Written by Jen Finn
Year in Review
Squid shines as lobster prices tank, crab stocks dip, surf clam fleet shrinks
Maine's coastal economy has been likened to furniture: a stool losing its legs as groundfish, herring and other fisheries get more restrictive. The breathtaking autumn 2008 dive in lobster prices threatened to kick out the last leg.
The banking meltdown in September locked up Icelandic banks, when they lost mortgage-backed securities and pulled back their credit lines to Canadian processors. Like a braking freight train, the lack of cash in Canada slammed producers down the line.
Dockside prices in October plummeted to between $2.25 and $2.80, according to industry surveys, and stayed there until the end of the year. With many Maine and Canadian boats tied up in January 2009, the prices nudged back up to $4 and even over $5 a pound. But lobstermen aren't counting on that as a trend in today's economy.
The meltdown underlined a need for the industry to do more long-range strategic thinking, said Patrice McCarron, executive director of the Maine Lobstermen's Association. With seafood increasingly globalized and subject to commodity pricing, sustainability and quality are key to regional branding.
A cost-benefit report on seeking Marine Stewardship Council certification for Maine lobster may come out this year.
Canada's Atlantic northern shrimp fishery won Marine Stewardship Council certification in August. That makes it the largest certified cold-water shrimp fishery in the world — a selling point in their European export, said Derek Butler, executive director of the Association of Seafood Producers in Newfoundland.
In Maine ports, there are better catches and longer seasons for shrimp. But because years of import competition have beaten down prices, there's little money left for either marketing or new processing capacity.
The Midcoast Fishermen's Association in Port Clyde, Maine, got $1.35 a pound for shrimp from customers who signed up for winter supplies of fresh shrimp off the boats. But auction prices still averaged around 43 cents, said Kim Libby, the association's business manager. At those prices, a $1 million certification program can't happen, she added.
The surf clam and ocean quahog fleet saw more people go out of business in 2008, as the Eastern Shore Seafood plant in Virginia closed and boat crews had to work harder to fill their clam cages.
Hours at sea increased 26 percent from 2006 to 2007 for modest gains of 5 to 7 percent in catch. That trend is tied to the decline of clam numbers in the southernmost Mid-Atlantic beds and a slow increase in average seawater temperatures, scientists say.
Surf clam prices passed $13 a bushel for the first time in years. The annual federal clam survey was nearly canceled because of fuel costs, but was rescued after the industry and Congress raised alarms.
The dredges brought up lots of young surf clams. But an industry effort to sample Georges Bank and clear it for harvesting stalled from false-positive results using the Jellett Rapid Test for paralytic shellfish poisoning.
Samples that tested positive at sea proved negative on shore. If Georges Bank opens up, so too could new clam plants in New England.
Loligo squid was one bright spot in a grim economy, a relatively cheap-eats comfort food that's won wide acceptance across America as the ubiquitous calamari bar food and appetizer. At $1.00 to $1.50 a pound to the boats, the fleet can catch 19,000 metric tons in 2009, up from 17,000 metric tons in 2008.
Sadly, things couldn't be much worse for Chesapeake Bay watermen. A blue crab stock assessment showed the crustacean's numbers declining again despite hopeful trends in the last couple of years.
Biologists' projections show the bay's crab population is barely over half what it should be, and those findings triggered a chain of events. While watermen got $65 a bushel and retailers twice that or more last summer, catches and fuel prices made for a bad summer season, said Larry Simns, president of the Maryland Watermen's Association.
In September the federal government declared a disaster for the bay's peeler and soft-shell crab fisheries. Some aid money went through Virginia to employ dredge boats to clear the bay of lost crab pots.
Captains like Robert Hollowell of Norfolk, Va., said they would have rather continued their winter crab dredge fishery. Virginia shut it down to meet a baywide goal of reducing female crab mortality by 34 percent.
