Written by Jen Finn
Gulf/South Atlantic Year in Review
Low quotas take gloss off IFQ among snapper fleet; swordfish a bright spot
After the first year of the Gulf of Mexico red snapper individual fishing quota program, price is up but federal managers drastically slashed the TAC (to 5 million pounds in 2008 compared with 9.12 million pounds in 2006), leaving correspondingly smaller individual quotas.
Some sources say overall bycatch also has been reduced, but grouper longline fishermen on Florida's central Gulf Coast are reporting problems with red snapper bycatch and dead discards. And few fishermen there are in any position to buy more of the increasingly expensive red snapper shares so they don't have to throw back dead fish.
Bob Spaeth, executive director of the Southern Offshore Fishing Association and owner of Madeira Beach Seafood and a small longline fleet of his own, says the problem is severe.
Fishermen "have never seen more red snapper," he says. "They're eating the bottom out of the boats."
In 2007, Florida red snapper brought $3.37 on average ex-vessel, compared with $3.09 in 2006 and $2.88 in 2005.
Red snapper bycatch also continues to be a huge issue for the gulf and South Atlantic shrimp fleet, which, while drastically downsized from a few years ago, still represents the largest fishery in the southeastern United States. The good news here is linked to the bad news: Industry attrition may well have helped the shrimp fleet already achieve its NMFS-mandated 74 percent red snapper bycatch reduction goals.
If that proves not to be the case during 2008, NMFS can implement time and area closures on the shrimp fleet.
Shrimp harvests were very good in many places but low ex-vessel prices and high fuel costs continue to batter an ever-shrinking fleet.
High fuel prices dog the grouper fleet, too, but grouper prices are very good. User-group conflicts and management controversy flared again as the top commercial species — red grouper — jumped abruptly from officially "overfished" to "fully recovered" and gag moved into the "overfished" column, leaving fishermen shaking their heads in disbelief.
Swordfish is a bright spot in southeastern fisheries. North Atlantic swordfish stocks are officially rebuilt, U.S. fishermen got to keep their baseline quota from the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas, and prices, aside from the usual fall glut, were pretty decent.
Florida and North Carolina remain the eastern U.S. top producers. In Florida, fishermen landed 669,714 pounds of sword worth $2.25 million versus 529,849 pounds of sword worth $1.61 million in 2006. In North Carolina, fishermen landed 654,158 pounds of sword during 2007, compared to 652,696 pounds in 2006.
In Louisiana, oyster harvesters spent much of 2007 utilizing $22 million in federal disaster relief funds to restore private and public oyster grounds.
The calendar year 2006 harvest dipped surprisingly little after the depredations of hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005, according to NMFS data. The most recent 2007 harvest numbers, through July, show a slight decline over the same months in 2006 but a price increase, up from $3.12 to $3.26 for a pound of meats.
The Florida harvest, most of which comes from Apalachicola Bay in the Florida panhandle, bounced back nicely in 2006, after the 2005 storms, and remained more or less stable through 2007.
The long-term outlook for Apalachicola Bay and its oyster bars is worrisome, however. Water rights conflicts with upstream users, primarily metropolitan Atlanta, have left the bay with freshwater shortages that are becoming chronic.
Calendar year 2007 was disappointing for North Carolina flounder fishermen, who get the largest share the of Atlantic summer flounder quota. Prices were good generally. But the smallest quota in years, down nearly 40 percent from a couple of years ago thanks to a revised stock assessment and more rigorous federal rebuilding goals, left fishermen with virtually no fall fishery on total landings of 2.64 million pounds.
Initial Florida numbers on spiny lobster and stone crab harvests appear down from last year, but the jury remains out on the 2007-08 seasons, which end March 31 for lobster and May 15 for stone crab. One report from Marathon, among the top lobster and crab ports in the Florida Keys, indicated the local harvest had been good for spiny lobster but that stone crabs had been hard to find.
