Written by Jen Finn
New England fishery managers seem powerless to chart groundfish course
The decision to push changes to New England's groundfish management regime back to 2010 darkens the outlook for many fishermen.
Additional days-at-sea reductions are likely, although the New England Fishery Management Council in June put off those discussions until results of the 2008 stock assessment are in hand. Meanwhile, the northern Gulf of Maine fleet is already teetering.
New Hampshire captains say area closings contributed to the late 2007 shutdown of the Portsmouth Fishermen's Cooperative.
"Through the costs of overhead and the regulations, the volume [of fish] deteriorated and the decision was made to close," says Erik Anderson, president of the New Hampshire Commercial Fishermen's Association.
"The rolling closures have put the fleet in a depressed situation," Anderson says. "It was a combination of things. But now all these opportunities [like scallops and monkfish] are evaporating and it's boxing out boats. It just doesn't seem to be stopping."
Meanwhile, implementation of harvest sectors, in which groups of fishermen would be entitled to a portion of the total allowable catch, has been delayed until 2010.
"Right now here in eastern Maine, most of the fishermen have been pushed out one way or another between area closures and localized depletions. There's only a few groundfishermen left east of Port Clyde," says Aaron Dority, project director of the Downeast Initiative sponsored by the Penobscot East Resource Center.
The center supports sector management to save the Maine fishery. But "the reality is with a hard total allowable catch, that's still going to be difficult for some years to come," Dority adds. "It's not going to be the saving grace."
In the long term, sectors must be tailored to local habitats, too, because "we need to look at why the fish haven't come back" and devise restoration plans accordingly, Dority says.
At the end of May, market-sized to large cod ranged between $4 and $4.60 a pound at Boston's New England Fish Exchange auction, with supplies of just a couple thousand pounds daily.
Haddock carried much more of the market, including a surge one day of nearly 60,000 pounds of scrod-sized fish sold at Boston between $1.30 and $1.88. Large haddock in much smaller volume fetched $3 there and at the Portland Fish Exchange, while the spring's medium to large pollock brought 75 cents to $1.40 at Portland.
The Portland exchange's annual 30 million pound sales of the early 1990s declined to 17.1 million pounds by 2005 and plummeted to 9.5 million pounds in 2006.
As that number headed toward 5 million pounds last year, the fish exchange went up against Maine's lobster fleet in an unsuccessful legislative bid to let draggers land lobster bycatch in Maine ports. Instead, boats kept going to Gloucester, where selling up to 100 bugs per day helps pay for fishing trips.
The New England Fishery Management Council decided in April it is unrealistic to establish 17 proposed groundfish sectors before 2010. Meanwhile, groundfish boats on the A-days schedule "will have a difficult six months ahead," predicts Rich Canastra of the Whaling City Seafood Auction in New Bedford, Mass.
"This year is going to see a dramatic shakeout in the fishing community, not so much with scallops as the draggers," Canastra says.
"Among the groundfish people, I don't think I've seen as much down-and-out [feeling] as I do now," says Jim Kendall, an industry advocate in New Bedford. Community support groups this spring were getting calls from families not just for help on medical issues or short-term money shortfalls, "but people who are worried they won't make their [home] mortgages," Kendall says.
A $13 million federal aid package in Massachusetts offered some relief. But with such huge need, Kendall worries "it will be like the bread line. It will get nasty."
On May 16 the Senate Appropriations Committee tacked $75 million more for fisheries relief onto a war appropriations supplemental bill at the request of New England senators. That same day the senators for Maine and Massachusetts called on the Department of Commerce to delay the oncoming round of groundfish restrictions until 2009.
While the environmental impact statement on those cutbacks was slated to be issued in June, that timetable made little sense with the next stock assessment for the Gulf of Maine complex following in August, the senators said.
Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), who organized the bid for a delay, said the groundfish fleet in her state is less than half the size it was in 1994. — Kirk Moore
Gulf/South Atlantic Spiny Lobster
'Dismal' landings compel Floridians to take Caribbean-wide perspective
The Florida spiny lobster fishery is one of those tantalizing cases in which the industry always seems poised for a breakthrough but never quite makes it.
Spiny lobster isn't overfished here, and sustainable prosperity — while always seeming within reach — never quite materializes.
After the hurricane losses of the 2005-06 season, a reasonably strong 2006-07 harvest of 4.8 million pounds raised hopes of an improving trend. But the 2007-08 harvest dipped again.
"We ended up with 3.6 million pounds, which is dismal," says Marathon Key lobster fisherman Tony Iarocci, who also chairs the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council's spiny lobster committee.
The average lobster ex-vessel price in Florida, at $7.18 a pound, was the best in years. Alas, it was scant comfort to hard-pressed fishermen; many have already sold out in the Florida Keys.
For years, management focused on the Florida fishery and cutting effort through trap reduction. Now trap levels, at about 400,000, are roughly half what they were in the early 1990s.
"Effort's so far down, nobody is fishing the traps they used to," Iarocci says. "I can't see it's the fishermen's fault."
Among industry leaders, there is strong conviction that management plans that aren't consistent across the spiny lobster's Caribbean range are likely to be ineffective. Harvests and the market remain captive to Caribbean-wide problems as yet largely unaddressed, and American fishermen will see no long-term improvement until they are.
"The market right now is depending on what's going on [with management]," Iarocci says.
Among the most frustrating of these issues is that importers have been able to bring in lobster that is undersized or otherwise inconsistent with U.S. conservation standards.
Many of the Caribbean and Central American governments are making good faith attempts to sustainably manage their lobster fisheries and exports but need funding help from international sources to improve research and enforcement, says Iarocci, who has traveled widely in the region promoting sustainable practices.
Many Caribbean and South American countries are overharvesting juvenile spiny lobster, largely to feed U.S. demand, biologist Phil Steele told the Gulf council's spiny lobster committee last fall.
"They're harvesting these animals at too small a size, before they have a chance to reproduce, and to maximize their yield per recruit, to feed the ever hungry market in North America, which would be us," Steele said, according to council records.
Lobster larvae stages are widely dispersed and interconnected throughout the region, and Caribbean practices affect the Florida fishery.
"DNA analysis for this species, all throughout its range, indicates it is a single stock, and therein lies some of the problem," Steele said. "Again, some of the problems here is a larval drift. What goes on down in Central and South America will have a direct bearing on our stocks in this southern United States, especially along the coast of Florida."
In an unusual twist on the universal import problem, spiny lobster imports appear not to be driving down the price but actually limiting — biologically — the U.S. domestic harvest as they try to meet U.S. demand.
Finally, focus has shifted away from the idea that simply reducing effort in the Florida fishery will solve the U.S. fishery's problems. That's something fishermen have been saying for years and perennially disappointing Florida lobster seasons have reinforced.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, which manages the fishery inside state waters, has extended — for the second time — a moratorium on trap reductions, to July 2009.
Fishermen and fishery managers alike are finally pushing for a universal management plan jointly supervised by the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council, the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council and the Caribbean Fishery Management Council.
One proposed management provision would set a minimum carapace length of 3 inches for whole imported lobsters and for domestic harvest. However, the three councils are still working out the details on this and other issues, including trying to strengthen enforcement regionally and generally synchronize conservation efforts.
Timing targets for the proposed common regulations would be for all three councils to review and approve the new spiny lobster amendment during August and September and send it to the secretary of commerce late this year with implementation effective early in 2009. The new regulations won't be implemented in time for the 2008-09 season, which opens Aug. 6, but help for U.S. fishermen appears finally to be on the way. — Hoyt Childers
North Pacific Blackcod
Harvesters enjoy record-high prices as stock recruitment, dollar weaken
A weaker dollar, bad weather and slumping recruitment of harvestable blackcod into the fisheries means record-setting ex-vessel prices for Alaska's blackcod fleet.
