Written by Jen Finn
Gulf South Atlantic
Katrina and '05 friends still cast shadow over fisheries, but rays of sunshine exist
Hurricane recovery is a concept much talked about and seldom experienced in coastal regions of the upper Gulf of Mexico, where many families still live in trailers provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
In Louisiana, oysters were among the hardest hit fisheries, but nature is now doing its part to make amends.
Hurricanes Katrina and Rita destroyed the bulk of seed and market oysters. But an extraordinarily large September spat set — 18 percent greater than pre-storm levels — raised hopes that a turnaround might come sooner than expected.
"We're certainly looking at the benefits from that spat set right now," says Patrick Banks, oyster program manager for the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries. "It's continuing to look good. Nature is an amazing thing. After a big blow like this, it bounces right back."
Market oysters remain in short supply, and scarcity is pushing price, at $20-$25 a sack, toward historic highs, Banks says. Price will likely drop with a good harvest, but conditions are nevertheless set for a very good 2007-08 season if luck holds.
"If we can avoid another major mortality event, we should be looking at a bumper crop next season," Banks says.
But there's a catch-22 for many Louisiana harvesters. They can't afford to make the investment to move seed oysters from public to private leases to position themselves for the future.
"A lot of these lease holders would love to invest in their leases right now, but they are just scraping by," Banks says.
Fortunately for them, the oyster business is one of the few gulf fisheries that is getting a portion of the $128 million in federal fisheries assistance.
"We are about to get an assistance program under way — that was part of that federal grant," Banks says. "For oysters, $23 million was specifically earmarked."
The money will be divided about evenly between public and private rebuilding efforts. Private leaseholders will be able to apply for reimbursement for some expenses.
The outlook is not so hopeful for the region's top fishery. For shrimpers, there is little or no relief in sight. Shrimp are plentiful, but prices are dismal.
During Nov. 17-30, shrimpers harvested 89,000 pounds of heads-on 36/40 count shrimp in the upper gulf at an ex-vessel price of $1.05 to $1.10. Adjusted for inflation, that $1.10 would have been worth 17 cents in 1963, when browns brought 32 cents a pound on average. "Buy American" campaigns are plugging away in most Southern shrimp states, and many of the survivors are turning to local retail or niche marketing to try to stay in business.
Blue crab, the Southeast's No. 2 fishery, is still losing position in the picked meat market compared to imports, and domestic crab houses are becoming scarce. The Northeastern hard crab market, while lucrative, is not unlimited. Crabbers are finding fewer and fewer options for disposing of hard crab culls that would be fine for picked meat but aren't up to basket market quality.
In south Florida, where stone crabbers and spiny lobster fishermen suffered extreme gear loss to the 2005 hurricanes, news is mixed. In the middle Florida Keys, the 2006-07 lobster harvest has been excellent, says Tim Daniels, one of the founders of the Florida Keys Commercial Fishermen's Association.
"Marathon had one of its best seasons in a long time," he says. "It stayed good."
Stone crab didn't fare as well.
"The crabbing's on the bad side," Daniels says. "I've seen it worse. The Everglades was down; Marathon was down bad enough."
Red snapper and grouper markets are strong, and now the top red snapper fishermen have a chance to demonstrate the viability of the gulf's first individual fishing quota program. Commercial grouper fishermen are waiting to see whether the results of a new 2007 red grouper stock assessment and proposed gag and red harvest regulations will affect their livelihoods for better or worse.
Prices have been excellent for swordfish, and the North Atlantic stock is considered fully recovered, so federal fisheries managers are exploring ways to loosen restrictions to help U.S. fishermen fill their International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas quotas. One option is to raise the incidental catch limit.
Summer flounder prices have also been very high, and the stock was considered rebuilt in 2005. But a federal court order moved the goalposts, and fishermen had to cope with a big cut in the total allowable catch for the Atlantic.
Yellowfin tuna prices have also been good, but a hurricane-and-regulation-beleaguered longline fleet has been less able to direct effort to this prime fish.
— Hoyt Childers
New world order: $2 haddock, $4 cod, and doubt: can climate change lurk below the surface?
