Written by Jen Finn
Gulf/South Atlantic Swordfish
Seasonal glut dampens price as fish make their way toward North Carolina
As fall approached, a seasonal glut was driving prices down while the fish were still making their way south to within easy reach of the North Carolina vessels that last year landed 652,696 pounds of swordfish, a record for the Tar Heel fleet.
"They're all up in the Northeast, nothing down our way," said Steve George, general manager at Willie R. Etheridge Seafood Co. in Wanchese, N.C., one of the top swordfish ports, in late September.
"We had one boat go up and mess around a bit — the Shady Lady, but the skipper decided to come back and fish for tuna," George says. "It's been cheap. It's just a glut. It happens every year this time."
Imports from Canada, in particular, tend to push down the seasonal price for sword, beginning in September.
The decline is a bit worse than usual this year, however. In Florida, the price for markers — 100- to 250-pound swords headed and gutted — fell below $4 a pound, versus about $5 this time last year.
"Fishing has been OK," says Greg Helsing, manager at A Fisherman's Best in Dania, Fla. "Up until recently, the price has been pretty good, in the $4 range to the boat [but recently] has slipped into the $3 to $3.50 range."
Normal market forces are behind the fall price dip rather than politics, as sometimes happens with swordfish.
The good news for fishermen is that swordfish stocks are rebuilt, according to the most recent stock assessment the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas, conducted in October 2006. It estimates the North Atlantic swordfish biomass "to be at 99 percent of the level necessary to support maximum sustainable yield," according to a NMFS document published in the Federal Register.
Last year at this time, industry representatives who were preparing for the November ICCAT meeting feared the commission would trim the U.S. sword quota because the greatly thinned U.S. longline fleet has been unable to fish out the U.S. quota for several years now.
Commissioners recommended that the U.S. quota remain unchanged through 2008, at 2,937.6 metric tons dressed weight. However, they did reduce the amount of unharvested quota that can be carried over and added to future harvests to 50 percent of the baseline quota. In past years, they allowed the unfished quota to accumulate from year to year.
In late September, NMFS was still working on the final rule governing U.S. sword quotas but had not yet implemented it, says Karyl Brewster-Geisz, supervisory fish management officer for the Highly Migratory Species Management Division. "We are working on the final rule, and it should be done shortly," Brewster-Geisz says.
ICCAT commissioners also recommended letting member countries transfer up to 15 percent of national quotas to other members during a fishing year.
Thus, the United States can transfer up to 440.6 metric tons, dressed weight, of sword to placate other quota-hungry members while retaining its official baseline quota of 2,937.6 metric tons. Commissioners plan to reconsider the whole quota issue for the 2009 fishing year.
In domestic swordfish management, NMFS in August rejected the Blue Water Fishermen's Association request to allow some research-oriented longline fishing in the Charleston Bump and Florida East Coast closed areas "in order to collect data on the performance of mandatory circle hooks with regard to target catch and bycatch rates, hooking location, and mortality of fish at haul back."
NMFS acknowledges that U.S. swordfish management policies, including the Florida East Coast and the Charleston Bump closed areas, have contributed to underharvests and a sharp drop in the number of active pelagic longline vessels.
But NMFS rejected the exemption request, saying it didn't include enough detail regarding time and place of fishing effort, didn't identify control locations necessary for proper evaluation of the data collected and didn't adequately justify the number of boats that could be involved.
With the dramatic recovery of North Atlantic swordfish, fishermen argue that the Florida closure is bad policy and that data collection like those proposed in the exemption request would justify a longline presence there. The Coastal Conservation Association and other sportfishing interests lobbied heavily against the request.
Helsing says the current situation remains highly inequitable, as recreational fishermen can target sword but commercial longline vessels remain locked out.
"We're always trying to keep the American fisherman fishing," he says. — Hoyt Childers
Northeast Surf Clam
Consolidated fleet is working harder, going farther offshore, but earning less
Tough times in the East Coast sea clam industry have downsized the fleet to 25 surf clam vessels this year from 36 in 2005, pushing a wave of consolidation that analysts say favors a new class of larger vessels built since 2000.
All boats are fishing longer and harder, as the Mid-Atlantic surf clam resource shifts farther offshore and northward in a trend scientists link to climate change. By 2006 the move toward bigger boats upped the average catch per trip to 52 cages from 42 cages per trip the year before. The industry standard cage holds 32 bushels.
Yet by the measure of landings for effort, clammers put in much more time for less money, pressed by high fuel and insurance costs.
"The most worrisome trend in the industry has been the relentless decline in the productivity of effort," the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council staff reported in mid-2007, as the council prepared to keep the 2008 surf clam quota flat at 3.4 million.
In 2006, clammers left 10 percent of their quota lying in the ocean, and that was a better year than 2005 when just 2.74 million pounds were harvested. Oversupply of surf clams resulted in fishermen leaving more ocean quahogs (the deeper-dwelling sea clam) on the bottom, too; that fleet is down to 15 vessels from 29 in 2004.
"It's put the inefficient operators in a position where they want to get out," says David Wallace, a longtime industry consultant in Cambridge, Md. "We're not catching either one of the quotas."
