Written by Jen Finn
North Pacific Urchins
Processors, Southeast divers showing little interest in working ailing fishery
Alaska's urchin industry is in a tailspin. Late last summer, the dive fishery made news when Coastal Fisheries, the last processor standing, announced it would close its doors and no longer buy product.
Since then, there have been rumors of other operations opening up, but as of early November, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game had yet to see a single company register an intent-to-process form, a prerequisite and an indicator of how many processors are interested in buying product.
"There is a buyer who's interested in setting up here," says Justin Breese, assistant area shellfish management biologist with the department in Ketchikan. "But he hasn't made an appearance."
The loss of primary markets for Southeast's red urchins illustrates a trend of ailing health in a fishery that once boasted several processors and attracted upward of 40 divers. At last count, only 10 divers had been working the urchin beds, according to Pat Cassin, a local diver and representative with the Southeast Alaska Regional Dive Fisheries Association.
Historical data from Fish and Game paints the picture of a fishery beleaguered by bad weather and low ex-vessel prices. Japanese urchin roe demand during the 1970s drove demand for uni (salted urchin roe), which is consumed much like herring roe during oseibo, the Japanese year-end holiday. The interest — and attractive ex-vessel prices — spawned dive fisheries along the coastline of the Pacific Northwest during the 1970s.
Diving for urchins in Southeast Alaska, however, didn't catch on until 1981. Since then, Alaska's urchin industry has suffered transportation bottlenecks and other setbacks that kept ex-vessel prices at around 35 cents per pound.
The fishery was closed in 1989 and didn't resume until the 1995-96 season. That's when the dive industry and Fish and Game resuscitated it with a 3.3 million pound quota under the guise of a test fishery that would serve as a test for economic feasibility. An implicit part of the new plan imposed a tax to generate funding for stock assessments.
Unfortunately, divers and processors during the reinstated fishery encountered the same transportation hurdles they'd experienced in the 1980s. In recent years, ex-vessel prices have fallen from a high of 39 cents per pound during the 2002-03 fishery to a low of 28 cents during the 2004-05 fishery.
With urchin prices in the doldrums, many divers have become dependent on incomes derived from the more lucrative sea cucumbers and geoducks. They have forfeited urchin seasons to pursue other lines of work.
The industry saw a ray of hope last year as it embraced a value-adding venture that was supposed to reduce the number of operations required in preparing uni before exporting it to Japan. In years past, divers delivered whole urchins to the processors in Alaska. The processors cracked the shells and packed the uni into trays that were sent south to Seattle, where reprocessors graded and salted the roe, then repacked it into boxes for export.
The main problem with that system was that the industry incurred costs associated with transporting and handling the product twice before it reached its market. Last year's attempt to turn out product for export directly from Alaska came by way of a state-funded $83,000 grant that would be used to reconfigure processing operations at the Coastal Fisheries plant in Ketchikan.
Those plans apparently didn't pan out.
In late November, Cassin speculated that even if a processor materialized, ex-vessel prices would probably be running in the neighborhood of 26 cents per pound.
"It's going to kill us," Cassin says. "Unless it's 40 cents now, we can't go to work."
In the absence of a fishery, the industry has taken steps to mitigate costs associated with its management. As part of setting harvest quotas in the numerous Southeast harvest districts, divers assess themselves 7 percent of their landings to pay for costs of conducting annual stock assessment surveys.
"We need those surveys done," Cassin says.
Last winter, however, Cassin and others submitted a proposal to the Alaska Board of Fisheries that would allow Fish and Game and the industry to use data in the most recent surveys for up to six years. The board passed the resolution in March, which will preempt paying for surveys in the eventuality of a fishery.
"It's just a delay tactic," Cassin says, "so that if we get more processors up here we're not out of business; we don't have to start all over again." — Charlie Ess
Northeast Blue Crab
Chesapeake crabbers hope spring run is a sign of better days ahead
Virginia watermen saw a surprising early spring run of blue crabs in 2006. It didn't fatten their bank accounts much, but could augur a better future for Chesapeake Bay's fishery.
