery management.

On bycatch: after six years of discussion, the North Pacific Fishery Management Council is poised to require Bering Sea bottom trawlers targeting flatfish abide by the same rules as all other halibut users.

Nineteen Seattle-based bottom trawlers targeting flatfish, called the Amendment 80 fleet and including boats owned by Alaska Native groups, has a fixed cap on halibut bycatch whereas yearly catches for commercial, sport, charter and subsistence fishermen fluctuate according to the health of the stock.

The bottom trawl bycatch take of over 4 million pounds comes off the top of all other users. Halibut fishermen from Bering Sea communities, for example, were allowed less than 1.7 million pounds this year; and under 3 million pounds in the Western Gulf.

The public is asked to send written comments on the NPFMC plan to rein in the A80 halibut bycatch through Oct. 25.

Send comments to: www.regulations.gov, enter [NOAA-NMFS-2021-0074] in the Search box and click on the Comment icon. Submit written comments to Glenn Merrill, Assistant Regional Administrator, NMFS/Alaska Region, P.O. Box 21668, Juneau, AK 99802-1668.

On halibut management: Ideas for new or amended proposals are invited by the International Pacific Halibut Commission.

The IPHC oversees the biology of the stock for the West Coast, British Columbia and Alaska, and sets annual halibut catch limits. An example of a new regulation saw this year’s halibut fishery extended by one month to December 7.

The IPHC will give a first glimpse of possible catches for 2022 at its interim meeting, held electronically Nov. 30-Dec. 1. The annual meeting is set for January 24-28 in Seattle. Send proposals 30 days in advance of both meetings to www.iphc.int/form/regulatory-proposal.