Written by Jen Finn
Record prices may not do the trick; fishery still reeling from '02 die-off
Coming off of a catastrophic 2006 season, West Coast salmon trollers last year hoped that age classes associated with the 2002, '03 and '04 brood stocks would show up in fisheries with abundance.
Alas, they will remember 2007 as another year of bad runs and good prices that still couldn't offset the landings shortfall, despite a small improvement in harvest volume. Indications so far are that the 2008 season will mirror last year's.
Since the major die-off of Klamath River juvenile chinook and coho salmon in 2002, fishermen increasingly depend on 3- and 4-year-old fish returning to the Sacramento and Columbia rivers.
In 2007, commercial troll fisheries operated under area management in a checkerboard pattern along the coastline to avoid high catches of Klamath stocks. That left bets riding on the Sacramento and the Columbia.
By the troll season's end in October, it appeared 2007 would go down as another downer in a string of bad seasons.
"We'd been averaging about 5 million pounds a year, just in California," says Dave Bitts, secretary of the Eureka, Calif.-based Humboldt Fisherman's Marketing Association, and a board member of the Institute for Fisheries Resources, in San Francisco. "It  was not a very good season. We had some opportunity, but there weren't any fish."
In 2006, commercial salmon trollers from California north to the Canadian border found vast area closures.
"There was over 700 miles of the best fishing area closed in '06," says Jeff Feldner, a salmon troller and seafood and fisheries specialist with Oregon Sea Grant in Newport.
According to Pacific Coast Fisheries Information Network data, the 2007 harvest of 3.1 million pounds of chinook and coho salmon registers as an optimistic bump in an otherwise precipitous slide in coastwide (Washington, Oregon and California) harvest volumes since 2004 when the fleet landed 14.4 million pounds. Since then, harvest numbers dropped to 9.4 million pounds in 2005 and 2.6 million pounds in 2006.
At the same time that harvests have dwindled, average ex-vessel prices have climbed correspondingly from $2.47 per pound in 2004 to $2.55 during the 2005 season to $3.89 in 2006 and last year's high of around $4 per pound.
"In general, the prices of '06 and '07 were probably record high prices," Feldner says. "Demand for West Coast troll salmon has gone through the roof. We haven't been able to meet the demand for the last few years."
Demand has turned so hot that Feldner's nephew has been running the boat and fishing while Feldner works out marketing deals for Seattle-bound fish. There, they're sold locally or redistributed through transportation hubs that funnel them to other U.S. markets.
Feldner adds that the 2007 volume shortage converted him from fish catcher to fish buyer (he bought some fish from fellow trollers) to satisfy demand to hungry domestic outlets.
Unfortunately for the fisherman, ex-vessel price increases haven't offset the lower harvest volumes. According to PacFIN data, the average ex-vessel revenue totals for the three states came to nearly $30.9 million in 2004, dropped to $24 million in '05; then fell to $10.1 million in '06 before bumping up to $12.4 million last year.
What's in store for the industry down the road, in terms of harvest volume, rides on a host of biological and political factors ranging from regulating the water levels in key spawning rivers to oceanic factors that determine survival of juveniles.
Continuing demand for agricultural irrigation and hydroelectric power generation in the Klamath drainage area have been blamed for the demise of its salmon stocks.
"The two big issues are quantity and quality of the water," Bitts says. "The irrigation has to do with quantity. Dams have almost entirely to do with quality."
Returns to other drainages, meanwhile, don't look so hot, according to Chuck Tracy, staff officer for salmon with the Pacific Fishery Management Council, in Portland, Ore. Tracy said in December that catch records and the associated stock composition data, which will be used to estimate stock abundance and age composition for the 2008 season, wouldn't be available until February of this year.
His early read on the 2007 commercial season, however, is that it will turn up consistently bleak with what fishermen have reported and that '08 will play out in a similar vein.
