Written by Jen Finn
Northeast Sea Clams
Product shortage benefits Canadian and Asian competitors in U.S. market
The East Coast sea clam market remains soft as the industry contends with loss of market share and continued Canadian and other foreign competition that developed with a shortage of clams and rise in domestic prices a few years ago.
Meanwhile, the industry is bracing for news on 2007 surf clam stock prospects. Recruitment has been low, and researchers are watching a major trend of new surf clams tending to settle farther east and north of longtime Mid-Atlantic grounds.
"It looks like we're losing the southern and the inshore areas," says Tom Hoff, Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council surf clam and ocean quahog coordinator. "The mother lode is still off northern New Jersey... But there's an awful lot of speculation that this resource is moving because of climate change and global warming."
"The ocean quahog assessment doesn't have any surprises, and they are in pretty good shape," said Eric Powell, a Rutgers University professor and shellfish scientist, as experts continued to analyze survey results before a stock assessment report at the end of 2006. "The issue with surf clams is very much in doubt."
Research scientist James Weinberg of the NOAA lab in Woods Hole, Mass., and Powell have tied rising seawater temperatures to the surf clam decline off the Delmarva Peninsula and southern New Jersey since 2002.
"That's a big hit," Hoff says. Fishermen have shifted most of their effort toward the now-richer areas farther north near Long Island, but the Delmarva beds have traditionally been a reliable storehouse for the industry.
On the economic front, import-export pricing from the North American Free Trade Agreement remains another headache for U.S. clam processors. The elimination of tariffs on Canadian clams was a significant factor in the close-margin clam business. American clammers were getting good prices, as much as $20 a bushel for surf clams and $6 a bushel for ocean quahogs in fall 2006, but processors' margins were tighter than ever.
The biggest market by far for Canadian clam meat has been in satisfying Japan's taste for hokkigai — surf clam served as sushi. But the jump in U.S. clam prices three years ago also let Canada's Stimpson surf clams slip into a North American market vacuum.
Southbound Canadian clams are even better positioned now after a 10 percent tariff on clam products was dropped under the NAFTA treaty. For $50 worth of canned clams, "$5 a case, in a business that's very competitive, is a lot of money," says David Wallace, a Maryland-based industry consultant.
Emerging competition from Vietnam now seems limited mostly to retail aisles, where 6.5-ounce cans of farmed clams from Southeast Asia arrived in force alongside the tuna and crabmeat cans on supermarket shelves in 2005.
However, Vietnam "does not have as much product as we were led to believe," Wallace says. The biggest quantities of clams, processed for the foodservice industry, are where American fishermen and processors really compete. And that's where Canadian companies have gained a foothold.
"The market is still fairly soft. The demand is about where it was last year, but it is significantly down from 2003 and 2004, probably as much as 25 percent," Wallace says.
Industry watchers think small chain restaurants and single-restaurant owners who couldn't get enough clams during the shortage found other sources or just took surf clams off their menus.
"Once it goes off the menu, it takes a number of years to get it back on the menu," Wallace says. One replacement species has been the Stimpson surf clam.
Canada's development of the Stimpson surf clam resource began with exploratory trips in the early 1980s — long before today's management regime — when it was predicted the rich U.S. East Coast surf clam beds would soon be overfished. By 1986, surveys established the outlines of big beds on the Banquereau Bank of the Scotian Shelf. More clams were found on the Grand Banks in 1989.
Closely overseen by the Canadian government, the fishery developed slowly and cautiously. But processors had problems penetrating the U.S. market in the early 1990s, and the companies had serious financial problems, according to Canada's Department of Fisheries and Oceans.
Today, processors Clearwater Fine Foods and Seabay Clam Co. operate catcher-processor vessels that freeze clam meat at sea before delivery to plants in Newfoundland and Nova Scotia for further processing. Altogether, the offshore fishery has an annual quota around 44,000 metric tons.
— Kirk Moore
Some fisheries were hot, some not, but ex-vessel price continues to surge
Though this year's preliminary harvest total of 134.5 million salmon falls well short of last year's record harvest of 221 million fish, it's not too far out of line with other catches since 2000.
Discounting last year's whopping production, which tallied up to ex-vessel revenues of around $314 million, harvests in the other years have ranged from 131 million fish to 175 million fish for an average of 158 million fish from 2000 to 2004.
The better news is that the average statewide ex-vessel prices for all five species have risen steadily since 2003. According to Alaska Department of Fish and Game catch data, processors in 2002 paid $1.35 per pound for kings, 60 cents per pound for sockeyes, 36 cents for cohos, 19 cents for chums and just 9 cents per pound for pinks.
Last year, however, ex-vessel prices for the respective five species were $2.27 per pound for kings, 73 cents for sockeyes, 76 cents for cohos (more than double the 2002 price), 27 cents for chums, and pinks had climbed to 12 cents per pound.
This year's harvest of around 29 million sockeyes in Bristol Bay has restored optimism for the gillnet fleet. Even before the season ended, stories that some of the highline boats put in 300,000 pounds began reverberating throughout coastal Alaska.
