Written by Jen Finn
Gulf/South Atlantic Summer Flounder
Low quotas, cheap prices and pursuit of catch history take toll on harvesters
For 2009, Atlantic summer flounder quotas increased only slightly from last year's historic — and artificial, most fishermen would say — lows.
Despite extremely limited supply, the market was sluggish as ex-vessel prices in North Carolina hovered around 2005 levels for much of the season.
For the short term, at least, economic and regulatory conditions will likely keep the market constrained.
The early 2009 sub-season was short, with a designated 80 percent or so of the 2.88 million annual quota fished out and the fishery closed by the end of February.
North Carolina, with 27.4 percent of the Atlantic coastwide commercial quota, holds the largest share and is the only South Atlantic state among eight Atlantic states that have significant quota.
"The market was never good," says Sherrill Styron, owner of Garland Fulcher Seafood in Oriental, N.C., where the ex-vessel price held around $1.25 for most of the season.
The problem with the market in early 2009 was glut, despite the limited supply, as far more vessels than usual — 80-some boats versus 50 — targeted summer flounder, dumping too much on North Carolina docks too quickly.
"A lot more boats went floundering than ever went before," Styron says. "It doesn't take anything to bust a market anymore."
Maintaining market share under these conditions is challenging. If supply remains limited long enough, buyers begin looking elsewhere.
Even with the U.S. economy in the worst recession in decades, the value of imports of flounder for the first three months of 2009 increased to $16.13 million from $12.81 million for the first three months of 2008.
The big dog in this market is China, with the value of flounder exports to the U.S. increasing from $4.75 million for January through March 2008 to $8.58 million for the same months in 2009. Moreover, frozen flounder imports from China have increased from 2.43 million pounds worth $2.62 million in 2003 to 16.16 million pounds worth $29.23 million in 2008.
Tilman Gray, an Avon, N.C., fisherman, fish house owner and 2008 National Fisherman Highliner, fishes pound nets for southern flounder but doesn't bother with summer flounder.
"The government has ruined this fishery," he says.
Styron says much of the influx of new vessels in the fishery this year comes from scallop boats trying to build a history in the fishery should summer flounder move to individual quota management.
The mid-May announcement by Jane Lubchenco, new head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, that federal fisheries will move toward share-based management nationwide will likely raise the fishing-history stakes during the short fall sub-season and into next year. Potential short-term gluts coupled with continuing economic gloom leave the outlook, for the short-term at least, not particularly encouraging.
"We just hope next year will be better [but] with this economy, I really don't see the prices getting much better," Styron says.
Like most fishermen, Styron doesn't believe last year's drastic quota cuts to meet Magnuson-Stevens Act rebuilding parameters — specifically that the fishery reach its target biomass by Jan. 1, 2013 — were justified.
"There's plenty of flounders if they would just let us catch them," he says.
A 2008 summer flounder "benchmark stock assessment" showed the fishery is well on its way to official recovery, with a spawning stock biomass of 95.6 million pounds, 72 percent of the 2013 target. The assessment also acknowledged that overfishing is not occurring in the fishery.
Summer flounder is a perfect example of a fishery that has ping-ponged from "overfished" to "rebuilt" and back again, depending on political currents and where the recovery goalposts are set, without fishermen ever seeing much difference on the water.
Many commercial fishermen and an increasing number of recreational sector allies believe the answer is to revise Magnuson to alter the rebuilding timelines.
Major commercial fishing associations and recreational groups have been lobbying in support of legislation that would bring more flexibility into rebuilding time frames.
H.R. 1584, the Flexibility in Rebuilding American Fisheries Act of 2009, sponsored by Rep. Frank Pallone (D.-N.J.), was sent to the U.S. House Committee on Natural Resources' Subcommittee on Insular Affairs, Oceans and Wildlife in March. Similar legislation died in committee last year.
Among major commercial and recreational groups supporting the bill are the North Carolina Fisheries Association, the Southern Offshore Fishing Association, and the Recreational Fishing Alliance.
