Written by Jen Finn
Finding bait may prove the toughest obstacle to Maine harvesters in 2007
Fluctuating bait and fuel costs crimped lobstermen's balance sheets in 2006. But one upscale supermarket chain's decision to stop selling live lobster had little effect on the rest of the marketplace.
The natural and organic foods chain Whole Foods Market jettisoned its lobster tanks but still sells processed lobster meat. Maine fishermen say autumn 2006 lobsters paid less compared with the same time in 2005, but they still sold lots of live bugs.
"Prices are down, definitely. But we've been holding our own... It's hard to tell. It's lobstering," Pat White, a member of the Maine Lobstermen's Association's board of directors, says with a laugh.
White says escalating bait prices and availability will loom large in 2007. In parts of Maine last fall, "it was $50 to $55 a barrel in some good areas," says White, who fishes out of York, Maine.
"Next year, they've lowered the total allowable catch [for herring] in this area by 10,000 metric tons," he says. "So we'll run out by August or September. That means it becomes an offshore fishery, for the guys with refrigerated seawater [holds] who can fish on Georges Bank."
Herring bait "is going to be a big problem," agrees Peter McAleney, who, along with his wife, Kathleen, owns New Meadows Lobster in Portland, Maine. Given competing demands for herring conservation in the Gulf of Maine and a growing herring export market, bait costs will probably escalate, says McAleney, president of the Maine Lobster Dealers Association.
October dock prices in the Boothbay, Maine, region of around $3.50 a pound were trending 60 to 75 cents less than the same time in 2005, estimates Clive Farrin, president of the Downeast Lobstermen's Association.
"We had a [price] spurt in June, but it wasn't long-lived," Farrin says. Bait and fuel prices were serious issues, too, he says: "Diesel was $2.75 a gallon this summer."
Farrin says his catch this fall has been less robust: "Last year this time, I was catching more lobsters." So the lower price this year was a little puzzling. But lobstermen are used to that, Farrin notes with dry humor.
"When you read the definition of supply and demand," he says, "it doesn't apply to the lobster business."
Some temporary market conditions were in play, but years of industry-wide changes are really affecting the price, McAleney says.
"Lobster pounds aren't as big as they used to be," as operators have turned away from costs and stock losses involved with holding live lobsters, he says.
"It's a whole different business. There's a lot of lobster meat around now, frozen and processed. The chefs can do fantastic things with that product, with sauces so you don't know the difference."
That fact eased the sting of Austin, Texas-based Whole Foods Market's decision to stop selling live lobsters. The company stated that the often poor treatment of live lobsters in transit and wholesale was a problem. Whole Foods says it intends to sell protein only from humanely treated animals.
The decision pleased animal rights activists. But it's really just one more step to separate consumers from the natural world, asserts Trevor Corson, a former lobster-boat sternman and author of the book "The Secret Life of Lobsters."
Corson suggests the Whole Foods affair could signal a new way of doing business, attracting consumers to buy well-managed, sustainable American lobster — instead of product from offshore sources that catch breeding lobsters.
"The problem is that Whole Foods is simply going to get its processed lobsters from Canadian corporate operations unless U.S. producers pressure the company into realizing that small-scale, independent U.S. harvesters who practice strict conservation are a better match for the Whole Foods philosophy," he says.
Outside the Northeast states, many consumers still like their lobster meat packaged, Corson says. If retailers and fishermen work together at branding, he foresees a return to the industry's roots, "a new era where processed lobster that is certified as sustainably fished and independently produced by small-scale American harvesters will become the premium product."
Maine lobstermen are more conservation-minded than anyone, Farrin says. He opposes anything that would simplify the fleet's longtime V-notching practices for marking reproducing females, for example. "The number of lobsters that would let ashore would be a mistake. It would be a step back, in my judgment," Farrin says. — Kirk Moore
Gulf/South Atlantic Snapper
Gulf of Mexico fleet poised to begin life under IFQ management system
Years of advocacy and hard work soon will pay off for the solid majority of Gulf of Mexico red snapper fishermen who support individual fishing quotas. The IFQ program is scheduled to begin in February 2007 at the latest.
"I'm looking forward to not being told to fish the first to the 10th, to have a life back and to stop wasting the fish," says Wayne Werner, a veteran IFQ campaigner who docks at Griffin's Seafood in Leeville, La.
For several years now, price has been steadily creeping up on the quota-limited commercial harvest of 4.65 million pounds. Preliminary 2006 Florida Fish and Wildlife Research Institute numbers indicate a record ex-vessel average price of $3.08 a pound in Florida. David Krebs, owner of Ariel Seafood in Destin, says the boat price on snapper rose as high as $3.60 during the Oct. 1-10 opening.
The good prices likely will hold for the near future, at least. As skippers begin to fish on their own time schedules under the IFQ system, a modest but steady year-round harvest should enable red snapper to solidify a place in markets that demand a consistent supply of fresh fish.