"I don't think that there were many jacks around, and that's an indicator of three-year fish. The Sacramento fish haven't really returned either," he adds. "That doesn't portend very well for 2008." — Charlie Ess
North Pacific Herring
Decline in production at Togiak, pace of fishing at Sitka keep picture cloudy
Last year's smaller harvest volumes and the level of demand for herring roe among Japanese consumers, who trade the salted kazunoko as gifts during the year-end holiday of oseibo, could spur aggressive buying during Alaska's herring fisheries in 2008.
Inventories going into this year's fishing season were shorter than they've been in years past, thanks to last year's decline in Alaska's key production areas.
Harvests from the state's fabled herring grounds at Sitka and Togiak in 2007 totaled 25,195 short tons, which is a 26 percent decline from the 34,000 tons the fleet harvested there in 2006.
With the 2007 Sitka harvest at 11,570 short tons, which was 97 percent of its quota of 11,904 tons, nearly all of the production shortfall is attributed to the reduced catch at Togiak. With a 2007 guideline harvest level of 23,634 tons and an actual catch of just 13,625 tons, the Togiak seine and gillnet fleets left 42 percent of their rightful herring swimming in the water.
In 2006, Togiak seiners and gillnetters both exceeded their respective GHLs of 16,471 and 7,059 tons, landing 16,821 and 7,132 tons, respectively.
At the same time, herring production in British Columbia also declined from 31,656 short tons in 2005 to 24,581 tons in 2006, according to data from Canada's Department of Fisheries and Oceans. Though catch data for 2007 wasn't out at press time, harvest recommendations for 2007 stood at around 28,800 short tons.
The online Canadian Trade Commissioner Service, quoting from a July 20 issue of Nikkan Suisan Keizai Shimbun, a Japanese fisheries trade journal, indicated that last year's poor British Columbia catch would not only drive retail prices up but that distributors catering to the gift market would offer downsized packages of the kazunoko to soften the sting of higher prices.
In theory, the weaker Togiak harvest and the Canadian production shortage should leave Japanese markets hungry. But as the 2008 season approaches, the question is whether processors will buy more — and pay more than last year's ex-vessel rates of $460 per ton at Sitka and Togiak's $112 per ton for seiners and $122 for gillnetters. It's a steep fall from the heady days of $1,000 a ton in the late 1980s.
According to Bob Nickinovich, president of North Pacific Seafoods in Seattle, retail demand for the salted roe during oseibo isn't what it once was. Despite the weaker 2007 harvest, he says, many distributors were still holding some product at year's end.
But he adds that carryover inventories — and a bountiful forecast for the upcoming season — won't necessarily make the buyers shy at Sitka.
"The demand is probably going to be for the fish on the water," says Nickinovich. "If we follow the market, we could lose the fish to market share [among competing companies]."
As for the catching power of Alaska's herring fleets, the continuing low Togiak ex-vessel prices have stabilized participation at around two dozen seiners and about as many gillnetters.
"The fish are still there," says Tim Sands, area management biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in Dillingham. "But the price is a tenth of the value it was during the big years, and we've got about a tenth of the interest."
Last year's shortage at Togiak has sparked speculation that a volume increase in the markets near the tail end of this year's season could draw more boats, making for thinner slices of the revenue pie.
A deciding factor in that premise, however, rides on reports of a record size biomass. That could bode well for the Sitka fishery, which takes place in early April, nearly six weeks before the herring ripen at Togiak.
If Sitka provides processors with enough volume, competition among buyers and ex-vessel prices could weaken at Togiak.
As always, a significant factor in the Sitka fishery is whether the field of about 10 processors can handle the potential volume of fish. A new variable in this year's equation is the added processing capacity of the newly up and running Silver Bay Seafoods plant in Sitka.
"That will definitely increase the processing capacity here," says Dave Gordon, area management biologist with Fish and Game in Sitka. "Normally, we have a capacity of around 1,200 tons per day in Southeast Alaska."
Though Gordon has been in conversation with Silver Bay, he's hesitant to divulge the company's capacity to soak up Sitka's harvest volume.