"April started the season very good, with one of the strongest months of the last 11 or 12 years," says Rob O'Reilly, the Virginia Marine Resource Commission's deputy chief of fisheries management. "June fell off a little bit and June, July and August are below the time series" averages for hard crabs, he says as numbers were being compiled in late fall 2006.
But any improvement — however modest — in the Chesapeake situation has been eagerly welcomed given what had seemed to be an impending collapse in recent years.
"Up to midsummer it was average, close to the landings of the last two years and neck-and-neck with last year," says Lynn Fegley, chief of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources' blue crab group. With preliminary 2006 Chesapeake Bay landings around 18.3 million pounds by Sept. 30, Maryland watermen were closely on track to a harvest like that of 2005 when just over 30 million pounds were landed. Some 21.5 million pounds were landed in the first nine months of 2005, "and I'm hearing some pretty stellar reports from the end of the season," Fegley said in late autumn.
"It's been real good this summer. We've had a lot of crabs," says waterman Norman Murphy of Tilghman Island, where prices ranged from $35 to $50 a bushel.
The baywide 2004 harvest of 60 million pounds represented a 25 percent increase from 2003. But it was still well below a 1968-2004 time series average of 73 million pounds, a scientific stockassessment committee reported in 2005.
That report noted a jump in juvenile crab numbers. Such good recruitment and a mild winter contributed to the spring 2006 market glut of crabs in Virginia, when prices in April fell from around $30 a bushel to $10 in just a couple of weeks.
"That was one of the reasons April was gangbusters," O'Reilly says. Virginia's April landings shot up over 3 million pounds, compared with 1.7 million pounds in April 2005.
But with fewer picking houses and competition from imports, the local industry couldn't absorb such a jolt. Some fishermen sent Virginia officials a petition, requesting the 51-bushel spring trip limit to be cut to 25 bushels.
Now the Virginia commission is rethinking its decade-old ban on harvesting sponge crabs. Watermen contend that egg-bearing female crabs don't survive well after handling, so the rule is a burden on their female-heavy fishery.
Since a Virginia Institute of Marine Science report seems to back up the fishermen's position, the commission may extend no-crabbing sanctuaries north in Chesapeake Bay, and in the ocean as far south as the North Carolina boundary.
Crab biology being what it is, that big spring surge in Virginia waters did not carry north up the bay to Maryland, according to Fegley. The 2005 crop of young crabs was definitely a factor. "The year prior we had one of the best recruitments we'd seen in a long time," Fegley says. But some people also think 2005 market conditions and high fuel costs may have lessened fishing pressure toward the season's end, she adds. In essence, Virginia watermen may have seen a surplus carried forward.
Torrential rains in June and early July briefly raised alarms among some longtime bay watchers, as stream flows in Chesapeake tributaries approached levels last seen during historic hurricanes that flushed massive amounts of pollution out of the bay's watershed.
Yet the Chesapeake region saw less rainfall in 2006, thanks to a drier than usual March and April, according to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, an environmental group that issues an annual report on the bay's health.
Habitat loss remains a big problem for blue crabs, the foundation says. Eelgrass beds, the underwater meadows where crabs hide and feed, shrank during 2005. That might be a factor in reportedly poor catches of peeler crabs during summer 2006, the foundation says.
O'Reilly says weather is the biggest influence on peeler crabs, and the sector is in a long-term decline; Virginia's 2005 catch of 1.1 million pounds dropped to just under 1 million last year.
Even with the modest increases in hard crab catch, "for the first time, the harvest has remained below the targets, and if that continues, the number of reproducing females will double over the next few years," the foundation report asserts. — Kirk Moore
Gulf/South Atlantic Shrimp
Hurricane hangover depresses price, gives shrimpers one big headache
It's not easy to find the good news in the shrimp business these days.
This time last year, after seeming to bottom out in 2003 and 2004, ex-vessel prices for all three major commercial species were higher compared with the previous year, and it seemed the domestic shrimp market might be beginning to recover.
