Written by Jen Finn
GULF/SOUTH ATLANTIC SWORDFISH
Hey — have you heard the one about too few boats chasing too many fish?
Even though North Atlantic swordfish stocks have reached the maximum sustainable yield threshold, U.S. fishermen still are unable to harvest the quota they are allowed under international regulations.
Market dynamics are complex. The fish are available, but the domestic fleet doesn't have enough boats to catch then. Annual average price has been creeping up for several years, but rapid diesel fuel price increases have swallowed the gains. There is a chronic shortage of domestic fish, but periodically an influx of imports drives the price down.
"There is very limited [U.S.] production," says Ernie Panacek, president of the Barnegat Light, N.J.-based Blue Water Fishermen's Association. "We don't have enough boats."
The U.S. longline fleet — decimated by attrition and regulation — simply doesn't have the capacity to catch the available fish. Thus it risks further quota reductions from the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas, which regulates the swordfish harvest.
"We are having a difficult time catching our swordfish quota," Panacek says. "If we don't start to catch it, we're going to lose it."
The East Coast pelagic longline fleet, which historically has fished offshore all up and down the coast and into the Gulf of Mexico, is further hamstrung by large permanent closures off the South Atlantic states and in the gulf.
In the Northeast, fuel costs are making it harder for U.S. longliners to compete with the Canadian fleet.
"It's really limited these Grand Banks trips," Panacek says.
In the Gulf of Mexico, Greg Abrams, owner of Greg Abrams Seafood in Panama City, Fla., says his longliners won't target sword until later in the winter.
"Right now the now the imports are coming in," Abrams said in mid-September, adding that the ex-vessel price — "$3 on markers" — as too low.
Were it not for the spike in diesel fuel costs, the average ex-vessel price for Gulf of Mexico sword would be looking pretty good right now.
At $2.91 per pound in 2004, the annual average price of sword landed in Florida had increased to $3.04 by 2006 and again to $3.53 by 2008, according to the Fish and Wildlife Research Institute.
In Panama City, diesel fuel prices, though still potentially ruinous to fishermen working on a slim profit margin, had, in September, actually decreased a bit from recent highs, to $3.42 a gallon, Abrams said.
"It's a shame to get excited about $3.42," he said. "It's been tough, between hurricanes and fuel prices."
During 2008, ex-vessel prices have been on a bit of a roller coaster on the Atlantic side, Panacek says.
"We have seen prices spike in a lot of different periods of the year," he said.
It does appear, however, that import pressure on the U.S. swordfish market is leveling off. The latest import figures from NMFS, through July 2008, show swordfish imports — both in volume and dollar value — decreasing annually compared with the same seven-month period going back to 2005, at least.
Imports for the first seven months of the year dropped from 13.4 million pounds worth $46.1 million in 2005 to 10.9 million pounds worth $37.5 million in 2008.
Total annual imports have been essentially flat for several years, decreasing slightly from 23.7 million pounds worth $71 million in 2004 to 20.8 million pounds worth $70.8 million in 2007.
Politically, misinformation in the mainstream media still plagues U.S. swordfish fishermen. There remains a persistent news media and public misconception that swordfish are in trouble everywhere.
Fishermen must get the message out that North Atlantic swordfish is in good shape, to counter the anti-fishing environmentalists, Panacek says.
"It's fully recovered," he says.
Even the Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch program, of which many fishermen are skeptical, takes care to note that sword from the domestic longline fleet is not included in its "avoid" list.
"We recommend that consumers avoid swordfish caught in the international longline fleets," Seafood Watch reports. "Due to strict bycatch regulations in the U.S., longline-caught swordfish from these fleets is the only exception."
What the swordfish fleet really needs now is better financial prospects to help counter fuel costs and let more people back into the fishery, Panacek says.
Panacek says he hopes NMFS, which has acknowledged that U.S. management policies have contributed to under-harvests and a sharp drop in the number of active pelagic longline vessels, will ease restrictions, or otherwise give the domestic fleet a fighting chance to hold its market share.