The supply situation has improved a bit in recent years over the bad old old derby days when the quota was harvested three or four months. But the shift to IFQs should complete the transition to a healthy supply-demand balance that will help U.S. fishermen compete against fresh snapper imports from Mexico and Panama.
The Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council's Joint Reef Fish Amendment 27/Shrimp Amendment 14 will address one long-standing concern of commercial fishermen: throwing back too many undersized fish.
The amendment likely will reduce the minimum commercial size limit from 15 to 13 inches, among other actions, to reduce bycatch and facilitate rebuilding. Scientific analysis demonstrates that a reduced minimum-size limit coupled with a smaller total allowable catch and other changes to recreational and shrimping rules would precipitate full recovery by 2008 or 2009.
An official NMFS document confirms what snapper fishermen have said for years: "Yield-per-recruit analyses suggest a smaller size limit for the commercial fishery would be preferable because benefits derived from harvesting a larger fish are nullified by the high discard mortality rates associated with the commercial fishery. Analyses suggest a smaller commercial size limit also lets the stock recover at a slightly faster rate."
As stocks of younger fish increase, the need for a reduced size limit becomes more critical, Werner says.
"We've been wasting these smaller fish," he says. "As you increase the recruitment, you are going to kill more and more small fish."
Also, the Gulf council is considering dropping the TAC from 9.12 million pounds to alternatives between 5 million and 7 million pounds; 6 million pounds and a 3.06 million pound commercial quota is the preferred option. The reduced TAC proposal addresses a recent stock assessment that shows red snapper as still overfished.
Leaders in the red snapper fishery appear resigned to the necessity of a lower TAC, assuming it comes with the lower minimum size.
"The size limit has got to go down," Werner says.
While red snapper has hogged the political spotlight, vermilion snapper — or B-liners, as fishermen call them — has for years been a steady, relatively unregulated performer.
In Florida, B-liners passed red snapper in market value in 2005, with landings worth $2.3 million, compared with red snapper's $1.9 million. Early 2006 numbers show vermilion snapper ex-vessel prices at an all-time high of $2.51 a pound on average. Boat price for the best quality 1- to 2-pound fish has been even better, at $2.75, Krebs says.
"We've had a great run of vermilion," he says.
It's a good fishery, maybe a bit too good.
Krebs fears tighter limits on red snapper and other top fishes will transfer effort to vermilion. He favors extending IFQs to include other reef fish.
"We're trying to drum up interest for a multi-species IFQ," he says.
The number three snapper by value in the gulf and the top snapper in Florida is yellowtail, with a 2005 value of $3 million. Fishermen can catch yellowtail year-round, primarily in the Florida Keys.
— Hoyt Childers
North Pacific Sea Cucumber
Stable, high-quality product, demand bode well for sea cucumber divers
Stability in management, product quality and demand in the markets add up to good times for Alaska's sea cucumber industry.
Since 2000, guideline harvest levels throughout Southeast Alaska have stayed healthy at around 1.4 million pounds. At the same time, ex-vessel prices have been rising. Divers during the 2000-01 season saw ex-vessel offers climb to $2.23 per pound, watched them slip to a low of $1.26 per pound during the '02-03 season and enjoyed a rebound to $2.12 per pound during the '04-'05 season.
Though '05-'06 season data wasn't available as of late October, dockside prices during this year's '06-07 season are continuing the upward trend.
"They're actually going up as the season progresses," says Bo Meredith, a shellfish management biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in Ketchikan. "They started out at $1.70 to $1.75 the first part of the season; now, we're getting around $2 per pound. The guys will make some money that way."
Better yet, final ex-vessel prices often increase several months after the season, when processors sell off their products and share some of the profits with their respective fleets of divers in the form of retroactive settlements.
"Sometimes these guys get retro checks six months later, and it turns out that they get more along the lines of $2.50 or $2.60," Meredith says.
Though diver participation in recent years has waned, processors' offers have been high enough this year to draw more divers as this season has progressed. Meredith says 133 divers began the '06-'07 season, but participation had grown to 153 through mid-October.
The healthier ex-vessel prices, meanwhile, may be the latent effect from a product flow shift, says Lawrence Bushnell, who works in Asian sales with NorQuest Seafoods in Seattle. Though Bushnell's sea cucumber industry experience predates his seven years with NorQuest, markets began changing right about when he signed on with the company.
It's important to note that Alaska's cukes dwarf those raised or harvested elsewhere in the world. Hence, while other sources can supply only the dried skins, the Alaska industry has created its own market for the four meat strips that line the inside of the skin.
"Seven years ago, all the muscles went to Hong Kong, and the skins went to Taiwan," Bushnell says. "About four years ago, that shifted. Now, everything goes to China." Bushnell adds that the muscles are routed to southern China via Hong Kong while skins go to markets in northern China.