On the other hand, Wallace says, "the Canadians are almost out of the [U.S.] market" with near-parity between the nations' currency, and setbacks from vessel accidents. Now Canadian clammers concentrate on their high-end market selling surf clam meat to Asian markets. With the industry shakeout, Wallace says, "I think we can expect a 10 percent higher production in surf clams this year, and 7 percent to 8 percent for ocean quahogs."
Surf clam prices hit an apparent ceiling in 2006 when most trips ranged from $10.50 to $13.50 a bushel, for an average of $11.22, according to updated Mid-Atlantic council documents issued in September. Ocean quahogs averaged $5.99 a bushel. Customers are resisting price increases, a sharp reversal from the heady 1990s.
Surf clam prices last peaked around $10 per bushel in the mid-1990s, according to the 2006 Northeast Regional 44th Stock Assessment Workshop assessment and supporting documents. If an earlier 1982 peak and values are used as the benchmark, in adjusted dollar value "prices declined in real terms from about $9/bushel during 1982 to about $5/bushel during 2005," that report notes.
But the industry changed immensely over those years, as the arrival of the nation's first individual transferable quota, or ITQ, system in 1990 allowed the final retirement of older, less efficient boats, with their shares moving onto newer vessels. With volume came more money.
"They're getting $10 to $12 a bushel, which they got 20 years ago," says Tom Hoff a fishery management specialist with the Mid-Atlantic council. "But even if our catch now has dropped from 120 to 130 bushels an hour, to around 80 bushels per hour, that's still double what it was in the 1980s."
Slower clam growth and poor recruitment have been factors across all regions. Biologists anticipate that trend will play out over the next five years in comparison to the 1990s' boom of high recruitment.
"We're still taking 85 percent to 90 percent south of the Hudson Canyon," Hoff says. "The thing is, they're not coming from inshore New Jersey. It's more like 20 miles out."
The clams' near disappearance from the New Jersey shore — birthplace of the canned clam chowder industry in the early 20th century — is the biggest shift since a huge 1976 die-off there. A biomass estimated at 17.4 million pounds in New Jersey waters during 1997 was down to 2.4 million pounds last year. And in the last two years "the [inshore] fishery was virtually non-existent," according to council documents.
Still, "we have a huge biomass down here" in the Mid-Atlantic, Wallace says. "It's just spread out." If prices were way up — say, to the $27 a bushel clammers got in the mid-1970s, using today's adjusted dollar values — "it would be worthwhile to go get them," he says.
"We just need the right environmental conditions for one good set" of clams, Wallace says. "All we need is one cool winter." — Kirk Moore
Lack of fish, harvesters, processors keeps California fishery in doldrums
The California herring roe fleet is expecting to catch less fish during the 2007-08 season, which kicks off in early December. Biomass estimates following last year's fishery point to a dismal harvest with a San Francisco Bay quota of only 1,094 short tons, while harvest areas at Tomales Bay will see a quota of 350 tons.
Biologists haven't yet figured out why the biomass went into a sudden freefall. So far theories lie with competition from sardines and a reduction in the abundance of eelgrass — a subtidal spawning substrate — in the San Francisco Bay area.
As for the numbers, biomass estimates during 2007 plummeted to a mere 11,000 tons. That's far below the 28-year average of 52,000 tons and the 2006 estimate of 145,000 tons.
"We've got a situation now where we've got the lowest stock assessment on record, and the fishermen aren't taking the quota," says Tom Barnes, program manager for state managed marine species with the California Department of Fish and Game, in La Jolla.
Barnes adds that the last year the fleet came even close to catching the quota was during the 2003-04 season.
"From the '04-05 and '05-06 seasons, quotas were in the range of 3,500 to 4,500 tons, and in each of those fisheries the harvest didn't break 1,000 tons," he says.
Fishermen in the 2005-06 season caught just 744 tons on a 4,502-ton quota; last year they landed just 292 tons of a 4,502-ton quota.
The California Fish and Game Commission, which sets the quotas, had growing concerns over the declining biomass. It had adjusted the exploitation rate from 10 percent of the biomass to around 7.6 percent in hopes of protecting the stocks during the '05-06 season. With so much quota left unharvested, however, Department of Fish and Game managers have recommended that the commission ratchet the exploitation rate back up to 10 percent.
Exploitation rates and quota sizes have less to do with the actual harvest volume than with gillnet mesh size, says Ernie Koepf, a California herring gillnetter and chairman of the commission's Herring Advisory Committee.
Koepf says biomass has been rebuilding since the 1998 El Niño event, but the bulk of that biomass comprises smaller 2- and 3-year-old fish. Koepf adds that fishermen had been allowed 2-inch mesh some years ago, then a change in the way gillnet meshes were measured — an average of 10 meshes — brought the mesh size to around 2 1/8 inches.
Since last year, fishermen have been allowed to use the 2-inch gear, which to the industry's dismay still enabled too many 3-year-olds to squeeze through.
"We can't fill the quota down here without being able to harvest the 3-year-olds," Koepf says.