A positive marketing program with aid from NMFS would help, he says. — Hoyt Childers
NORTHEAST SURF CLAMS
Landings pace and price pick up, but catch rate, fuel costs thin fleet
A years-long shakeout in the surf clam and ocean quahog business has claimed 22 percent of the East Coast sea clamming fleet, culminating in the May 2008 closing of the Eastern Shore Seafood clam plant in Mappsville, Va.
By the third quarter of 2008, the pace of surf clam and ocean quahog landings picked up slightly compared with 2007. Buyers seem more willing to accept fuel and production costs that rose 7 to 10 percent.
"We've been able to pass on price increases to the food service distributors and restaurant trade," says David Wallace of Wallace and Associates, industry consultants based in Cambridge, Md. "They seem to be making some headway also in selling in big-box [retail] stores and with value-added products.''
But catch per unit of effort continued to decline, even as the big run-up in fuel costs drove industry consolidation. And a major industry initiative to open up Georges Bank — where some 40 percent of the clam resource now lies — stalled amid problems using an at-sea test to check for paralytic shellfish poisoning.
As of Sept. 15, surf clam landings of 2.05 million pounds represented 61 percent of the quota, while 2.6 million pounds of ocean quahogs, 50 percent of that species' quota, was harvested, says Tom Hoff, a Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council fisheries management specialist and the primary coordinator of the surf clam management plan.
Historically, in an average harvest year, "we could be close to 72 percent landed for surf clams by now," Hoff says.
The industry has been under pressure on several fronts for several years, and landings and prices now are "reasonably good and a little above where they were last year," Wallace says.
Surf clam prices had been stalled at around $11 to $12 a bushel for a couple of years, and $6 a bushel for ocean quahogs, but surf clams finally broke past $13 a bushel this year, Wallace says.
A few years ago, tight supply and high prices drove off some demand as restaurants switched to other products. Now demand is returning and buyers understand there has to be some price increase because of fuel costs and the lower catch per unit of effort, Wallace says.
In 2007, 3.23 million bushels of surf clams worth $36.8 million were harvested, an increase of 5.5 percent and 7.3 percent respectively from 2006. But to achieve those numbers, the fleet boosted its hours at sea by 26 percent, according to the Mid-Atlantic council's midyear review of the fishery.
Some 40 percent of the surf clam and ocean quahog resource lies on Georges Bank. But paralytic shellfish poisoning, an illness caused by eating shellfish contaminated with algae that contains toxins harmful to humans, is the roadblock to exploiting that stockpile.
An industry effort early this year demonstrated that fishermen could perform at sea the Jellett Rapid Test to detect the toxin's presence in clams. But false-positive results stymied the project: Clammers brought back samples that tested positive for the toxins on Georges Bank, but tested negative at a shoreside laboratory.
"We don't know what is causing the false positives. This has been a very frustrating experience," Wallace says. "There are biological conditions on Georges Bank that we do not understand... a number of things that test [at sea] like they're toxic, but when you get the samples into a lab, they're not.
"We have a bunch of Ph.D. biochemists working on this," Wallace adds. One good outcome is proof that clammers can perform a reliable sampling protocol at sea, he says.
"We've said for five years that Georges Bank is the solution. But if we don't get a good test, it can't be used," Hoff says. "There are clam plants in New Bedford [Mass.], and if the resource was clean and could be fished, one or two others would move up there pretty quick" from the Mid-Atlantic, he says.
As clammers dealt with high fuel prices last spring, news that the annual sea clam survey could fall victim to NOAA budget cuts because of high fuel costs came just before the Mid-Atlantic council's June vote on the 2009 quota.
"I spent most of my time on the phone for the next 10 days," Hoff recalls, as clammers and congressmen from East Coast states worked to save the survey.