Fishing advocates reversed management course on summer flounder and spiny dogfish in 2008. A new stock assessment on flounder, with input from recreational and commercial groups, stopped years of quota decline. — Kirk Moore
Quota cuts stymie staple fisheries, but salmon, herring notch banner year
While some of Alaska's bread and butter fisheries suffered shortfalls in production because of quota reductions, others reached a nexus of healthy harvests and higher ex-vessel prices.
Bering Sea pollock trawlers whacked away at a quota of 1 million metric tons, which was down substantially from the 1.35 million metric tons of 2007. While biological research indicates quotas could increase, perhaps as early as next year, markets are short on product, particularly in fast-developing fillet markets in Europe.
Shortages in the production of competing species, such as hake sourced from South Africa, have done their share of shoring up prices for the Alaska fleet. Surimi prices remained strong last year as a result of production shortages elsewhere in the world.
The global shortage in pollock and other whitefish species contributed to healthy increases in halibut prices. Halibut also suffered biological factors translating to a lowered quota in 2008.
A new model of assessing stocks as juvenile fish mature and migrate northwest throughout the Gulf of Alaska prescribed a more conservative exploitation rate. That produced a cutback from a quota of 50.2 million pounds in 2007 to one of 48 million pounds for 2008.
As the 2008 season began, bad weather and hungry domestic markets greeted longliners with prices flirting around $5 per pound.
In Alaska, Pacific cod continues to enjoy the whitefish deficit. Dockside prices last year averaged 56 cents per pound in many areas, up significantly from the 44 cents per pound cod fishermen received in 2007.
Blackcod also sported strong ex-vessel prices as the season got under way. Demand for the fish in domestic smokeries, upscale restaurants and competing demand in Japan, where the yen has been strengthening, kept ex-vessel prices above the $4 per pound mark by a healthy margin in 2008. Early deliveries brought closer to $5 per pound for the larger fish, and longliners worked at catching 26.8 million pounds for 90 percent of the 30 million pound quota.
Blackcod quotas were ratcheted down from 2007, albeit not as severely as cuts to the pollock and halibut quota. In 2007, longliners caught 30 million pounds as they worked on a quota of 33.4 million pounds.
The 2008 salmon harvest, meanwhile, wound up with a preliminary total of 709 million fish. Most of it was driven by bumper crops of humpies in Prince William Sound, Southeast and the Alaska Peninsula where the respective seine fleets landed 42 million, 16 million and 13.5 million fish. Pink salmon seiners last year basked in the combination of healthy harvests and rebounding ex-vessel prices.
As autumn neared and boats were put away, dockside rumors had it that deckhands on top-producing boats knocked down shares of $60,000. Those big numbers were driven by ex-vessel prices like the fleets haven't seen since the late 1980s.
Southeast deliveries, on average, brought 27 cents per pound for the pinks, up from 21 cents in 2007. And Prince William Sound seiners saw a jump from just 19 cents in 2007 to an average 33 cents per pound.
As for the state's sockeye crop, Bristol Bay didn't quite hit its predicted 31 million, coming in at around 27.7 million. Ex-vessel prices there rose another penny from 2007 to 68 cents per pound.
Copper River fishermen hoping to salvage their season suffered a catastrophic return in escapement and saw early closures to fishing the flats. That sent them elsewhere in Prince William Sound to scratch up 1.2 million sockeyes. That's less than half of the 2007 harvest of 3.2 million.
Herring hit high marks, a record harvest of more than 14,000 tons and ex-vessel prices of $600 per ton.
For all that continuing episodes of the "Deadliest Catch" have done to promote the popularity of crabbers plying the Bering Sea, ex-vessel prices haven't yet begun to respond — most probably thanks to the influx of illegal, unreported and unregulated Russian crab from the Barents Sea. Crabbers in 2008 hoped for dockside offers north of $5 per pound but opened their season at just over $4 per pound.
The good news is the resource is in good shape: Last year's quota of 20.4 million pounds was higher than the 18.3 million pounds of 2007.