The shift sent cukes into a market starved for something new — at first. More recently, however, steady availability has dampened demand somewhat on the wholesale and retail ends of the distribution chain.
"It's a niche market avenue," Bushnell says. "You've got a population base of 1.4 billion versus 1 million pounds of product coming out of Alaska. The price got driven up when the Chinese fell in love with it, but now I see the market making a correction."
A few years ago, anecdotal evidence suggested that U.S. health food industry interest would divert product from the Asian markets and into domestic outlets. This was primarily based on the inference that soup made from the dried skins reduced soreness and swelling in joints.
If sea cucumber earned notoriety for its health benefits, Bushnell never noticed any fluctuations at the marketing end.
"I'd say about 1 percent goes to ethnic markets in the United States," he says.
Current sea cuke management practices have provided sustainable harvests and consistent quality. Divers rotate their effort among 16 harvest districts, some of which are divided into more than 20 subdistricts in an effort to maintain sustainability across the fishing grounds.
"They fish one season; then it will lay for three years," Meredith says.
To slow the harvest pace, weekly openings are scheduled to run from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Mondays, then from 8 a.m. to noon on Tuesdays.
"The quality of the product has been very good," says John Scoblic, manager of NorQuest's Ketchikan facility. "Amounts coming in have been running along the average, and the sea cucumber fishery is a pretty stable fishery now."
— Charlie Ess
Pacific Petrale Sole
Quick pace of landings could prompt alterations to bimonthly catch limits
Landings of petrale sole, one of the trawl fleet's staple flatfish, have been steady all summer and fall, and processors expect that trend to continue through the winter.
That is, providing fishery managers don't close it early or put excessive catch restrictions in place during 2007.
Through the end of October, West Coast landings hit 2,121 metric tons, nearly 140 metric tons ahead of where managers expected the fleet to be. It's also a level that is close to approaching the fishery's annual catch limit.
If catches are expected to exceed annual quotas, managers could close the fishery early, as they did in 2005, or make in-season adjustments to the following year's season.
The Pacific Fishery Management Council for years has set the optimum yield and acceptable biological catch at the same level, which was 2,762 metric tons for 2006. The last stock assessment, in 2004, indicates the population is healthy. But exceeding the annual limit poses another problem.
"The issue is whether the petrale catch came in too hard earlier this year and whether we will have to reduce the harvest level in December," says Rod Moore, executive director of the West Coast Seafood Processors Association and a Pacific council member.
The council also was scheduled to consider changing the monthly and bimonthly trip limits for the first few months of 2007.
One of the industry's main concerns is whether the hot spots — which occur when some boundaries of the Rockfish Conservation Area are relaxed so petrale is accessible — will remain open.
Not to worry, Moore says. "We're going to continue to keep the hot spots open," he says.
Managing those hot spots and monthly trip limits has gotten exceedingly complicated in recent years. Two-month limits were established in 1998; restrictions on the use of large footrope gear (greater than 8 inches) inside of 150 fathoms were instituted in 2000; area closures to protect rockfish took hold in 2001. Consequently, landing limits are set for many combinations of fishing behavior.
One 2007 option councilors were considering before their November meeting was dropping the amount of petrale caught in association with other flatfish north of Cape Mendocino — using large and small footrope gear — from no more than 42,000 pounds per each two-month period of March-April, May-June, July-August and September-October to no more than 30,000 pounds per two-month period.
This year, northern management area fishermen using large or small footrope gear and targeting petrale could catch unlimited amounts of petrale in the January-February and the November-December periods. Proposals for 2007 would change that to 30,000 pounds a month for January and February and 60,000 pounds in the November-December period.
In the south, areas and gear types that had no catch limits, particularly in winter, may also be restricted in 2007. It may prove troublesome for some southern area fishermen, too.
For the five years through 2004, they've caught more petrale — as much as 66 percent — during the winter months than in the summer months.
Typically, the northern fishery depends on petrale during the summer. Since 2000, they've caught the bulk of their petrale in winter only twice: once in 2001, at 51 percent, and in 2004, at 57 percent.
Petrale catches generally have been steady this year, says Scott Adams, production manager for Charleston, Ore.-based Hallmark Fisheries. "A lot more people made money off petrale this year," Adams says.
Ex-vessel prices to fishermen stayed relatively flat, at around $1 a pound, though in other years, the ex-vessel price has reached $1.25 in the summertime.
Typically, the price hovers around a dollar. It dropped to about 75 cents a pound at some Oregon ports this year, but also was as high as $1.10 or so in Monterey. It's an improvement over 2005, when the high average price in Oregon was $1.04 and between 90 and 99 cents for the rest of the northern area.
Southern area prices fell to as low as 71 cents a pound in the Monterey area in 2005.
— Susan Chambers
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