Dockside offers in May neared $5 per pound for blackcod 7 pounds and up, with markets sopping up the 4- and 5-pound fish at prices of around $4.55. Even the 3-pound fish brought $4 per pound.
A year ago, deliveries at various ports were bringing in around $4.70 for the 7-ups, about $4.35 for fish upward of 5 pounds and $3.70 for fish in the 3- to 4-pound range.
Why the high prices?
"Exchange rates, and there's not enough blackcod," says Dave Woodruff, vice president of Alaska Fresh Seafoods, in Kodiak.
As Woodruff points out, a prime driver of high prices this year is the U.S.-Japan currency exchange rates. Japan claims about 70 percent of U.S. blackcod (aka sablefish) export volumes.
In May, the relative strength (monthly average) of the Japanese yen against the U.S. dollar dipped to 104 yen per dollar, down sharply from the monthly average of 121 during the same period last year. With increased purchasing power at the yen end of the distribution chain, processors playing in those markets have been willing to compete to get product.
As always, Alaska's early-season weather hampered deliveries in the IFQ fishery, which left markets starving.
"Deliveries have been few and far between," Woodruff says.
A long-range factor in the price equation is the reduced recruitment into the fisheries of young blackcod that will affect harvests over the next several years. In Alaska waters, age composition studies from the Alaska Fisheries Science Center's Alaska Sablefish Assessment for 2008, suggest that abundance of fish from 4 to 9 years old has declined.
Consequently, the Alaska fishery's managers have reduced the total allowable catch from 35.8 million pounds in 2005 to 34.5 million pounds in '06 to 33.4 million pounds last year. This year's quota is just shy of 30 million pounds. Alaska's quotas are expected to decline through 2012.
However, strong representation of fish from the 1999 and 2000 age classes in the blackcod biomass off the West Coast means the harvest limit there will increase from this year's 13 million pounds to around 17 million pounds in 2009. The West Coast 2010 harvest cap, meanwhile, will drop to around 15 million pounds.
But it's unlikely the additional 4 million pounds in the projected 2009 West Coast harvest will diminish strong blackcod prices next year.
"If the yen versus the dollar stays the same I don't think [increased West Coast production] will have a significant impact," says Bob Alverson, general manager of the Fishing Vessel Owners Association in Seattle.
With future wild blackcod production projected to decline, Canada's farmed blackcod ventures hope they'll gain market share.
Many in the wild harvest industry have speculated that annual farmed production of up to 5 million pounds could upset the market. However, to date the threat hasn't yet borne out.
Speculation in previous years suggested that around 5 million pounds of saleable farmed blackcod could be coming on line about now.
But Alverson says that in speaking with Canadian sources, he's heard no evidence of appreciable volume reaching the market yet.
According to Alverson, there's talk that Canadian blackcod farmers have begun developing or have developed a labeling campaign in anticipation of the day when farmed blackcod hits the market in earnest. The campaign, Alverson says, aims to paint the farmed product as being similar to the wild-caught version.
The campaign is being scrutinized by the Alaska industry, which asserts that the farmed fish stands to short the market in terms of quality. Alverson notes the fish are "noticeably thinner" and ventures that Omega 3 levels aren't on par with Alaska's wild fish.
"I think that [campaign] is a subterfuge," Alverson says. "It's meant to play off the wild harvest and create confusion among consumers."
In the meantime, farmed blackcod quality isn't likely to match that of its wild counterpart, Alverson says.
"The quality of the feed would have to be way better," Alverson says. Wild blackcod prey on small crustaceans and cephalopods, whereas feed pellets are tossed to the pen-reared fish.
Then again, consumers uneducated in the merits of wild fish might be unable to distinguish a superior product, particularly as farmed and wild blackcod increase their presence in burgeoning domestic markets.