Alaska's dive fisheries continue to favor geoducks and sea cucumbers, while urchins, harvested for the roe and then exported to Japan, have suffered miserably at ex-vessel prices of around 30 cents per pound. — Charlie Ess
Shrimp fleet's luck finally changes but allocation cut hurts snapper IFQs
After years of unrelenting hard times, shrimpers finally got lucky in October. Fuel prices collapsed to less than half what they were in July, while shrimp prices improved, or at worst, declined moderately in certain areas. Landings were good in most areas of the Gulf of Mexico and South Atlantic.
For example, for the week ending Dec. 3, 2008, shrimpers in the northern Gulf of Mexico sold at dockside 63,500 pounds of 15-20 count heads-on shrimp at mostly $3 a pound, according to a NMFS weekly update. For the comparable period in 2007, shrimpers sold 61,000 pounds of 15-20 heads-on at $2.60 a pound.
Heads-off ex-vessel sales of 15-20 count shrimp in the northern gulf totaled an impressive 345,600 pounds at $3.85 a pound for the week ending Dec. 3, compared to 79,500 pounds at $5.45 a pound for the comparable week in 2007.
The 2008 decrease in price on heads-off shrimp probably reflects both the late 2008 economic meltdown and abundant supply.
Gerald Pack, owner of Safe Harbor Seafood Market in Mayport, Fla., says shrimpers must be flexible through good and bad times and find a way to cope with today's realities.
"Where we are living right now is different than what we have ever experienced," he says. "You've got to get your head swung back around. We're all doing what we love. We've just got to stick to it."
Red snapper individual fishing quota shareholders also benefited from lower fuel costs. But they saw their commercial allocation shrink 45 percent — from the 4.65 million pounds they expected during planning for IFQs — to 2.55 million pounds, to meet federal rebuilding targets.
Ex-vessel price rose to record levels in 2008 — but even $5 a pound wasn't enough to compensate.
Nobody expected such drastic cuts when they approved the IFQ, said Panama City, Fla., fisherman Russell Underwood.
"We were told we might get a small cut," he said. "We've almost been cut in half."
The 2008 news was mixed in the gulf's grouper fishery with drastic cuts from recent harvest levels in a new gag quota. For the large majority of fishermen who supported it, referendum approval of an IFQ program for grouper and tilefish somewhat compensates for the gag developments.
Red grouper, now rebuilt and fished at a sustainable level, held appropriately steady from 2007 to 2008 in Florida, where 99 percent of the gulf fish are landed, according to NMFS. Through October, fishermen had landed 3.5 million pounds at an average dockside price of $2.42 a pound, up slightly from the 3.4 million pounds at an average price of $2.53 in 2007.
2008 finally brought some good news for North Carolina fishermen who depend on the Atlantic summer flounder fishery. They will see their commercial quota increase from 2.5 million pounds to roughly 3 million pounds in 2009.
Quotas have been decreasing since 2004 when the Atlantic total allowable catch was 28.2 million pounds. By 2008, Magnuson-Stevens Act rebuilding targets had dropped the catch limit to 15.77 million pounds, leaving the North Carolina commercial sector quota at 2.5 million pounds after final adjustments.
For 2009, the landings cap is 18.45 million pounds, based on new stock assessments and reviews by independent scientists.
For U.S. swordfish hunters, the big question of whether the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas will let the fleet retain an undiminished quota — and so maintain market share — has been deferred to 2010. Prices were decent much of the year, and the late 2008 fuel price drop fortunately coincided with the beginning of the top harvest months.
Louisiana oysters were well along in recovery from Hurricane Katrina, and the blue crab fishery was thriving before hurricanes Gustav and Ike blew through in September. The storms dealt setbacks to shellfish as they did to most inshore fisheries with silting, debris and shoreside damage.
While 2009 is expected to be a year of short supply, environmental conditions appear ripe for a good spat set in September.
In North Carolina, for much of the year, it appeared 2008 would be a replay of 2007's dismal 20.1 million pound hard blue crab harvest. Then in July, landings really surged and stayed high the remainder of the year. Preliminary data sets the overall hard crab harvest at 31.6 million pounds.