"It was a very strange run this year," says Tim Sands, area management biologist for the West Side of Bristol Bay, in Dillingham. "The fishing went really late."
Sands says that a harvest of 11 million sockeyes in the Nushagak District, near Dillingham, bested the previous record harvest by 4 million fish. Fishing in the Nushagak remained hot and heavy through July 6. After that, fishing began to heat up in the bay's eastern harvest districts.
"People caught so much fish because they put a whole season in the Nushagak. Then they went over east and put in another season over there. We had 17 consecutive days of harvests over 500,000 fish," Sands says.
Though this year's ex-vessel prices of 55 cents per pound were a far cry from what processors paid back in the 1980s, the season will go down as a winner for gillnetters recovering from prices of 40 cents and dismal runs in the late 1990s.
Unfortunately, the good news was not homogenous throughout Alaska's fishery management areas. In Southeast Alaska, where the seine fleet has landed upward of 45 million pinks in recent years, runs were lagging so that managers were forced to curb the commercial harvests in many areas to ensure escapement.
In the past, seiners have been put on catch limits to let processors catch up with the harvest when the run comes on strong. But this year, they had landed only 11.3 million pinks as of Sept. 8.
"It was a slow season for pink salmon," says Bill Davidson, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game's regional management coordinator in Sitka. As for theories tied to the cause of the missing pinks, Davidson observed a drought while conducting aerial spawning surveys during the parent year, the summer of 2004.
"The streams that were rain fed were dried up, so the fish just congregated around the stream mouths and waited," Davidson says. "It finally rained, about three weeks later, and they all rushed up to spawn."
Supporting Davidson's theory that dry conditions may have crimped egg production is that this year's returns to glacier-fed streams bettered those to rainwater-fed ones. Water levels in small streams were good last year, which should mean strong runs next year.
"The little streams that we have all over the region were affected, and this is the most likely cause," says Davidson of the dismal harvest. "If fish don't come back next year, there's more to it."
Fortunately for seiners, Southeast chums came in at or above forecast levels. Fetching about 30 cents per pound, the 13.7 million chums caught lessened the sting incurred by the missing pinks.
The pink salmon harvest around Kodiak Island, meanwhile, had hit 31.3 million fish as of Sept. 9.
"Guys were going out and getting 10,000 fish per set," says Al Burch, executive director of the Alaska Draggers Association and an observer of the island's other fisheries.
— Charlie Ess
Gulf/South Atlantic Swordfish
Longline fleet wants to keep U.S. quota shares to facilitate slow effort revival
Despite a constant barrage of market-busting events since the late 1990s, the Eastern swordfish fishery continues a slow climb back toward hope and economic viability.
As International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas commissioners prepare to set new international quotas in Dubrovnik, Croatia, Nov. 20-26, fishermen, management officials and conservationists alike expect the results of a 2006 stock assessment to show North Atlantic swordfish at or very near full recovery. The previous stock assessment, in 2002, showed swordfish biomass at 94 percent of healthy, rebuilt status.
Dock prices have recovered beyond levels not seen since before the Pew-funded Give Swordfish a Break boycott of 1998-2000 helped crash sword prices. Adding to the fleet's woes were 133,000 square miles of Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic time and area closures in early 2001, the 9/11 terrorist attacks, continued federal warnings about mercury levels in large predatory fish, and the 2004 and 2005 Gulf of Mexico hurricanes.
But swordfish prices have climbed steadily since bottoming at $2.20 a pound in 2002. In Florida, early 2006 sword ex-vessel prices reached $3.60 a pound on average for all sizes.
Vince Pyle says the ex-vessel price was "close to $5 on markers" — 100- to 250-pound swords headed and gutted — from a recent North Carolina trip of his only remaining longliner, the Carol Ann. Pyle fished a small fleet of nearshore longliners out of Dania, Fla., before the East Coast closure.
Cruiser Midgett, manager at Wanchese Fish Co. on Roanoke Island in North Carolina, confirmed a decent season.
"Markers were $5.50 to the boat," he says. "Back when they were targeting sword, we got pretty many."
From the Gulf of Mexico around the tip of Florida, up to North Carolina and beyond, what's left of the directed swordfish fleet can afford to go fishing again. The problem is, there's not much of a fleet left, and there aren't many places they can fish anymore.
Florida's entire Atlantic Coast is closed year-round. Georgia to the North Carolina line is subject to time and area closures, as are two large areas in the Gulf of Mexico. The entire Eastern pelagic longline fleet is a fraction of what it was before the troubles began. Current estimates range from 40 to 85 active vessels.
"We're down to about 80-some active longliners," Pyle says.
And the bad news hidden in the good news of decent price and stock recovery is that the diminished U.S. sword fleet can't fish out its annual quota. Fishermen expect other quota-hungry countries to grab for the U.S. share in November.
"We need to have a plan when they go to ICCAT to show the rest of the fish harvesting world why we should keep our quota," Pyle says.