"Let's just say it's going to increase it significantly," he says. — Charlie Ess
Gulf/South Atlantic Grouper
Gag restrictions could snuff promise of red grouper recovery, rising prices
Gulf of Mexico red grouper stocks are now recovered — according to the 2007 stock assessment — well beyond the maximum sustainable yield threshold, confirming what fishermen have been saying for years. Red grouper science is as settled as it ever gets, and demand and ex-vessel prices are perennially strong; it should be the best of times for the grouper fishery.
But a new gag grouper management scenario could trigger a premature shallow-water grouper shutdown early in 2008 and seriously hamstring the domestic grouper market, negating all the positive red grouper vibes.
In Florida, where most of the nation's grouper is landed along the central Gulf Coast, prices are stronger than they have been in years. Gag brought $3.29 per pound on average ex-vessel in 2007, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Research Institute, compared with $2.92 in 2006 and $2.65 in 2005. Red grouper fetched $2.59 per pound on average in 2007 versus $2.37 in 2006 and $2.10 in 2005.
The problem is that gag is "undergoing overfishing," according to a 2006 stock assessment, and that red and gag are both shallow-water groupers. It's difficult if not impossible to target one without catching the other. (Some fishermen question the gag overfishing categorization as they once questioned conferring that status on red grouper.)
To end overfishing of gag under federal mandates, drastic gag mortality cuts appear unavoidable.
Bob Spaeth, owner of Madeira Beach Seafood in Florida and executive director of the Southern Offshore Fishing Association, isn't optimistic about resolving the gag–red grouper conundrum.
"The projections are with the gag grouper reductions, we'll be closed in mid-May," he says. "We'll be looking at a seven-month closure. There's not going to be a fleet."
Most fishermen and fish houses would not be able to survive such a long closure, and it's just not necessary, Spaeth says.
"There's plenty of fish out there," he says.
The Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council's Reef Fish Amendment 30B, which addresses gag overfishing and co-management of gag and red grouper, is working its way through to final form, expected in April 2008. Like Spaeth, plenty of Gulf of Mexico fishermen worry about whether the amendment, when implemented, will let them continue harvesting the plentiful red grouper after gag are declared off-limits.
At its November meeting, the council identified a preferred alternative for a gag total allowable catch of 3.13 million pounds in 2008 gradually rising to 4.13 million pounds by 2013. (There is currently no gag-specific TAC or quota; excepting red grouper, the shallow-water species are managed in aggregate.)
Such a scenario would represent a large reduction in the commercial harvest, says Glen Brooks, president of the Gulf Fishermen's Association and owner of a small fleet of longliners in Cortez, Fla.
"We're looking at a 45 percent cut on gag," he says. "With a 45 percent cut, if we caught at the same rate as we did in 2006, we will have filled the quota by the end of May. That will trigger a [shallow-water grouper] shutdown."
Will there be a shallow-water grouper fishery at the beginning of next summer?
Everything hinges on the gag "closure mechanism" that ultimately will be approved in amendment 30B. The alternative the council's scientific and statistical committee recommended would close the directed gag fishery as the harvest limit approached, while allowing red grouper and other species in the shallow-water aggregate to remain open under modified rules.
Under this option, gag would close at 70 to 90 percent of its quota, while red grouper would remain open with a 5 to 10 percent gag bycatch allowance until the red grouper quota or overall shallow-water quota are filled.
Brooks says he'd support this kind of closure framework, but hopes there will be another alternative by 2009.
"Our IFQ, we're pushing real hard to get that in place by 2009," he says.
The proposed grouper individual fishing quota is under consideration in the council's reef fish amendment 29, also now working its way through the process and scheduled for final revision next summer.
While the council's grouper IFQ advisory panel has recommended an IFQ as the best option for grouper management, the council had not, as of mid-December, picked a preferred management alternative. The council has posted — with appropriate caveats — a sample worksheet for estimating one's grouper IFQ shares and allocation under such a program in the Library/Downloadable Files section their Web site, www.gulfcouncil.org.