At year's end, south Florida dockside prices for spiny lobster and stone crab were very low. Both are expensive items in restaurants, so the softness in the market is likely related to the continuing economic crisis. — Hoyt Childers
Abundance of other fish help fill void caused by loss of troll-caught salmon
The news wasn't all bad in 2008, even though fishermen and processors saw their market niche for wild, troll-caught king salmon slip away ever so slightly as the season for the West's iconic fish was nearly closed completely. The abundance of other fish made up for a lot of the loss.
One of those was albacore tuna, a species salmon trollers often switch to in the summer. Coastal processors, many of whom simply off-load the tuna for custom canners, were plugged during the latter half of summer.
"It was beautiful tuna this year," says Scott Adams, production manager at Charleston, Ore.-based Hallmark Fisheries. "Just huge fish."
That wasn't the case for the fleet overall as the holidays rolled around. The Western Fishboat Owners Association said the bigger U.S. canners canceled troll- and jig-caught tuna deliveries in December and January. Canners blamed a glut of tuna on the market and sales were down — at just about the time the economy started to tank. In some places, prices dropped $150 per metric ton in a matter of hours.
Wayne Heikkila, the association's executive director, remains optimistic.
"We are hoping for stability by next summer," he said via e-mail. "Normally tuna products do well in difficult times as a reasonably priced commodity."
Meanwhile, other fishermen turned to slime eels as a way to fill the salmon void. What used to be a lot of work for 25-cent-a pound eels grew to 60 cents a pound by mid-summer. Selling to Korean markets can be tricky, though, and one buyer in northern California quit buying, leaving some fishermen with no market.
Dungeness crab, though, one of the West Coast's most traditional — and lucrative — fisheries suffered what fishermen called a bad year. However, it turned out to be a relatively average year.
In Oregon, the 2007-08 season landings were about 12.1 million pounds — slightly above the average of 10.1 million pounds. Some fishermen were paid more than $4 a pound, which made up slightly for the lower volume.
The 2008-09 season that opened in December was a different matter: The opening price was $2 a pound, but later dropped to $1.70 a pound as the recession took its toll. Most crabbers had their gear in by the end of January as landings remained roughly the same as the season before.
West Coast sardine fishermen had one of their best years in 2008. The fishery that brought in a meager $171,523 some 20 years ago has exploded to a $14.6 million phenomenon, capable of supporting more boats and processors, particularly in the Northwest.
Landings were only 87,171 metric tons in 2008, compared to the 127,764 metric tons that fetched $13.3 million in 2007; however, the fleet and processors saw more money for their fish. To the seiners and trawlers, that meant almost $70 more per ton of fish delivered, much of which went to fuel.
Nice weather played a part for the success California sardine fishermen enjoyed. In early 2009, they landed so much fish that regulators were concerned fishermen might burn through the first part of the season's harvest guideline.
Like the sardine fishermen, pink-shrimp trawlers saw a high volume but watched as their bottom lines increased only slightly.
The profits from 60-cents-a-pound big shrimp that trawlers hauled in by the boatloads from areas they hadn't fished in years, such as around Brookings, Ore., and Port Orford, Ore., went to offsetting the costs of doing business.
"We had a great season," said Oregon trawler Nick Edwards, one of the coast's highliners, "but fuel costs ate a lot of that."
Through much of the year, fishermen dealt with diesel costs of up to $4 a gallon — a 100 percent increase from a couple years before, in some instances.
Blackcod also was abundant for many Washington, northern Oregon and northern California fishermen. Average prices, including both fixed-gear and trawl, remained relatively high, between $2 and $2.50 a pound.
Adams said domestic interest in blackcod continues to grow, but the recession may make things even more difficult; processors and wholesalers will have to work harder in 2009. Another season without salmon may add to the frustration, as it's one key item taken away from the slate of products West Coast seafood sellers have to offer.
Doug Heater, at Bornstein Seafoods in Astoria, Ore., captured the essence: "This is as hard a time for selling as I've had in 26 years," he said. — Susan Chambers
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