The U.S. ICCAT quota is crucial to the fleet's and the domestic market's survival. Retaining the current quota could give skippers real hope now that NMFS is beginning to talk about unspecified ways to revitalize the U.S. swordfish fleet. NMFS officials acknowledge that the U.S. fleet has been unable to catch its ICCAT quota because of closures, catch limits, limited access and other restrictions.
"If effort continues to decrease in the swordfish fishery, NMFS may take action to revitalize the fishery, provided it does not increase protected species interactions," officials wrote in a recently published official document.
A recent NMFS e-mail to stakeholders also discussed the possibility of efforts to revitalize the fishery, Pyle says.
"It would be absolutely outstanding if they are serious," he says.
It would particularly demoralize the U.S. fleet — which has led international conservation efforts — if the U.S. quota is cut just as federal managers are beginning to discuss relaxing some restrictions.
One good candidate is the Florida East Coast closure, which Pyle says was never science-based.
"In Florida waters, it's all a political thing with the recreational fishermen," he says. "I hope we can get it to where we can open up a great part of these waters."
Pyle says he has no beef with the recreational industry having full access to East Coast sword. But with a fully recovered stock, the longline fleet should, too.
"Fishing is good for swordfish now," Pyle says. "We just need to be able to get to where the fish are."
— Hoyt Childers
North Pacific Herring
San Francisco Bay fleet still sweating the small stuff — fish size and prices
The San Francisco herring biomass is up, but markets are down — a slight improvement from a few years ago when gillnetters could catch roughly half as much fish.
Still, the 2005-06 season quota was set at 4,502 tons — 7.6 percent of the overall biomass, instead of 10 percent, as has been used in the past. The revised percentage was derived from reducing a 10 percent quota by the estimated number of 2- and 3-year-old fish in the previous season's commercial catch, according to the California Department of Fish and Game.
"This reduced percentage was an effort to offset the potential increase in catch of younger fish, given the reduction in the minimum mesh size allowed in the fishery," the department states in its review of the 2005-06 fishery.
The 2005-06 quota was 21 percent higher than the 2004-05 limit, but nonetheless, all three permit platoons caught only a fraction of what was allowed: 744 tons, a mere 17 percent of the quota.
Fishermen had hoped that decreasing the gillnet mesh size from 2 1/8 inches to 2 inches would help them catch more of the skinnier fish. But the change failed to result in a huge landings increase. Ever since the 1998 El Niño, the mature fish continue to be smaller at age, says Ernie Koepf, president of the California Herring Fishermen's Association.
That 2-inch mesh "was not that big," Koepf says, noting that the industry had lobbied for it for at least a year before the commission agreed to the change.
"We didn't get the shackles [catch] we thought we would," he says.
Instead, gillnetters could get only about a 1-ton shackle at a time — an effort Koepf describes as scratch fishing.
Still, it was an improvement over the year before, with the bigger mesh. "It was impossible to catch before," he says.
The 3- and 4-year-old fish are about 5 mm shorter since the sardines showed up in greater numbers in the mid- to late 1990s, Koepf says, noting that it's likely the sardines are competing with herring for food. Some of the anchovy fishermen have noticed that the anchovies also are smaller at age.
"It's one of those regime changes that everyone wants to talk about," Koepf says. "The same thing happened in Humboldt Bay — it has some of the largest [herring] returns, but they're smaller and smaller at age."
Markets haven't improved either. Prices per ton also have tanked since the '98 El Niño, about the same time Japan's economy took a nosedive in the mid-1990s. Herring prices tumbled from $2,300 a ton in 1997 to $700 a ton in subsequent years to around $500 a ton the last couple of years. The 2005-06 season average price was $560 a ton.
Many gillnetters — several of whom also fish salmon in Bristol Bay — come down from Washington, he says. But once the market eroded, several decided not to trek to California.
That highlights another problem. More and more herring permits are being retired, and fewer fishermen are entering the fishery.
During the 2004-05 fishery, between 70 and 80 fishermen participated. Last year, even though most fishermen have multiple permits, only 35 to 40 gillnetters targeted herring, Koepf says.
"It's all the same guys," he says. "We just peck away."
The department's review of the season bears out the permit decline — and also the lack of catch. Just 49 percent of the 124 December platoon permits were fished; only 48 percent of the 141 odd platoon permits were fished; and but half of the 141 even platoon permits were used.
The December platoon had no landings whatsoever; the odd platoon landed only 105 tons; and the even platoon landed the most, 639 tons.
One of the season's most frustrating aspects was a change in the herrings' spawning behavior.
"Eighty-five thousand tons spawned in the closed areas of Richardson Bay," Koepf says. "There was not even a fish in Sausalito. But we had about a weeklong run in the South Bay."
Koepf says fishermen hadn't seen a herring run in the South Bay for more than 20 years. Most of the fish spawned above Marin County, he says.
This year, it's likely that only three of the five buyers who purchased herring last year will return for the upcoming season, Koepf says, even though the quota will be the same as last year's.
— Susan Chambers
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