In March, Koepf led a study examining the length and weight of herring at age and proposed a one-year experiment that would allow the use of 1-3/4 inch mesh during the '07-08 season. The recommendations, predicated upon information gleaned from 2006-07 trawl surveys that measure weight and length at age and age composition within the biomass, seek to increase the number of 2-, 3- and 4-year-old fish in the harvest.
According to Koepf's report, only 7.9 percent of the biomass has been available to fishermen since the 1998 El Niño event. In years previous to the event 30 percent was available for harvest. The 7.9 percent also includes 5- and 6-year-old fish.
In September, Koepf and other fishermen were eagerly awaiting the Department of Fish and Game's release of length, weight and age composition data to measure the effects of the 2-inch mesh during the 2006-07 fishery.
It's hoped that smaller mesh will jumpstart harvests, which will increase processor interest — and fuel competition for product.
That could bring higher ex-vessel prices, if not stability to the industry. While less fish often translates to higher prices, ex-vessel prices for California herring remain stuck at around $500 per ton.
It's a far cry from the $2,000 per ton fishermen could get in the late '90s for their catch. But that was before the 1998 El Niño and a weakened Japanese economy shifted Japanese buying habits and sent ex-vessel prices tumbling to the $500 mark. They've yet to recover.
Koepf says the number of processors and fishermen has dwindled through the years.
"There's getting to be less and less of us," Koepf says. "Last year there was 25 of us; I expect 15 of us this year." — Charlie Ess
North Pacific Salmon
In Southeast, shortage of kings helps trollers in strong year for Alaska fleet
The 2007 salmon season in Alaska will go down in history for several reasons, not the least of which is the ex-vessel prices Southeast trollers received for their chinooks.
No sooner had the year begun when dockside prices climbed well north of $8 per pound in a streak that would peak at $8.73 per pound in February.
The 2007 ex-vessel data hasn't yet been blended into the average for all gear types and for all of the Southeast king salmon harvest, which would include summer trolling seasons and gillnet fisheries at Stikine, Taku and other harvest districts. But the year will undoubtedly surpass the 2006 average of $3.65 per pound and the $2.53 per pound fishermen saw in 2005.
According to the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute's Seafood Market Bulletin, cutbacks in chinook harvests along the West Coast predicated some of the price increase. Managers there have reduced annual harvests of around 2 million fish in years past to around 1 million fish in hopes of protecting Klamath and Sacramento river stocks.
According to Chris McDowell, a seafood industry analyst for the Juneau-based McDowell Group, which is under contract to the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute, the chinook stocks mix, requiring fisheries managers to close vast areas to protect weak stocks. Hence, the large overall catch reduction.
"On top of that, you've got the steady increase in consumer demand, particularly in the domestic market," McDowell says.
The production shortfall has translated to higher ex-vessel prices for fishermen plying the Kuskokwim and Yukon rivers. Prices there have risen from less than a dollar per pound several years ago to $2.95 per pound on the Kuskokwim and $3.95 per pound for chinooks caught near the mouth of the Yukon. McDowell says the Yukon fish continue to enjoy strong demand in Japan.
As the summer progressed and salmon returned to natal streams throughout Alaska, managers and the industry were pleasantly surprised when a total harvest of more than 200.5 million fish materialized. Season forecasts called for a total harvest of around 180 million fish for a 20 percent gain over 2006.
By far, the largest contributor to this year's production mix was a plethora of pink salmon. In all, salmon fishermen landed around 135 million pinks, up sharply from last year's harvest of around 73 million. The big volume game winner was Prince William Sound. Preliminary estimates put the pink harvest there at almost 55 million.
Meanwhile, Kodiak and Southeast held their own in terms of production with respective harvests of 24.4 million and 44.8 million pinks. While similar harvest volumes have negatively affected pink salmon demand in years past, the production shift from canned to frozen means canned inventories are short.
"There's been an increase in demand for pinks in the past three or four years," McDowell says. "We now have an industry that's willing to buy the full harvestable surplus."
At the same time, the increased demand has transpired to higher ex-vessel prices for fishermen (an average statewide price of a dime per pound in '04, 12 cents in '05 and 16 cents in '06), processors, for the most part, have been willing to buy more volume. That means seiners have been able to keep fishing throughout their seasons to put in more fish per boat.
At 46 million fish, the statewide sockeye harvest climbed past the 40 million mark for the fourth straight year and ranks as the eighth highest catch in more than 100 years of data, McDowell says. Bristol Bay turned up an unexpected (preliminary) harvest total of 29.7 million fish.
Sockeye ex-vessel prices, meanwhile, have climbed steadily the past three years, from a statewide average of 60 cents per pound in 2004 to 73 cents in 2005 and 76 cents per pound last year.
"I'd call that continued recovery," McDowell says. "It's not exactly a shining star."
Two notable differences about this year's sockeye season, however, are that an increased share of the statewide sockeye harvest (17 million of the 46 million total) came from districts other than Bristol Bay and that on average, the fish weighed more.
McDowell adds that by preliminary estimates, sockeyes may have come home an average half pound heftier than in years past, which increases fillet yield. That can sometimes justify higher prices as the fillets make their way through the distribution chain. — Charlie Ess
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