Sean McKeon, NCFA's executive director, says that "without it we will forever be at the mercy of Magnuson's arbitrary and unrealistic rebuilding schedules, and the decline of many important fisheries will continue." — Hoyt Childers
Fishermen getting take-it-or-leave-it
money despite a reduction in quota
With a decreased harvest quota and the continued world shortage of whitefish supplies, Pacific whiting markets should be poised to see higher ex-vessel prices this year.
But as the season began, the opposite was true. According to Pete Leipzig, executive director of the Fishermen's Marketing Association in Eureka, Calif., dockside prices this year were hovering around the nickel-per-pound mark.
"I think most people would expect the ex-vessel price to increase or at least remain high," Leipzig says. "However, that does not appear to be the case. The fleet is looking at around 5 cents per pound." Those lower prices may reflect weaker international currencies and shaken confidence among buyers, thanks to global economic woes.
Leipzig says last year's average price was 10.8 cents per pound; fishermen received 6.9 cents per pound in 2007. Whiting garnered 4 cents per pound back in 2004, when most of it was ground up for surimi and the demand for fillets was substantially less.
This year's West Coast harvest quota of 135,939 metric tons is but half of last year's quota of around 269,545 metric tons and will put far less product into market.
"The bottom line is that the coastwide [optimum yield]" — for U.S. and Canadian commercial and U.S. tribal harvests — "went down to about 184,000 metric tons," says Dan Waldeck, executive director of the Pacific Whiting Conservation Cooperative in Seattle.
As for changes in future harvest quotas, questions loom about recruitment of younger whiting into the fishery. According to the 2008 NMFS Pacific hake stock assessment, U.S. harvests have ranged from between 200,000 metric tons and 260,000 metric tons in recent years, with harvests of 260,000 and 266,000 metric tons in 2005 and 2006.
Significant recruitment of fish from the 1999 year class provided the impetus for the large fisheries. Though the recent stock assessment model shows optimism for recruitment of the 2005 age class into the fishery, scientists say the data is only composed of hydroacoustic surveys done in 2007 and more recent fishery-related data, but the reality of a strong recruitment event is "very uncertain."
At the same time, reductions in the Bering Sea pollock quota from last year's 1 million metric tons to this year's 815,000 metric tons should further shrink the amount of whitefish reaching world markets.
U.S. exports of frozen whiting products to all countries made great gains from 2005 to 2006, jumping from 48.5 million kilos to 59.4 million kilos. Exports peaked at around 70 million kilos in 2007 but plummeted to 38.9 million kilos in 2008.
U.S. exports to Russia have fallen from a high of 20.9 million kilos in 2005 to just 5.6 million kilos last year. Though exports of frozen whiting to China have been substantially less during the same time period, they've risen sharply from 1.4 million kilos in 2005 to 5.1 million kilos last year, putting China on par with Russia in terms of sopping up product.
The fall in exports to Russia is an indicator of tough times in currency exchange rates and weakening strength among banks that finance processors' whiting purchases, says Mike Okoniewski, Alaska manager with Pacific Seafood, in Woodland, Wash.
"In general, we're seeing prices slip," he says, "and not only that, it's been a case of, 'Are you going to take the product?'"
Okoniewski adds that the fall of Icelandic banks coupled with devalued currency has shaken confidence throughout the distribution pipeline.
Meanwhile, Leipzig says some believe fishermen have little option but to fish the whiting — at any price.
"The quota is down and some boats need to fish whiting because there are few alternatives and they will accept whatever price is offered," Leipzig says.
Though it remains unclear how the West Coast groundfish trawl rationalization program will affect markets, implementation will become final in January 2011. The plan addresses a rationalization process for the fleet's non-whiting sector (the program manages 82 species), while the whiting trawl industry will see amendments that include processor shares when it comes to allocating quota.
While the new program aims to curb bycatch and stabilize the economics of the fisheries it remains to be seen whether the various trawl sectors will adjust the flow of product into market and raise ex-vessel prices — especially in this year's scenario of low prices when markets are short.
