Written by Jen Finn
Crabbers await processor negotiations to see if three-year high is peak price
A smaller harvest and markets hungry for live Dungeness crab pushed ex-vessel prices off the charts for the West Coast fleet. Whether prices keep climbing remains to be seen.
Pacific Fisheries Information Network average ex-vessel price data shows West Coast Dungeness crabbers enjoying steady increases since 2006, when the fleet saw $1.69 per pound. In 2007, ex-vessel prices jumped to $2.30 per pound, nudged up to $2.36 in 2008, and this year's preliminary data indicates Dungeness are fetching $2.79 per pound.
What's in store for crabbers in the upcoming season rides on price negotiation sessions between the fleet and the processors, says Nick Furman, executive director of the Coos Bay-based Oregon Dungeness Crab Commission. The Oregon industry was to review economic factors in October, with price negotiations to follow in November.
As for the state of the economy during the 2009-10 season, that's anybody's guess, if you ask Scott Adams, production manager with Hallmark Fisheries in Charleston, Ore.
"I think it would be easier to predict the number of the crabs in the ocean than to predict the economy," he says.
Prices didn't start that strong as crabbers splashed their pots in the water last December. But as the season stretched into summer and production began to wane, buyers catering to live markets started a bidding war that crabbers won't soon forget.
As the 2008-09 season began, Oregon processors offered $1.60 per pound, which was down from the $2 per pound they paid during the initial weeks of the 2007-08 season. The shaky economy largely fueled the lower opening prices, according to Adams.
Furman echoes Adams' sentiments that the weaker economy held ex-vessel prices in check. But, Furman adds, that $1.60 wasn't too shabby a beginning price.
"The previous season we opened at $2 per pound, which was a record for us," he says.
Prices remained in the $2 range throughout the Christmas season, when most of the Dungeness wind up in supermarkets cooked and whole, then began rising in summer when the production pace slowed and the remainder went to buyers selling to live markets.
An important consideration pertaining to the flow of crab from the pots, up the docks, through the plants and to market is that Oregon crabbers typically put in 80 percent of their annual catch during the season's first two months.
Furman says crabbers landed 9 million pounds of Oregon's total 2008 Dungeness catch of 13 million pounds by the end of December.
The sudden surge of Dungies across the docks helps processors like Hallmark, who need volume to funnel into hungry Christmas markets. December sales were brisk, Adams reports, and crab quality was high.
"I don't think you could buy a better crab than we bought last year," he says.
As summer 2009 unfolded, buyers who've carved out niches in West Coast live markets found less volume, particularly when California and Washington Dungeness landings were weaker than in years past.
"California had a real poor season this year, and Washington was down," Furman says.
Though 2008-09 season PacFIN data is preliminary and contains only harvest data from each respective calendar year, California's Dungie catches slipped from 11 million pounds in 2007 to 8.5 million pounds last year. This year's total is 1.8 million pounds but lacks 2009 landings still to come before Dec. 31.
Washington's harvest totaled 22.6 million pounds in 2007, dipped to 21.4 million pounds in 2008, and this year stood at 8.3 million pounds as of mid-September.
In Alaska, the latest 2008 landings data shows harvests of around 5.5 million pounds with ex-vessel averages running at a high of $2.20 per pound, according to Alaska Department of Fish and Game data. Landings and prices were similar to 2007 totals.
Oregon, meanwhile, imposes trip limits beginning the second week in June. Deliveries after the trip limits took effect this year came in at 1,200 pounds per boat per week, Furman says.
"With less volume," he says, "it was the classic case of supply and demand."
The upshot of the supply shortage was that ex-vessel prices began climbing to a high of $5 per pound by the time Oregon's season ended on Aug. 14.
Anecdotal accounts of fishermen indicate recruitment looks healthy, but little is known about the abundance of various age components, Furman says. He adds that some studies may be coming in a couple of years. — Charlie Ess
Gulf/South Atlantic Swordfish
U.S. delegation fends off foreign swipes at abandoned quota of diminished fleet
For swordfish captains, reality has become as tiresome as the good news/bad news cliché it mimics.
North Atlantic swordfish stocks are fully rebuilt, but the U.S. fleet again faces the possibility that its share of the total allowable catch will shrink as delegates to the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas sit down in Brazil to renegotiate the country quotas.
"We know there has been a major play by Canada and other countries to take our quota away," says Rich Ruais, executive director of the East Coast Tuna Association and the Blue Water Fishermen's Association.
Already, large quantities of Canadian-caught sword flood the U.S. market every fall and drive the price down.
In September, swordfish had been running $3 to $3.25 per pound, Ruais says.
This is about the same as the Atlantic coastwide average ex-vessel price of $3.02 two seasons ago, in 2007, according to federal statistics.
A much diminished U.S. fleet, bled down to 70 or so vessels by strict regulations, closed areas, cheap (and in some cases illegal) imports, chronic soft spots in the market and economic attrition related to all the above, is unable to catch even the 2,937.5 metric-ton baseline quota allotted it.
In ICCAT, foreign fishing interests — many of which don't face the robust resource-protection conventions that U.S. fishermen labor under — have been eyeing the American share for years.
"We're very worried about it," Ruais says.
The great irony here is that U.S. fishermen have led and maintained the international swordfish conservation effort, and now they face the possibility of being effectively shut out of any significant participation in the fishery.
"It's a triple whammy that we find harder and harder to live with every year. We once had 450 swordfish boats, and we are down to about 70.
"We rebuilt this resource," Ruais continues. "We adopted mandatory circle hooks, safe handling and release practices plus the closed areas to protect juveniles."
Rebecca Lent, who leads the U.S. delegation to ICCAT, says she is committed to protecting the U.S. fishery and fleet and will argue exactly that point.