Despite the troubles related to the 2005 hurricanes, Louisiana has regained the position of No. 1 blue crab producer as North Carolina's harvest has waned. In fact, the 2006 harvest of 52.8 million pounds of hard crabs was the largest in Louisiana since 1988. However, imports and low prices remain critical issues. — Hoyt Childers
Northeast Year in Review
Blue crab turns in a lackluster year; groundfish fleet flees Pine Tree State
Constricting groundfish rules drove more boats out of Maine to Massachusetts ports in 2007, and Mid-Atlantic fishermen got just a temporary reprieve from summer flounder cutbacks that could bring a shutdown in 2008.
An exodus of draggers from Maine prompted an unsuccessful attempt to change state law so bycatch lobsters could be sold, and the Area Management Coalition formed to advocate a community-based ecosystem management for Gulf of Maine groundfish.
Haddock remained a bright spot, with lots of fish and prices up to $2.70 a pound. Regional infighting continued over the herring fishery, and its interactions with groundfish, when Maine's purse seine fleet dealt with area closures and bait dealers fielded speculative offers for herring from Canada and menhaden from New Jersey. Groundfish captains teamed with Earthjustice, an environmental litigation group, to sue federal authorities for letting midwater trawlers chase herring in groundfish closed areas.
In southern New England and the Mid-Atlantic, states rationed the lucrative summer flounder fishery to maximize value after Congress approved a one-time deal to delay quota cutbacks in 2007. At year's end, Bill Hogarth, the outgoing NMFS administrator, warned 2008 could see a shutdown if surveys showed the recreational sector overrunning its share.
States planned accordingly. Dragger captains were satisfied with a one-day January opener for flounder in New Jersey that got them 7,500-pound trip limits at $2 a pound.
"North Carolina opens up, and the price goes down" in January, so it made sense to conserve quota for smaller trip limits later in the year, says John Cole, a manager at the Fishermen's Dock Cooperative in Point Pleasant Beach, N.J.
Modest gains for Chesapeake Bay blue crabs disappeared last year, as sample trawls showed a decline in year-old crabs. Prices hit $70 a bushel at times but the baywide 2007 catch may have been the lowest since 1945, according to analysts.
That dashed hopes for a gradual rebound, and in fact shows "there hasn't been much improvement in the last five years," says Lynn Fegley, Maryland's lead crab biologist and chairwoman of the bay's scientific monitoring committee.
Although there's no consensus about scup, the catch of stocky, bronze-scaled porgies will be reduced sharply this year to an adjusted 4.62 million pounds, nearly half the 2007 quota, during year one of a rebuilding plan.
Fishermen got $2 a pound for jumbo scup in late 2007. But captains and buyers say regulations enforced supply gaps that made scup much less competitive in the marketplace.
Without a comprehensive stock assessment, managers remain guided by trawl surveys — a method that depends on whether research vessels "find them, or not," says longtime Rhode Island scup fisherman and adviser Phil Ruhle Sr.
There's no dispute over the health of northern shrimp. The biomass was calculated at 71,500 metric tons in 2007, its highest observed level and more than double the 2006 total. But with prices around 40 to 45 cents a pound — less than a third of what Mainers made five years before — fuel costs made even 1,500-pound tows barely profitable.
Spring 2007 lobster prices spiked to $12 a pound, but a late summer glut of soft-shells dropped prices to $4 and inspired a tie-up movement among some Maine fishermen.
Those high spring prices put off some customers for the remainder of the year. Meanwhile, the industry dealt with higher fuel costs and the forward-looking expenses of converting to sinking line, as required by new federal rules to reduce entanglements with endangered northern right whales.
Sea scallop prices hovered around $5 to $7 a pound, with strictly limited trips to the Elephant Trunk area east of New Jersey, and general category boats picking their 400-pound daily limits on patches closer to shore. Spring 2008 will see a shakeout of that sector when limited entry rules take effect, but many small boat owners who jumped in when prices were near $10 a few years ago are long gone.
With aquacultured oysters retailing at $2.50 apiece in top-end New York City restaurants, there was excited interest in reviving open-water fisheries.
Some $2 million was spent to put down surf clam shell on eroded oyster banks in Delaware Bay, a technique scientists say improved recruitment there. Connecticut saw continued rebuilding from the dermo and MSX die-off that bottomed out in 2005, and Massachusetts growers were hoping their stocks could be rebuilt in fall 2008.