"There might be different timing and pace," Waldeck says. "But the flow of product will follow its traditional seasonal pattern." — Charlie Ess
Research is called for to determine
story behind winter flounder numbers
The shutdown of winter flounder fishing is compounding sharp cutbacks in Northeast groundfish that began May 1. But some people think winter flounder need only the kind of fresh scientific look that helped revive the scallop and summer flounder fisheries.
In meetings this spring in New Bedford, associate professor Kevin Stokesbury, of the University of Massachusetts' Dartmouth School for Marine Science and Technology, proposed a cooperative research project. It would include 200 survey trawls by industry vessels, side-by-side tows with research vessels, and associated research to better understand the winter flounder population.
The current analysis model managers use says the southern New England/Mid-Atlantic spawning stock biomass of 3,368 metric tons estimated in 2007 was just 9 percent of the target of 38,761 metric tons. But landings and discard mortality that year totaled 3,016 metric tons — and still, fishermen see winter flounder out there.
"The worsening condition of the winter flounder stock is a result of increased expectations derived from new models rather than an actual observed decrease in the number of fish in the water," the New Bedford Ocean and Fisheries Council wrote in a research proposal to Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick.
Also called blackback flounder, or just blackbacks, they are the runts of the groundfish litter, really panfish for consumers, but valued for their delicate meat. At the end of May Georges Bank winter flounder sold for $1.37 to $2.18 a pound in New Bedford, according to federal market reports.
That makes them a modest but reliable money maker for small draggers in southern New England and the New York Bight, says Jim Lovgren of the Fishermen's Dock Cooperative in Point Pleasant Beach, N.J.
The losses come amid wide anxiety over the move from days-at-sea management to sector management. Some captains, like Russell Sherman of Gloucester, Mass., see sectors — groups of fishermen banding together to fish on their sector's assigned quota — as a last chance "for some of us to come out on the other side of this."
Others are worried. Even with the days-at-sea cutbacks, there is too much uncertainty about how each sector's share will be determined based on catch history and other factors.
"Next year is going to be a disaster. How do you allocate nothing?" says Richard Canastra of the Whaling City Seafood Display Auction in New Bedford. "There's too much uncertainty in this."
Meanwhile, New York draggers feel the winter flounder closure sharply. Bonnie Brady, executive director of the Long Island Commercial Fishing Association says blackbacks are the foothold in the groundfish species complex for two dozen boats. In 2008 winter flounder accounted for $800,000 of $1.06 million in groundfish revenue landed by federally permitted Long Island vessels.
Even with NMFS backing off from the southern New England groundfish area closure, the loss of winter flounder shuts out Long Island, Brady says.
"It's 80 percent of our groundfish landings. No one can take that kind of hit," Brady says. Skeptics say that's a tiny percentage of overall New York landings, but Brady says it's important to the draggers.
Montauk trawlers recently got $1.25 to $3 a pound for winter flounder, depending on market conditions, according to Montauk skipper Dave Aripotch, Brady's husband. Already tightening restrictions on the fishery have pushed dragger crews to catch more whiting. The resulting glut of fish is depressing whiting prices.
To understand the value disparity, consider in 2007 New York boats caught 1,600 metric tons of whiting to make $2.25 million, whereas 181 metric tons of winter flounder paid $805,000. That's on average a threefold price advantage — provided you're allowed to catch blackbacks.
The fishery's historic peaks date to 1966 when nearly 12,000 metric tons were landed, and another boom around 11,000 metric tons in 1981. Blackbacks were easy to catch in the early 1980s and supported a tidy business among small-scale draggers.
If the New Bedford cooperative research proposal becomes reality, 40 to 50 fishermen could be paid to catch winter flounder for science. The council estimated that project would cost $2.1 million, and would provide detailed information about flounder numbers and movements in the primary Great South Channel area, where government surveys conduct just eight sampling tows a year.
During a May research cruise from Cape May, N.J., to Montauk, the Northeast Area Monitoring and Assessment Program inshore survey using Wanchese, N.C., skipper Jimmy Ruhle's dragger Darana R saw a "two-to-one [ratio] in apparent percentage of winter flounder to summer flounder," Brady says. — Kirk Moore
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