By the end of January 2007, auction prices told the story of New England's depressed groundfish industry: large cod selling for $3 or $4 a pound and haddock, the old and newly abundant mainstay, at $2.
Meanwhile, Mid-Atlantic fishermen and their congressmen won a tenuous bid to keep viable summer flounder quotas for 2007 — a special exemption for a flatfish that was a fishery management success story until its population didn't grow fast enough.
Blue crabs perked up in Chesapeake Bay, but a few miles east in the ocean, climate change is starting to show real consequences, scientists say. Surf clam beds off the Delmarva peninsula continued to contract in 2006 as the biomass continued a decisive trend toward the east and north, where cooler ocean floor temperatures favor new clam sets.
Warmer water helped croakers get a spawning foothold far north of the Carolinas, so they now breed in New Jersey bays and get sold in that state's suburban supermarkets.
Consumers found plentiful scallops in those fish cases, as dock prices fell sharply in 2006 from $9 per pound early in the year to around $6 by early summer. But customers could find supplies a little tighter in 2007. Prices were climbing this winter, with nearshore areas well picked over and the Mid-Atlantic fleet looking to a limited opening of the offshore Elephant Trunk area.
This could be the year of reckoning for the general category scallop fleet, mostly small boats with permits to take 400 pounds of the shellfish per day. With a share of the fishery that grew to 13 percent by 2005, the fleet could be cut back to its 2004 numbers under a limited entry plan.
And captains say scallops are thinning in nearshore Mid-Atlantic areas. Few of those small boats are equipped to steam 50 miles or more offshore to the Elephant Trunk grounds.
Stock conditions are bright for Gulf of Maine shrimp, with the best indices biologists have seen in 20 years. But a collapsed market, in the face of overwhelming competition from imports, left northern shrimp fishermen facing prices as low as 20 cents a pound last year, compared with $1 in the mid-1990s.
Some fancy last-minute maneuvering in Congress prevented a sharp drop in the 2007 summer flounder quota, which could have been cut nearly in half to 12.1 million pounds.
The new 17.1 million pound quota for 2007 gives managers another three years, until 2013, to achieve rebuilding goals for the fluke population. During 2006, North Carolina dealers reported low fluke prices around $1 during the peak high-volume season of January and rising to $2.50 just before Easter.
Federal emergency action on New England groundfish has reduced days at sea, leading many captains to revise their business plans. The government's own analysis predicted a full one-third decline in the industry's revenue from that action.
Pushing pelagic herring trawlers out of the inshore Gulf of Maine resolved seasonal conflicts with tuna fishermen, purse seiners and whale-watch operators. But bait prices were already stiff in late 2006, so the full implications of herring restrictions should be a cause for concern among lobstermen in 2007, fishermen and dealers say. Maine's October 2006 average prices for lobsters were down substantially to $4.05 per pound from $4.65 a year before, according to Maine Lobstermen's Association records.
Virginia watermen were surprised in spring 2006 by an early run of crabs that far exceeded expectations — and crashed prices from $30 to $10 a bushel.
The state's April landings of 3 million pounds were far over 1.7 million pounds from the same time in 2005. But after such lean years, the industry's infrastructure and markets are so shrunken that it can't absorb such jolts.
Meanwhile, peeler crabs are increasingly scarce, a condition the Chesapeake Bay Foundation environmental group links to loss of sea grass habitat on the bay bottom.
As slow warming in mid-Atlantic waters continued to push the surf clam mass gradually offshore and farther north, a late 2006 stock assessment also noted recruitment levels were at or near all-time lows everywhere but Long Island. Now more scientists who were reluctant to factor climate change into their thinking say it has affected fish populations. Croakers continued an extraordinary push northward from the Carolinas to New Jersey.
It's likely surf clam biomass will decline gradually over the next five years, the stock assessment reported. Combined with the climate-induced shift of clam beds, that could make marketing those $20 per bushel clams more difficult for U.S. fishermen. U.S. harvesters lost ground to Canadian imports during a 2003-04 shortage of domestic product and are still trying to win back those buyers.
