Written by Charlie Ess and Hoyt Childers
Alaska & Pacific Squid
Population primed to meet demand
makes for a happy sector in California
By Charlie Ess
Optimum ocean conditions and good weather are making for a strong showing of market squid this season. Last year's population surveys turned up tons of tiny squid, and prime water temperatures are so far helping produce squid that have been running at under 8 count per pound in waters near Monterey, Calif.
"We're looking at a very good season," says Gaspar Catanzaro, sales representative with Monterey Fish Co., in Monterey. "Some of the boats are unloading up to three times a day, and we're talking from 40 to 90 tons a pop."
Catanzaro said in June that the fleet was concentrating its efforts minutes away from shore, and at night the grounds light up like an extension of the city.
"The boats are so tight you could almost walk across the water on them out there," Catanzaro says.
Fishing has been so good, he added, that boats continue setting all day long.
As this season's momentum built, the popular consensus among fishermen and the National Weather Service's Climate Prediction Center held that the ocean was just beginning to swing from a La Niña toward an El Niño event. El Niños bring warmer ocean temperatures that can drive squid populations down. However, at press time it was uncertain how strong the El Niño will be.
"I'm thinking that the ocean is getting back to neutral," says Diane Pleschner-Steele executive director of the California Wetfish Producers Association, in Buellton.
The squid season runs from April 1 to March 31 with a commercial catch limit of 118,000 short tons. As of June 6, 2014-15 landings stood at 7,323 short tons, according to California Department of Fish and Wildlife data.
Last summer, however, the delivery pace picked up, with the fleet landing nearly 40,000 tons in July alone.
"Usually, the peak month is November," Pleschner-Steele says.
The 2013-14 delivery pace eventually slowed, but the fleet caught its quota by Oct. 17, about a month earlier than the late November closures in 2011 and 2012. Yet 2013-14 landings exceeded the 2012-13 catch, which ended up 10,000 tons shy of the quota, thanks to a data entry lag earlier in the year.
In response, Pleschner-Steele tracked 2013-14 landings records daily from the beginning of the season.
"It played out beautifully," Pleschner-Steele says. "When we got close to within the last 10,000 tons, the fleet stood down so that the department could catch up" on tabulating landing data."
Boats cut fishing effort to three days per week with a limit of one trip per day, she adds. The fleet landed 117,169 tons for the 2013-14 season.
Ex-vessel prices have been rising since the 2010-11 season when processors paid $500 per ton. Prices have improved from $600 per ton in 2011-12 to $650 per ton in 2013-14. Pacific Fisheries Information Network data shows the California fishery's revenues rose from $63.97 million in 2012 to $73.73 million in 2013.
Size and quality are among the reasons for the 2013-14 price hike, says Catanzaro, a retired squid fisherman who's also Monterey Fish's executive chef.
"They are nice. They are running about 5 or 6 count," he says. "When I was a fisherman these were the kind of squid I hoped to catch. And as a chef, these are the kind I dream of cooking."
Squid exports dropped again last year, from 98.6 million kilos worth $143.3 million in 2012 to 83 million kilos valued at $122.03 million. One reason less squid is going abroad, Catanzaro says, is because squid is catching on with increasing fervor on domestic restaurant menus.
"On the West Coast you can't go to a restaurant without seeing calamari on the menu. They're baking it, frying it, you name it. And it's even in all of the restaurants now in Vegas."
Gulf/South Atlantic Stone Crab
Lack of freezer inventory offers hope
for fleets in wake of a spotty season
By Hoyt Childers
Was the 2013-14 stone crab season terrible or decent? The answer depends on whom you ask. It depends on where they fished and whether they got in on the phenomenal ex-vessel prices that in some places and times topped $20 a pound for jumbo claws. And if they got in on the high price, did it make up for the crabs the octopuses got, or for the crabs that stayed home and refused to crawl around because the winter was too mild and calm?
All these variables make predicting the season ahead — something fishermen are loath to attempt even in the best of times — more of a fool's errand than usual. One thing seems certain; there shouldn't be many leftover cold-storage claws to deflate prices when the 2014-15 season begins.
Fortunately for crab fishermen who didn't do so well — and there were lots of them — the spiny lobster season was very good. Price was decent at season's end for these primarily Florida fisheries, which was expected to bode well for the opening of the spiny season, scheduled for Aug. 6, and stone crab on Oct. 15.
Spiny lobster landings were decent, and ex-vessel prices were historically strong. The Chinese live lobster market continues to pump up price thanks to strong demand for high quality product.
Veteran Conch Key fisherman Gary Nichols, finishing up a good first year with his new 43-foot Jim Bacle-built G-Force, was one for whom spiny lobster fortune helped balance stone crab mediocrity. He attributes stone crab scarcity in the Florida Keys at least in part to flat calm weather conditions throughout January and February.
Spiny lobster, on the other hand, was a "tremendous season, one for the books, one for the decades," Nichols said less than a month before the March 31 closing. "We're still looking at a $15 lobster; production has been good, too."
In Key Largo, Ernie Piton, president of the Florida Keys Commercial Fishermen's Association, also reported a good lobster season.
"Lobster was really good," he said. "We are very pleased. Right now we are getting $14 a pound."
Some areas were really hot for lobster, while others were strong for stone crab, Nichols said.
"Florida Bay just came alive [with lobster] this year," he said. "They are doing real good on crabs in the Everglades."
Everglades City fishermen, in Collier County, frequently harvest the most stone crab claws of any county save Monroe, in the Keys. Fishermen in Everglades managed to avoid the octopus influx that plagued some areas farther north, and landings were decent, says Brenda Johnson, who helps with business duties shoreside while her husband, Kit, and son, Austin, run their boats, Kit Kat and Serious Addiction. Between them, Kit and Austin run about 15,000 crab traps.
"It's going good," she reported late in the season, though her men had been harvesting mostly medium claws that at times had dropped to $8 or so a pound ex-vessel. Earlier in the season medium claws fetched $11 a pound, the same price they brought the previous season, according to Johnson. She added that there had been no crabs offshore and that Kit and Austin had been "edging closer to the house" as the season wore on.
Key West was more typical. "Stone crab has been slow but price has been tremendous," says George Niles, former president of the Florida Keys Commercial Fishermen's Association.
Preliminary Florida Fish and Wildlife Research Institute numbers show the average 2013-14 spiny lobster ex-vessel price jumped 35 percent, from $6.20 a pound in 2012-13 to $8.35 on excellent landings of 5.7 million pounds.
Stone crab prices jumped 31 percent, from $10.56 the previous season to $13.83 a pound; however, preliminary landings, at 1.7 million pounds, were well below the five-year average of 2.8 million pounds. Stone crab harvest numbers, however, may improve with the complete tally, which was not expected to be finalized until September.
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