"It's saleable," says Alverson of the farmed blackcod, "and if it's [sold to] someone from the heartland, they're not going to notice the difference." — Charlie Ess
Fleet aims to curb bycatch and reap benefits of whitefish-hungry markets
The 2007 shoreside whiting fishery closed early — much too early for most of the fleet — after barely more than a month of fishing.
Thanks to bycatch issues, the fleet left nearly 15,000 metric tons unharvested, an amount equal to almost $3 million in ex-vessel prices. This year, fishermen and processors are trying to avoid that, especially since there's a growing whitefish market, particularly in Europe.
"Last year we exceeded our widow rockfish cap," says Dave Jincks, president of the Midwater Trawlers Cooperative.
In 2007, the shoreside fleet caught 89.63 metric tons of widow, versus 48.95 metric tons in 2006. The non-tribal widow rockfish bycatch was 234.36 metric tons and the cap was 275 metric tons — too close to the limit to continue fishing. Hence, NMFS closed the fishery.
This year, the shore-based trawlers are being scrutinized for a different reason: salmon. Oregon and California salmon trollers shut out of a season this year because of poor returns are watching the hake boats. Last year, the fleet caught 2,442 salmon as bycatch; in 2006, the number was even lower, at 816 fish.
That's why Jincks is hoping to institute a monitoring program that Bering Sea pollock boats have used for years.
The plan is simple: Use the vessel-monitoring systems to transmit daily fishing tracks to an independent contractor. They would be matched with daily catch reports from shoreside processors. Consequently, hot bycatch areas could be detected and avoided nearly in real time.
"With the salmon thing going on, this is very important," Jincks says.
More importantly, leaving tons of whiting unfished isn't an option. More than 35 boats and 13 processors depend on the summertime hake fishery. This year, the shoreside catch limit is more than 10,000 metric tons greater than in 2007. It could mean another $2 million to the fleet — roughly $50,000 per boat, if prices are close to last season's.
"It was ridiculous," Jincks says of the early closure, which fueled efforts to establish the monitoring program. "Last year, this would have prevented it."
Jincks worked with the fleet in April and May to get the monitoring program in place and get it approved at the June Pacific Fishery Management Council meeting, prior to the June 15 shoreside opening. Most of the West Coast fleet is accustomed to the Alaska model, he says.
"This is a business matter," Jincks says. This is what your summer is based on, he adds.
The trawlers cooperative had Natural Resource Consultants in Seattle conduct a market price analysis. The draft report says, "West Coast hake ex-vessel prices have been out of sync with the world for many years."
The report notes major changes in the Japanese, European and Chinese markets in the past two years that could bode well for the hake fleet.
Whitefish demand is up in general, reducing supplies for surimi — for which prices are usually lower anyway. Cod supplies are down worldwide, and Europeans are hungry for fillets. The market's diversified and now there are competing demands for surimi and fillet product forms, for both pollock and hake.
But most importantly, for 2008, is the effect on prices to fishermen.
The report states, "much stronger product demand and pricing justifies ex-vessel hake prices for the 2008 fishery being much higher than the 6 to 6.5 cents per pound typically paid during the 2006 fishery and much higher than the 7.5 to 8.5 cents per pound paid during the 2007 fishery."
Just four years ago, prices hovered around 3.5 cents a pound before inching up to about 5 cents in 2005, 6 to 7 cents in 2006 and between 7 and 10 cents a pound in 2007, depending on the port.
The report says ex-vessel prices for Canadian and Makah tribal catches reportedly reached 10 cents a pound last year — 1.5 to 2 cents higher than what traditional U.S. fishermen got. This year, that should change, the report says.
End-product prices for surimi, headed/gutted/tailed fish and fillets have gone up by about 50 percent. That could mean an ex-vessel price of 12 to 12.5 cents per pound — likely the highest ever paid to whiting trawlers.
But with more than two weeks to go before the shoreside season was ready to start, Jincks was content to continue working on avoiding bycatch this year and avoiding an early closure
"I'm hoping — I really hope — I can get it going," Jincks says. — Susan Chambers
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