Those are not just strays. Warmer average winter temperatures in New Jersey bays now allow croakers to keep up a year-round population, says Ken Able, a Rutgers University research scientist who has watched the croaker expansion.
— Kirk Moore
Total salmon landings good, unless you fished soft spots; P-cod business is coming on
With a preliminary catch total of 141.5 million fish, Alaska's salmon industry will remember 2006 as one of its better years.
Save for Southeast's missing pinks and Cook Inlet's dismal sockeye showing, most harvest areas reported healthy runs. The statewide ex-vessel value hit nearly $309 million, which came in about $25 million lower than the 2005 total but beats the 10-year average of $279 million.
With a catch of 28.7 million sockeyes, Bristol Bay gillnetters were treated to their eighth largest harvest since 1993. Some fishermen reported the bounty of a double season. After targeting fish in the western harvest districts early in the season, they hit the eastern districts in time for another good harvest when fish arrived there later than usual.
Though the statewide pink salmon harvest totaled 73 million, which is less than half of last year's record catch of 161 million, Kodiak seiners hauled in a healthy 31.6 million of them. Southeast fell far short, leaving fisheries managers and others to surmise that droughts during the parent year made streams too dry for a successful spawning cycle.
Trawlers targeting rockfish in the Gulf of Alaska saw ex-vessel prices increase from the 8 to 12 cents per pound in 2005 to nearly 20 cents per pound. A new pilot plan for this year promises to slow the pace of rockfish deliveries and drive prices even higher.
Bad news befell the state's urchin industry as the 2006 season unfolded without any buyers. After years of suffering poor roe (uni) prices because of transportation boggles in Southeast, divers and processors attempted to eliminate the reprocessing step. Usually the roe is sent to Washington state before it's exported to Japan. Efforts to produce and ship a finished product from Ketchikan, however, didn't pan out.
Last year's ex-vessel prices for herring fell like a rock. Fishermen at Sitka were dismayed to receive $200 per ton, less than half the 2005 price. Buyers say the availability of substitute species and changing Japanese consumer preference have shifted the flow of Alaska's herring roe from the high-end kazunoko markets to the cheaper ajitsuke markets.
Kazunoko (herring roe) sells as gifts during the year-end holiday season of oseibo and draws higher retail prices. The general retail ajitsuke markets move product year-round but don't garner nearly as much money from consumers.
Bad weather hampered halibut deliveries and drove up ex-vessel prices in the early season. The 2006 quota of 55.4 million pounds, which was down sharply from the 2005 quota of 59.3 million pounds, didn't hurt either.
Alaska's pollock harvest continues to enjoy success with wild increases in sales to Europe.
The Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska pollock trawl fisheries earned the Marine Stewardship Council's certification for sustainability in 2005. And the Pollock Conservation Cooperative, which comprises 19 catcher-processor vessels, won the first annual Stewardship and Sustainability Award from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
The two achievements go a long way toward increasing demand in France and Germany, where consumers lean toward sound management principles when they shop for fish.
The longline blackcod fishery also gained MSC certification last year. Blackcod, considered a delicacy in the United States and abroad, attracted additional interest from China and Hong Kong.
The increased volumes going there shorted supplies to mainstay markets in Japan and in domestic outlets, which spurred demand throughout the distribution chain. On the ex-vessel end, fishermen saw prices climb beyond $4 per pound.
Last year's markets for Pacific cod, meanwhile, never looked better. Declining volumes of Atlantic cod have left the world in short supply of whitefish, paving the way for Alaska's cod and pollock fillets.
Cod fishermen last year saw prices nudge upward to nearly 40 cents per pound. And as 2007 unfolded, some fishermen were heading toward the Aleutian Island harvest areas in hopes of fetching more than 50 cents per pound for their catch.
The recently rationalized Bering Sea crab fisheries have suffered ex-vessel woes, thanks to bountiful supplies coming out of Russia. And though earnings per boat shot through the roof under the new management regime, the old fleet of around 250 boats was thinned to just 89, leaving plenty of skippers and crew members on the outside looking in.