But now, reports from fishermen, weekly price reports from the Gulf of Mexico, and federal statistics all tell the same discouraging story. Ex-vessel prices are flat or, in several significant categories, worse than last year.
During the week of Oct. 20-26, gulf trawlers harvested more 31/35-count shrimp (heads-on, browns, whites and pinks together) than any other size, and they mostly brought $1 a pound ex-vessel, according to the NMFS office in New Orleans. For the same week in 2005, heads-on 31/35s brought $1.45. In 2006, heads-on 21/25s sold at $1.15; in 2005 they brought $1.55. And in 2006, heads-on 36/40s brought 90 cents; in 2005 they brought $1.40.
Richard Gollot, owner of Golden Gulf Seafood on the Back Bay in Biloxi, Miss., says that the contrary inertia of the shrimp market is baffling.
"It's down, there's no doubt about it," he says. "I'm trying to make rhyme or reason out of what's going on. It's killing my fishermen."
The tie-up continues.
"I had a fisherman the other day unloaded $5,000 worth of shrimp, and he had $6,000 worth of fuel on it," Gollot says. "I told him to tie it up; you can't afford to keep shrimping."
The story is bad, though perhaps not quite as bad, on the South Atlantic coast, says Brad Roland, manager of Matt Roland Seafood in Mayport, Fla.
"Boat price is terrible," he says.
Heads-off 21/25s were paying $3.75 to the boat in Mayport. And in mid-November, Mayport vessels were getting $2.25 for 13/15 count heads-on, Roland says.
"We're probably 50 cents more a pound than up the coast," he says. "It's way less in the gulf."
Overall, the average ex-vessel price for all sizes of brown shrimp in 2006 has tumbled down to a depressing $1.45 compared with an only slightly less depressing $1.56 in 2005, based on preliminary numbers from NMFS through August.
Gollot says he believes the shrimp market is still suffering from the economic effects of the damage from the 2005 hurricanes in addition to the continuing challenge from imported farm-raised shrimp.
Millions in capital left the shrimp industry after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita pummeled the region, and it hasn't returned. Banks remain reluctant to capitalize the industry.
"That's the only thing that I can think of that would cause the situation," Gollot says. "I had talked to a processor in Louisiana. He was hoping a fisherman would go somewhere else and unload because he was out of money."
The fact that the market seems a bit stronger on the Atlantic coast bolsters the Katrina-effect theory.
At the shrimp docks near Beaufort, S.C., 16/20 heads-on white shrimp were $1.65 to the boat, according to St. Helena Island shrimper Kerry Abraham, owner and skipper of the 64-foot Midway-built Miss Kathy.
"Down to the south, they're not even getting that," Abraham said. "Down in the gulf, they're getting 90 cents a pound."
"The only thing that's saving me is I've got my own shrimp dock," says Abraham, who serves as president of the southern chapter of the McClellanville-based South Carolina Shrimper's Association. "We're having a hard time. We're getting a little bit better [price] right here in Beaufort. Thank God I've got a fiberglass boat."
"Moving a few shrimp around the dock," as Abraham does, and similar local retail and niche marketing efforts are keeping many of the survivors on both the Atlantic and Gulf coasts afloat. Meanwhile, shrimpers hope that regional and national American-only marketing efforts will begin to take hold and stop their market share slide toward oblivion.
Wild American Shrimp, a non-profit spin-off of the Southern Shrimp Alliance, is beginning to have some success, Gollot says.
"Our demand is coming up," he says. "We're picking up some retail. We've been advertising in different magazines. People are beginning to realize there is a taste difference between fresh shrimp and something raised in a pond."
Several major supermarket chains, including Publix, Albertson's, Kroger, Wal-Mart, A&P, Super One Foods and Dierbergs have agreed to carry certified wild-caught American shrimp.
South Carolina shrimpers also have high hopes for a proposed All-American seafood processing plant that could be built in a location convenient to the major shrimp ports there.
