Values of Alaska salmon permits have taken a nosedive after a dismal fishing season for all but a few regions.
“No activity for drift gillnet or seine permits in Prince William Sound … No interest in Southeast seine or troll permits … Nothing new in Area M (the Alaska Peninsula),” wrote Mike Painter of The Permit Master. And so it goes.
“With the lone exception of Bristol Bay and Area M it was a pretty grim season for salmon fishermen all over the state, and we are seeing that reflected in the declining prices for salmon permits and very low demand,” said Doug Bowen of Alaska Boats and Permits in Homer.
On the upside, Bristol Bay drift permits have rebounded to the $135,000 range after reaching a low of around $90,000 last fall and spring. But at this point, there’s not much interest.
“I believe there are fishermen who would like to switch out, say from Cook Inlet and go to the Bay, but it’s tough to make that move,” he said. “Cook Inlet drift permits aren’t selling; there are lots of them on the market for around $50,000 and no action there.”
A few years ago, Prince William Sound drift gillnet permits were fetching up to around $240,000, but recent sales were in the $130,000 range or lower.
“Those permits have dropped about $100,000 in a year because they’ve had a couple of bad years in a row,” Bowen said.
The story is similar for seine permits in the Sound, following a disastrous pink salmon year that came in less than 25 percent of the forecast.
“The market there is around $150,000 and they were up over $200,000 last year,” he said. “We don’t see much action on those, and there is no interest for Kodiak seine cards. You can see them listed in the low $30,000 range but what it would take to actually sell one. My guess is it’s something under $30,000.”
In Southeast, some permit values are not down quite as much as in other areas. Drift gillnets were priced at $95,000 to $100,000 last year, with recent sales at around $80,000. Southeast seine permits, which a couple of years ago approached $325,000, recently sold at $160,000.
Bowen said it all adds up to very little optimism.
“Several of these areas have had bad years back to back. If you add it all up, there’s likely a couple hundred million dollars that did not show up in salmon this year. There’s not money floating around in the industry to buy permits, so we’re seeing a depressed market in general.”
He added that many stakeholders are worried about the future of Alaska salmon fishing.
“You hear people talking about the water temperature is too warm and the fish are swimming deep and going under the nets and around them, and there seems to be a lot of concern about the future, even in the near term,” Bowen said.
One bright note: Salmon markets are going strong so far and that could help to turn the tide.
“Sales have been brisk this fall,” said Tom Sunderland, vice president of marketing and communications for Ocean Beauty Seafoods. “We expect inventories to be low as we head into next season, and that should create some good market opportunities.”
Bowen said that with low prices now for permits nearly across the board, it’s a good time to buy.
Farmed salmon flop
Wild salmon is less nutritious, because it burns up all its good fats and oils on its long journey to spawn. That’s the startling claim by professors at Stirling University in Scotland in a study showing declines in omega-3 levels in farmed salmon due to increased use of plant-based feeds. The statement brought a quick reaction from one Alaska expert.
“I laughed. It’s a silly remark,” said Scott Smiley of Kodiak, a retired professor and noted zoological expert in cell and developmental biology. “A friend who is a fish nutritionist asked if the Scottish researcher was a professor of medieval literature.”
Smiley said farmed salmon, like other living creatures, are what they eat.
“You can adjust the diets of farmed fish so that they have much more omega-3’s. It’s just a question of cost and it is relatively expensive to do,” he said, adding that most fish farmers now balance plant-based feeds with fish meal at critical times in the salmon’s development.
Catching wild fish to feed farmed fish has fallen out of favor over the past decade, and that’s forced fish farmers to find feeds sourced from plants or synthetics. The Scottish report said that in 2006, 80 percent of the average farmed salmon’s diet in the U.K. was made up of oily fish; now it is just 20 percent.
But even with the lower omega levels, farmed salmon is still better for you than wild, the Scottish researchers concluded. One million smoked salmon meals are eaten in the U.K. every week, and salmon purchases there have increased 550 percent, according to the report that is in the journal Scientific Reports.
It’s hard to tell which fish overall has the highest amount of omega-3 oils, because levels vary by local populations, Smiley said.
“Herring off of Kodiak may have very high levels of omega-3s, but herring from some other place may have half of that. There is variation in natural populations that is really intense. And it totally depends on what they eat,” he said.
Farmed seafood is slowly gaining dominance over wild in Japan’s retail stores and is now the centerpieces of the seafood section, according to Seafood Source. The shift is driven by national supermarket chains that want to plan large-scale promotions in advance.
The foodservice industry has long preferred farmed seafood, because costs and supply are more stable, allowing for more consistent menuing and prices. Now, Japanese retailers also want that stability.
Top fishing ports and fish favorites
Alaska claimed the top three fishing ports for landings again last year, and led all U.S. states in terms of seafood landings and value at 6 billion pounds and $1.8 billion. That’s according to the annual Fisheries of the U.S. report for 2015 released last week by NOAA Fisheries.
For the 19th consecutive year, Dutch Harbor led the nation in the highest amount of seafood landed, at 787 million pounds valued at $218 million. And New Bedford, Massachusetts again had the highest valued catch, $322 million for 124 million pounds. Most of that was due to the high price of sea scallops, which accounted for 76 percent of the value of the landings in New Bedford.
Kodiak ranked second for landings and the Aleutian Islands was No. 3, thanks to Trident’s plant at Akutan, the nation’s largest seafood processing facility. In all, 13 Alaska ports made the nation’s top 50 list for landings and six were in the top 10, including the Alaska Peninsula, Naknek and Cordova.
In other highlights: Alaska accounted for nearly 98 percent of all wild salmon landings, with West Coast states making up the rest. The average dock price per pound for all salmon species in Alaska was 40 cents last year, down by half from 2014.
For halibut, the Pacific fishery accounted for all but 216,000 pounds of the total halibut catch. Average price to fishermen was $4.86 per pound, compared to $4.94 the previous year.
U.S. landings of king crab were 17.5 million pounds, valued at nearly $99 million, increases of 5 percent and more than 15 percent.
Alaska is home to the most seafood processing plants at 151, which employed more than 10,000 people.
And for the third year in a row, Americans ate slightly more seafood at 15.5 pounds per person, adding nearly one pound to their diets. That’s according to the National Fisheries Institute, which each year compiles the top 10 list of favorites based on the NOAA report.
The favorites remain pretty much the same, with shrimp topping the list, but consumption of that item has remained static at four pounds per capita.
Salmon again ranked second and Americans increased their intake by more than 3 percent to just under three pounds per person. That’s due in large part to more availability and lower prices at retail.
Canned tuna held onto the third spot at 2.2 pounds, followed by farmed tilapia at nearly 1.4 pounds per person.
Alaska pollock ranked at No. 5 at just under one pound per capita, slightly less than in 2014. Rounding out the top 10 were Pangasius, cod, crab, catfish and clams.
The upward eating tick in the U.S. is good news from a public health perspective. Only one in 10 Americans follows the federal dietary guidelines to eat seafood twice a week. The global annual seafood consumption average is 44 pounds per person.
Laine Welch has been writing Fish Factor since 1991. The syndicated column runs in nearly 20 Alaska newspapers and websites, and in the U.K. Her daily “Fish Radio” program airs on 30 stations across Alaska and beyond. Laine lives in Kodiak. Visit her website at www.alaskafishradio.com.