"We are going to have to renegotiate the quota," says Lent, director of NMFS Office of International Affairs. "We can argue that we contributed the most to rebuilding. We don't think we should be penalized."
Lent didn't reveal any details of her negotiating strategy.
"We don't have a final U.S. position yet," she says. "I just want to make it clear that the U.S. fleet has done everything it can."
Whether good intentions and negotiating from the moral high ground are enough to preserve the U.S. quota — and to buy the U.S. fleet time to climb back into the fishery — remains to be seen.
NMFS has been carrying on a dialogue with the industry for more than a year on ways to increase U.S. sword production so the fleet can at least fish its quota, but so far little has changed.
Overall, it is unlikely that the total allowable catch for North Atlantic sword will be increased during the ICCAT meeting late this year.
Guillermo Diaz, fisheries biologist and chief scientist for the U.S. ICCAT delegation, says his committee will recommend a small reduction in the North Atlantic sword total allowable landings.
"The scientific committee, in order to maintain the stock at the fully rebuilt level, is going to recommend a TAL reduction to 13.7 thousand metric tons or less," Diaz says.
This would be down from the current 14,000 metric-ton allowable landings.
Should those who covet the U.S. sword quota be successful, other means of keeping the domestic fishery viable have been discussed.
Margo Schulze-Haugen, NMFS Highly Migratory Species Division chief, says "one proposal would have allowed the U.S. to charter foreign vessels. The comments [from the industry] came in negative to that."
Having to fish with foreign boats would indeed be a bitter medicine for what ails the fishery.
But the most recent NMFS update on the U.S. harvest shows just how marginalized the U.S. fleet has already become.
As of the Sept. 9 update (representing harvest through the end of July), more than 2,100 metric tons of the U.S. quota remained unharvested.
It has become abundantly clear to everyone with a stake in the fishery that some restrictions on the U.S. longline fleet must be dialed back if this fishery is to remain viable, regardless of what happens at ICCAT. — Hoyt Childers
Northeast Surf Clams
Georges Bank tests and safety program offer open access to toxin-free bounty
The stalled economy left sea clam prices parked at the curb, with $6 to $7 a bushel for ocean quahogs and $12 to $13 for surf clams unchanged from 2008. But experiments on Georges Bank are opening the possibility of accessing a rich resource there for boats that can operate under a strict shellfish safety program.
A September trip by the vessel Sea Watcher I showed clams can be safely harvested from Georges Bank free of paralytic shellfish poisoning, a toxic algae that afflicts New England waters and led federal authorities to sharply restrict clamming on the bank since 1990.
"It's all about technology," says David Wallace, president of the Salisbury, Md.-based consulting firm Wallace and Associates, who works on the PSP testing project with its backers Truex Enterprises, a New Jersey-based family company with clam processing facilities in New Bedford, Mass., and Milford, Del., and Sea Watch International of Milford.
Reliable PSP screening could point one way forward for the clam industry, which has seen its longtime resources wither off the Mid-Atlantic states.
"The New Jersey inshore fishery has a resource problem," Wallace says. "As you go offshore and farther north... there isn't a resource problem, if you can deal with PSP."
Driving the shift is climate change, a gradual warming of average temperatures. It's shrunk clam beds and also moved the oyster disease dermo northward, says Eric Powell, a research scientist with the Rutgers University Haskins Shellfish Research Laboratory.
But surf clams remain "the best-managed fishery in the Mid-Atlantic," he adds.
"Four years ago we went to work seeking a way to comply with the rules, in a way that's actually more restrictive," Wallace says. Results of one at-sea testing method in 2008 were frustrating, as a string of false-positive results showed PSP in clams that later in the laboratory were shown to be clean.
The 2009 trials yielded consistent results. Clams testing below federal PSP limits at sea and in lab tests overseen by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries.
On a three-square-mile grid of seafloor, the Sea Watcher I crew takes five samples, testing each for PSP. When the boat docks, seven samples are handed off to a federal worker's custody and delivered to the lab, Wallace says.
Technicians administer a mouse bioassay — injecting lab animals with a bit of pureed clams. Their survival helps calculate PSP levels, and results come back in just a few hours, Wallace says.
"In most of the area, it's all negative," Wallace adds. "We have demonstrated we can train our crews to do the tests at sea."
More work lies ahead, but if future results lead to an opening, it won't be a gold rush, Wallace cautions.
"There are only a few boats big enough to fish on Georges Bank on a sustained basis," and companies must commit to the training and protocol needed to ensure PSP safety, he says.
That technology could help the fleet shift northeast. New Jersey's inshore clam beds are scratched now only for bait clams, after decades of harvests that made surf clams a national brand. This year marked the second season that none were taken from state waters for food processing.
Some fishermen wonder if coastal development has taken a toll on nearshore sea clams, as it has on bay shellfish. A study looking at New Jersey's 14 ocean outfall pipelines that carry treated water from sewage plants may provide answers.
Rutgers University and New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection scientists say the pipelines all operate within their permit limits. But they are looking for signs that pollution-tolerant animals are clustered near the pipes.
"We're doing this to be protective of the resources," says Robert Connell Jr., who heads the DEP Bureau of Marine Water Monitoring and runs the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency–funded project.
Bill Hammarstrom, a longtime captain in Barnegat Light, N.J., says the retreat of the clams should be ringing alarms in state governments.
"We pay $20 a bushel for clam bait [on party boats]. When you sit down to a bowl of clam chowder — between the people who caught it, trucked it, processed it and cooked it — it's more like $250 a bushel."
Despite the struggling economy, "the clam business is holding its own," Wallace says. "Nothing has changed; everyone is just waiting for this economy to get better so people start buying fried clams again." — Kirk Moore
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