— Hoyt Childers
West Coast fleet hopes marketing and certification will boost product prices
Global competition and marketing factors as well as imminent Marine Stewardship Council certification could help West Coast pink-shrimp fishermen receive higher prices this year — provided the stars and markets align correctly and prices hit more than 45 cents a pound.
Brad Pettinger, administrator for the Oregon Trawl Commission, certainly hopes so. Pettinger recently attended the International Coldwater Prawn Forum in London. Topics such as accessing European markets, the status of North Atlantic shrimp fisheries, and changing marketing opportunities provided some insight on how U.S. marketers of Pandalus jordani could better place it in niche markets.
"It sounds like prices are down but inventory is moving," Pettinger says. "My hope is that for a short period of time — whether the fishery is certified or not — we should have the opportunity to make some money."
The West Coast season opens in April, and in May, most Atlantic Canada fishermen will still be crabbing. That should mean at least a month or two of less competition from Pandalus borealis.
It's been an ongoing battle ever since the mid-1990s, when European markets began paying less for imported shrimp, a trend that continued into 2005. Hence, Canada and other northern Atlantic countries started to expand into new markets — and the United States was one of them.
But since global supply continues to exceed demand, according to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, on a global scale, chances are slim that prices will rise.
Domestically, there's more optimism, especially on the West Coast.
"My feeling is that the price should be better than it was last year," Pettinger says, "more like it was a few years ago."
Since 2004, West Coast shrimpers have been getting between 30 and 40 cents a pound for their catch. Some of the lowest average prices ever, 25 to 27 cents a pound, were seen in 2001, 2002 and 2003. More than a decade ago, in 1996, prices averaged around 60 cents a pound.
Prices this year may not get that high, but fishermen and processors are hopeful.
Scott Adams, production manager of Charleston, Ore.-based Hallmark Fisheries, worries more about competition from smaller warm-water species of shrimp.
"There is more and more world production on the freshwater prawns," Adams says, "and only so many shrimpers left."
Tim Horgan, vice president of Pacific Seafood, says the shrimp market should be stable for a while, but competition with East Coast and Canadian markets continues.
West Coast landings of about 8,300 metric tons last year were among the lowest in recent years, except for 1998, when a mere 4,344 metric tons were landed. Yet 2006 production was sufficient to fill West Coast markets, Horgan says. Pacific Seafood didn't have to look elsewhere to fill shrimp orders.
Oregon always lands more shrimp than either Washington or California. But preliminary California numbers show only 64 metric tons landed in 2006 — barely one-tenth of the state's 2005 landings.
Much of California's shrimp comes from Morro Bay, where the shrimp are usually bigger than those caught elsewhere on the West Coast. Even so, a lack of markets and the low ex-vessel prices kept boats tied to the docks, leaving California fishermen way behind.
But shrimp that was caught was a good grade — mostly 250/350 count per pound and 350/500 count shrimp. East Coast Canadian shrimp was bigger, at 150/250 count, but also with comparable sizes of 250/350 count.
West Coast shrimp can win more fans if word gets outs on how much better tasting it is, Horgan says. East Coast shrimp can tout size and uniformity of product — something buyers prize more than better-tasting product.
"Then it forces us into a price battle," Horgan says. "So what if there's taste? Nobody knows it."
Gaining MSC certification also could give distributors access to other markets.
Pettinger says Oregon's pink-shrimp fishery applied for certification in April 2005. Certification could come shortly after the 2007 season opens.
"If that happens, we'll be the only certified shrimp trawl fishery in the world," Pettinger says.
At least for a little while.
The Gulf of St. Lawrence northern shrimp fishery and Canadian northern prawn fishery also have applied for certification. Certification for those fisheries may be another six months out, however.
Certification may yet play into distributors' favor, but Horgan is concerned about the resource and whether the grade will be as good as it was in 2006.
"The fleet said they didn't see a lot of recruitment out there," Horgan says.
— Susan Chambers
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