A few marketing wrinkles will likely remain in the coming years as the industry irons them out. Bering Sea king crabbers suffered a smaller quota last year after some skippers high-graded their catches and dumped 677,000 smaller, less-marketable crab.
— Charlie Ess
Dungeness fleet hits jackpot; albacore fishery offers relief to out-of-work salmon trollers
Fishermen on the West Coast got a mixed bag of successes and disappointments in 2006, but the fixed-gear fleet got hit with the hardest restrictions.
That is, except for those vessels who also fished for Dungeness crab.
Dungeness crabbers from Washington, Oregon and California had the best season on record, bringing in nearly 75 million pounds and more than $108 million to fishing communities. That's several million pounds more than the previous season, which also was a good year.
The 2006-07 season, which began as '06 drew to a close, started off slowly, though, with Pacific Seafood and other processors worried about quality, despite state testing that showed the crab were in great shape.
"If there's bad quality in one area, it can have a negative effect on the market," Pacific Vice President Tim Horgan says.\
Prices to fishermen started at around $1.50 — about the same as the 2005-06 season — but quickly rose to $2 and more as landings revealed fewer crab this year.
But as huge as the crab landings were for the 2005-06 season, it served as a contrast to the region's extreme lows of 2006 as well: Ocean salmon trollers along much of Oregon and California were left with no season at all.
To protect lower returns of Klamath River fall chinook, NMFS limited or closed seasons along a 700-mile stretch of coastline. Wholesale and retail prices for wild chinook skyrocketed as supplies were scarce. Fishermen worried consumers would turn to inexpensive farmed salmon as a substitute, but that didn't happen right away.
Seafood consumers preferred to pay upward of $18 a pound in some areas for wild salmon instead of the roughly $6 to $8 a pound for farmed fish.
Both Oregon and California governors declared the fishery a disaster, and eventually a unified push in Congress resulted in a federal disaster declaration. The states did what they could to help salmon trollers get by, but the losses to fishermen and communities were projected at between $60 million and $80 million.
Many trollers had hoped to turn to fishing open-access blackcod as a way to make up for a lost season, but federal managers nixed that idea. The Pacific Fishery Management Council, anticipating the switch, lowered the open-access monthly trip limits. Despite that, longliners delivered landings in May, July and September that were higher than those same months in 2005. In September, fishermen landed 550 metric tons of blackcod, the highest since 562 metric tons were landed during the same month in 2001. Prices also were good, at nearly $2 a pound for 5- to 7-pound fish.
The 2006 albacore tuna season did deliver opportunity for out-of-work salmon trollers — a stark contrast to the 2005 season. In the summer of 2005, jig fishermen delivered barely 7 metric tons of albacore. During 2006, at least 10.5 million metric tons crossed the docks.
"Salmon's come and gone for me," Charleston fisherman Otar Overacker said, waiting for tuna customers on his boat, the Mabel, in August. He was able to get $2 a pound for the albacore.
In California, the squid fishery continued its success of previous seasons, giving sardine fishermen an option during bad years for the pelagic fish.
In the first quarter of 2006, seiners landed almost double the amount of squid they did in the first quarter of 2005 — at least 48,000 metric tons, more than half of the 2005-06 season's total of about 78,000 metric tons.
Seiners hope the price will stay up, too: It's hovered around $500 per metric ton for the past couple of seasons as global demand has kept Loligo opalescens in the market.
The global situation helped influence the market for trawl-caught groundfish as well. Blackcod benefited with strong prices, too, as it found new markets.
But buyers had to search for whitefish. Whiting, in particular, saw a big change as more boats and processors entered the fishery to try to capitalize on prices of about 6 cents a pound, more than 2 cents a pound higher than in years past. The result was a season that closed earlier in the summer than officials had expected.
Petrale was in a similar situation. The trawl-caught flatfish has been strong for the past couple of years. In 2005, the season ended before the end of the year, but in 2006, fishermen were able to finish the season. However, early statistics show draggers may have to stop fishing sooner in 2007 because January landings were so high.
— Susan Chambers
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