For producers who can manage environmental challenges, the market is strong. "We are entering an oyster renaissance in North America," author and food writer Rowan Jacobsen declared in his 2007 guide, "A Geography of Oysters." — Kirk Moore
Pacific Year in Review
Tuna, shrimp hop MSC bandwagon, and the hake fleet puts its thumb out
West Coast salmon fishermen will remember last year as near catastrophic in terms of run strength.
The salmon fleet experienced widespread closures associated with weak returns to the Klamath in 2006. Last year, fishermen were expecting a repeat in returns to the Klamath but hoped that they could make their seasons with Columbia and Sacramento river-bound fish.
That didn't happen, and the West Coast harvest ended up at 5.8 million pounds of chinooks — a number typical of previous years in California alone. The shortage of fresh salmon available to domestic markets helped push average dockside prices in California, Oregon and Washington from $2.62 in 2006 to $3.24 per pound last year.
Oregon's fleet of pink shrimp harvesters, meanwhile, enjoyed a bountiful season, landing more than 20 million pounds and earning the Marine Stewardship Council's certificate of sustainability in November of last year.
Certification should fortify demand among environmentally conscious consumers. Prices for the shrimp (Pandalus jordani) had already reached 47 cents per pound, a dime higher than in 2006, and netting the fleet gross revenues of $9.5 million.
And there's more good news: Signs point to strong recruitment of younger age classes into the fishery in coming years.
Albacore trollers also won MSC certification last year. Furthermore, other studies proved that the younger troll-caught albacore are higher in omega 3 and lower in mercury than larger fish caught farther south in the Pacific.
West Coast prices averaged 84 cents in 2007, down a cent per pound. Meanwhile, the catch of 25.5 million pounds was around 3 million pounds short of the 28.1 million pounds landed in 2006.
Pacific whiting trawlers entered into the Pacific Hake Treaty with Canada last January. In May, the industry petitioned the MSC for a full assessment of the fishery in hopes that proof of the two countries' sustainable management practices will boost appeal for the flaky white flesh among retailers in whitefish-starved markets.
The U.S. whiting quota was set at 242,691 metric tons. With Canada's contributions, total harvests have been hovering around 360,000 tons in recent years. Whiting ex-vessel prices ended up at an average of 8 cents per pound for a 2-cent gain over 2006.
Old infrastructure that puts California urchin roe into Japanese markets continues to hamper supplies to burgeoning domestic markets.
Industry estimates have it that around half of the average annual harvest of 10 million pounds winds up in West Coast sushi bars. But the schedule of diving days doesn't provide enough volume to satisfy those markets.
Divers and the California Department of Fish and Game have discussed adding more days in July and August. But rewriting a management plan that will pass muster before the regulatory agency has been a slow process.
A strike by the Dungeness crab fleet delayed the season by about two weeks for a Dec. 1, 2006, opening, sending dockside prices through the roof at many California, Oregon and Washington ports. In extreme cases, fishermen saw ex-vessel offers approaching $4 per pound for some of their deliveries.
When fishermen finished their seasons in August of 2007 average ex-vessel offers for the Dungies stood at a three-state average of $2.44 per pound, up sharply from the $1.65 per pound they received in 2006. An overall production shortfall of around 33 million pounds for the West Coast fisheries, down from a whopping season of 84 million pounds in 2006 helped drive prices up, but not enough to compensate in terms of revenues for the crabbers.
Ex-vessel prices in the squid fishery climbed slightly from the 25 cents per pound in previous years to end up at an average of 27 cents per pound last year. The Washington, Oregon and California harvest total of slightly more than 94 million pounds, meanwhile, was lower than the 108 million pounds taken in 2006 and the nearly 123 million pounds landed in 2005.
With a coastwide harvest of around 1,050 tons, which is slightly less than last year's catch, herring fishermen faced ex-vessel prices of $460 per ton, $100 per ton less than they received in 2006. Sardines remained steady at a nickel per pound, but the harvest was up significantly at 281.5 million pounds over the 2006 harvest of 190.9 million pounds.