Not all fishermen support a grouper IFQ, but momentum seems to be building. — Hoyt Childers
Whither the fish? Quota takes deep cut as managers embark on a new regime
With a 2008 scup quota that could be around half of last year's, fishermen and managers are building a floor they hope will support a rebuilt fishery, after years of being whipsawed by conflicting data and dwindling market acceptance.
In the late 2007 holiday weeks, large scup fetched around $2 a pound at Rhode Island docks. Trip limits are still up to 30,000 pounds in the early Winter I season, but regulatory constraints that prevent a reliable supply of fish to buyers continues to hobble scup in the marketplace.
"There's always an opening. It's not like American red snapper, where they've reduced the availability so much that they've put the American fishermen out of the business," says David Weiss of the Blue Ribbon Fish Co. at the New Fulton Fish Market in New York. "But a lot of my customers can't go back and forth between products. The secret is to have product continuously."
This winter marks the first fishing season of a planned seven-year rebuilding campaign, using what managers have dubbed the "constant mortality" strategy.
Under that strategy, managers are aiming to hold a constant level of mortality value of F=0.10 at least through 2012. For 2008 that works out to an exploitation rate of 9 percent of the stock.
"The big drop in the quota is being driven by the fact that this is the first year of a rebuilding plan," explains Jessica Coakley of the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council staff. "The quota is down substantially."
The current quota of 5.46 million pounds — actually adjusted downward to 4.62 million pounds to reflect summer 2007 overages and this year's research set-asides — is not quite half what it was last year, when the scup quota was almost 9 million pounds.
A different approach of "constant harvest" levels over the next couple of years was turned aside in preference for targeting the mortality level. But "there are caveats with that, because of data limitations," Coakley says.
As the NMFS research vessels Albatross IV and Henry B. Bigelow conduct the new trawl surveys, the council will review the scup data.
Scup managers have only the trawl surveys to go by, so if a long-awaited stock assessment can be devised, the council would change the recovery plan, too, Coakley says.
"There was a time a few years back, when we thought we would be cut back by something like 90 percent because there weren't any scup out there" recalls Bonnie Brady, executive director of the Long Island Commercial Fishing Association.
"The next year, it was: 'Oops, we found them.'"
"The biomass is there. Where they are is another matter. All this boils down to whether the Albatross gets them or not," says Phil Ruhle Sr., captain of the Rhode Island–based boat Sea Breeze and a longtime scup fisherman. "Hopefully the new net [deployed on research vessels] will pick up some of the slack."
Without a comprehensive assessment of scup (also called porgies in the southern Mid-Atlantic end of their range), fishermen assert that the annual trawl survey is providing only local snapshots of the scup population. Mass movements of scup seem to depend more on transient environmental conditions, they say.
Rhode Island prices hit $2 a pound for large scup over the Christmas season, but mediums dropped under $1 a pound in early January "after half a dozen boats landed their limits," Ruhle says.
"Even in a two-week season," Ruhle says, "it becomes a complete derby."
The January to April Winter I scup period accounts for 45 percent of the commercial quota this year, with another 39 percent allocated for the summer months and the remaining 16 percent for the November-December Winter II period.
The new quota further complicates Rhode Island's sharing of scup between bay fish trappers and other users, says Mark Gibson, state fish and wildlife deputy director.
"Usually they're going to hit the traps hard in May," and then limits kick in to assure optimized landings for both trap and net fishermen, Gibson says.
The trick is to use allocations before the Winter II season arrives with a flat 3,500-pound trip limit, he adds.
"It's a complicated system," Gibson says. "The overall reduction in the quota hampers it even more."
Fuel costs at $3 a gallon for diesel are the real pressure point this year, Brady says. As with summer flounder, the fleet needs relief from the scup rebuilding demands that stem from the 2006 Magnuson-Stevens Act reauthorization; flexibility amendments are now being offered in Congress, she says.
"We're not asking for anything," Brady says, "except some breathing room." — Kirk Moore
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