Within days the sea time was funded, and the research vessel Delaware II's crew reported seeing encouraging numbers of young surf clams. "I'm optimistic," Hoff says, but the results won't be fully analyzed until mid-2009. — Kirk Moore
NORTH PACIFIC SALMON
Prince William Sound humpies propel Alaska landings to exceed predictions
With a total harvest just shy of 139 million fish for all five species, the 2008 salmon season narrowly exceeded the Alaska Department of Fish and Game's February predictions of 137 million fish.
Alaska's salmon harvests have bounced from between 131 million to 222 million fish since 2000, and fisheries biologists in October were tight-lipped about the list of ingredients that could affect the 2009 forecast. Alaska's vast demographic spread and regional variances in ecological factors can make for a wide spread between predictions and what ends up in fishermen's nets.
While preliminary counts show the statewide harvest closely tracks the season forecast, there were a few surprises in store for some areas. For starters, Southeast Alaska pink runs came in weaker than expected, at 15.2 million fish, falling below catch projections of 20 million.
But it was just the opposite for the Prince William Sound fleet. The forecast predicted only 22 million pinks, yet seiners harvested 40 million. Statewide, fishermen caught 80.33 million pinks.
The bumper crop of humpies surprised many in the fleet who couldn't imagine another strong year on the heels of last year's harvest of 63.4 million. Typically, Prince William Sound's largest pink runs come during odd-numbered years, such as 59.9 million in 2005 and 52 million in 2003. It produces runs more along the lines of around 20 million in even-numbered years.
"It was a pretty dramatic performance, really," says Chris McDowell, a seafood industry analyst with the Juneau-based McDowell Group.
Making that performance even more dramatic was that ex-vessel prices for the sound's pinks shot up to 35 cents per pound, a price unheard of since the late 1980s. Last year's ex-vessel prices for Prince William Sound pinks ended up at around 19 cents per pound, which was up from 17 cents in 2006 and 12 cents in 2005.
What gives? McDowell says the benefits of diversifying product forms for Alaska's pinks are starting to kick in.
"The roe value is a substantial driver in prices for the pinks," he says. "It's been 15 years since the price exceeded 20 cents for the statewide average."
While the plentiful pinks satisfied the sound's seiners, its gillnet fleet suffered a dismal sockeye run at the Copper River.
Weak escapements of kings and sockeyes warranted a closure in the Copper River area early in the season. And with the harvest standing at just 11,000 chinooks and 303,000 sockeyes, gillnetters targeted sockeye runs elsewhere within Prince William Sound. They wound up with a total harvest just under 1.2 million sockeyes, less than half of last year's 3.2 million fish.
In Bristol Bay, the onslaught of fish threatened to swamp processing capacity and what had been projected to be a banner year for the gillnet fleet.
Early in the season, processors put driftnet and setnet fishermen on daily catch limits ranging from 3,000 to 6,000 pounds. With processors controlling the delivery pace, Fish and Game offered liberal fishing periods, thus allowing many in the fleet to catch their daily allotments. As the number of returning fish slowed, processors were better able to keep up with salmon deliveries.
The Bristol Bay forecast predicted a harvest of 31.4 million sockeyes; the actual harvest came in at around 27.7 million. It ranks as the 17th largest harvest on record since the state took over management of salmon fisheries in 1959.
According to preliminary Fish and Game data, ex-vessel offers for Bristol Bay sockeye hit 68 cents per pound, which is only a penny more than the fleet received last year; however, many fishermen have struck deals with processors that pay post-season adjustments, refrigeration premiums or loyalty bonuses.
When test net fisheries indicated a meager return to the Lower Yukon River in the preamble to what might have been a commercial season, Fish and Game managers closed the season indefinitely and tightened restrictions on subsistence fishing.
The chinook run on the nearby Kuskokwim River, meanwhile, warranted commercial openings. Fishermen in the river districts caught 9,000 chinooks while Kuskokwim Bay fishermen netted 15,000. Coho runs were stronger on the Kuskokwim than on the Yukon with the preliminary commercial harvest standing at 143,000 as of the end August.