Petrale sole, meanwhile, remained steady at ex-vessel prices of $1.04 per pound. The harvest for the West Coast came in at 1.9 million pounds, up slightly from 1.67 million pounds in 2006. — Charlie Ess
North Pacific Year in Review
Hot hand: halibut longliners trump lower quota via higher ex-vessel price
Alaska's commercial fishermen will largely remember 2007 as the year of better prices and plenty of fish.
Preliminary harvest data from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game put last year's total salmon catch at 212 million for all five species, the fourth largest since statehood in 1959. Average gross revenues reached $374 million, a $28 million gain over 2006 and nearly $100 million over the most recent 10-year average of $277 million.
Early in the season, prices for Alaska kings climbed near $9 per pound, ex-vessel, thanks to a production shortfall along the West Coast. Big volume contributors to the 2007 harvest were pinks at 143 million fish, nearly doubling the 2006 harvest of 73 million. Better yet, ex-vessel prices for pinks hit a statewide average of 17 cents per pound, which is up a few pennies from recent years.
The Bristol Bay sockeye harvest, meanwhile, came in at 29.5 million. But average ex-vessel values slipped $2 million from 2006, coming in at $106 million.
In the continuing world whitefish shortage, halibut prices began just short of $5 per pound at many ports along the Alaska coast, as fresh markets couldn't seem to get enough volume throughout the summer.
A late rush to build inventories of frozen flatties to last through the season's closure from mid-November through the March opening this year drove ex-vessel offers to $5.50 per pound for some deliveries in Homer. Though the fleet has seen declines of 14 percent in halibut harvest quotas (and harvests, which have been running at around 98 percent of the quota) since 2003, ex-vessel revenues have climbed 26 percent during the same period.
According to data from NMFS, landings have decreased from 57.4 million pounds in 2003 to 49.3 million pounds last year. Average ex-vessel revenues during the same time period have increased from $167.8 million to $212 million.
Pacific cod prices have also climbed in response to shortages of whitefish and, more specifically, cod coming out of the Atlantic. With the 2007 harvest sporting a 17 percent gain over 2006, last year's P-cod crop of more than 36 million pounds also boasted the highest ex-vessel prices in years, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
In 2004, jiggers, longliners and trawlers suffered statewide average dockside offers of 26 cents per pound. Prices have climbed steadily since then to last year's average of 44 cents. The result of the increase in harvest volumes and ex-vessel prices has nearly doubled the fleets' revenues from around $8.1 million to $16 million during the same period.
The third, and most voluminous winner in the whitefish arena would be Alaska pollock. With a harvest of 1.35 million metric tons last year and the 2008 quota for the Bering Sea set at 1 million metric tons, markets domestic and abroad have been willing to pay higher prices for fillets, surimi and other products.
Demand for blackcod, Alaska's other prominent IFQ longline fishery, remained steady with ex-vessel prices of around $4 per pound for larger fish.
A market awash in Russian king crab has given Alaska king crab a run for its money, and average ex-vessel prices have fallen from $5.15 per pound in 2003 to $4.24 last year. Alaska's guideline harvest levels have hovered around 18.3 million pounds in 2005 and 2006.
Pessimists don't expect market conditions to change unless Russia's management regime, which has been suspected of contributing substantial volumes of illegally harvested crab on the market, eventually depletes the resource and leaves the outlets short on supplies.
Others are hoping that the inclusion of the Lacey Act within the recently reauthorized Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Management and Conservation Act will put the clamps to possession and transportation of illegally harvested, unreported or unregulated product into U.S. markets.
For years, the dive industry has strived to develop a better paralytic shellfish poison testing protocol, and work out the infrastructure to put more live geoducks into the hands of consumers in Asia. The live clams netted the divers ex-vessel prices in the neighborhood of $4 per pound.
No sooner did the fleets get the details worked out to put a greater percentage of a 517,000-pound harvest into the markets, however, when the extra volume turned markets finicky and prices to the divers fell to around $3.15 per pound.
Meanwhile, ex-vessel prices for sea cucumbers reached a near-record high of $2.25 per pound mark again last year. — Charlie Ess
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