A general shortfall in the statewide chinook harvest, which will end up well short of 1 million fish for the year, and the West Coast fishery closures spiked ex-vessel prices for summer troll-caught fish to $7 per pound, beyond historical records, according to McDowell. — Charlie Ess
Gillnetters hope San Francisco fishery continues to build on '07-08 success
Herring fishermen gearing up for the San Francisco fishery are optimistic the 2008-09 season will be all that the 2007-08 season was.
At least, some of them are.
"Absolutely not," says veteran herring gillnetter Ernie Koepf, laughing. "That's the most ridiculous thing I've ever heard."
In early October, though, he was one of only a handful of local fishermen getting his boat ready to fish — just one sign that gillnetters are hopeful the herring gods will smile upon them.
"There's a lot of herring mixed in with the anchovy bait catches," Koepf says. "They're all 3 to 4 inches long, but if they survive a couple years out in the ocean, we'll have a pretty good run."
That's a couple years down the road, but Koepf notes that one herring boat finally sold this year, a sign interest in the fishery is picking up. It's been for sale for four years at Fisherman's Wharf, he says, and it only recently traded hands.
There definitely is more interest this year, he says. "Three guys who haven't been fishing for three years [are] going fishing this year," Koepf says.
Part of fishermen's optimism comes from a hugely successful season last year in which some guys had double and triple hauls in one day. The other source of optimism is improved cash flow, thanks, oddly enough, to oil spill settlements and federal government salmon disaster money checks arriving in mailboxes, Koepf says.
It was only last year that oil spilled into the bay days before the scheduled Dungeness crab opening in November when the container ship Cosco Busan hit the San Francisco Bay Bridge. It was also just weeks before the scheduled roe herring fishery opening in December.
"Last year we had a little bit of excitement," Koepf says. "We had a hell of a run of fish in January."
That uptick is in keeping with herring's general harvest trend over the past few years. Both landings and total value have increased. According to California Department of Fish and Game data, as recently as the 2004 calendar year, the 1,420,228 pounds landed in San Francisco was worth $417,841. In 2005, landings slipped to 186,277 pounds for a total value of $36,634. But in 2006-07, the landings and value jumped back up to 1.49 million pounds worth $416,239.
Most of the local fishermen test the waters in December, but it's not until January that out-of-state gillnetters, primarily from Washington, fly down to San Francisco to set their gear. Such was the case around the quarter moon, about the 20th of January.
Only five local guys were fishing in December '07 and early January in '08, Koepf says, then word got out the fish were plentiful.
"The season spluttered along for a couple weeks, then fish that had been partially in the bay came in on a Tuesday night, and we fished all the way through Friday morning," Koepf says. "Eighteen [boats] started; then, when we did really good, another seven showed up."
The total of 25 boats fishing herring in the bay is roughly half the number that set their gillnets five years ago. The number of buyers is down, too, to three, the same as it was during the '07-08 season, but fewer than five years ago.
"It was really exciting," Koepf says of retrieving nets full of herring. "That hasn't been the case for the last couple years."
But the good times weren't over. Something similar happened at the end of February. Fish filled the nets; fishermen made money.
Gillnetters were paid about $600 a ton plus $60 a percentage point for the roe — and San Francisco's roe count averaged 15 to 16 percent, Koepf says.
"Roe counts have been high in San Francisco for 10 years," he says. "It helps."
It was only a year ago that gillnetters and the state were concerned the herring population may have dropped too low. Fishermen in 2006-07 caught only 292 tons of the 4,328-ton quota (not including herring eggs on kelp). The state consequently decreased the quota to 1,057 tons for the 2007-08 season.
But the fish returned in plentiful numbers — and fishermen took advantage of it, landing 687 tons. This year, the quota is set at 1,098 tons — slightly more than last year — and still at one-tenth of the estimated spawning biomass, which should keep the fishery sustainable, Koepf says.
At the same time, the global inventory for herring is down, so demand should be good, says Koepf, who quickly qualifies his remark: "But with this economy, who knows?" — Susan Chambers
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