Written by Jen Finn
The money is in the largest fish, but catches tend toward smaller grades
The search for large sardines — and the development of stronger markets for smaller ones — continues along the coasts of California, Oregon and Washington.
The large 175-gram sardines, destined for Japan's longline bait markets, have garnered higher ex-vessel prices than smaller fish. The relative abundance of fish favored in the Japanese market, however, has been unreliable in the past few years, according to Mike Burner, staff officer with the Pacific Fishery Management Council, in Portland, Ore.
"It's kind of anybody's guess who it will be in any one year that catches those nice fish that go into the Japanese market," Burner says. "If there's a trend, I'd say that the Northwest is finding the bigger fish."
Since 2005, a fickle flow of larger sardines has forced Oregon and Washington processors to find alternative markets for fish in the 80-gram range. On top of that, the 2006 season brought a surprise harvest of 100- to 120-gram fish in the Northwest.
"In a market sense, we went from an easy market — big boat bait — and all of a sudden we had to go out and find out what to do with these 80-gram fish," says Jay Bornstein, president of Bellingham, Wash.-based Bornstein Seafoods. "Then, last year we had 100- to 120-gram fish. So now, we've experienced just about all of the markets for those."
The processors' attempts to play into new marketing arenas haven't helped ex-vessel prices. According to Washington Department of Fisheries and Wildlife fish ticket data, fishermen received 6.3 cents per pound in 2004, 5.7 cents in '05 and 4.6 cents during the '06 season.
The California seine fleet, meanwhile, continues to divide its efforts between sardines (the brunt of which have been 60-gram fish that wind up as feed for Australian tuna-rearing operations) and the squid fishery.
The variability of sardine sizes and the industry's efforts to land product in burgeoning markets also has begun to show in U.S. export trends.
According to foreign trade data from NMFS, redirecting the flow of frozen sardines accounts for declining export volumes to Japan and corresponding increases to China and Australia.
U.S. sardine exports to Japan in 2004 hit nearly 62 million pounds and dropped to around 40.7 million pounds last year, while exports to China increased from 14.1 million pounds to 19.9 million pounds during the same period. Exports to Australia, meanwhile, jumped from 18.3 million pounds in 2004 to 31.1 million pounds in 2005, then increased to 37.1 million pounds last year.
Just which weight classification of sardine will dominate the catch in a particular harvest area during a given year is proving difficult to pin down.
Though myriad oceanic factors determine the length and weight of sardines respective to the age at which they are harvested, NMFS Pacific Sardine Stock Assessment studies suggest that 5-year-old fish tend to reach the 160-gram mark or above. The 3- and 4-year-old fish make up the 120-gram component. Meanwhile, 1- and 2-year-old sardines are an average weight of 60 grams.
The NMFS sardine assessment shows that in recent years, more than 80 percent of the catches at Monterey and San Pedro, Calif., were 1-year-olds, while 4- and 5-year-olds made up 80 percent of the harvests in the Oregon and Washington fisheries.
The 2007 season marks the second year since the coastwide seasonal allocation system between California, Oregon and Washington began.
In the previous management scenario, California was entitled to 66 percent of the biomass, with Oregon and Washington claiming the other 33 percent. If any quota remained on the table after Sept. 1, California would claim 80 percent of that, with the two Northwest states entitled to fish on the remaining 20 percent. Anything left of that quota after Dec. 1 was allocated coastwide.
The coastwide seasonal allocation has been set up to allow 35 percent of the quota to be taken after Jan. 1. Then another 40 percent plus any quota left unharvested from the first period is fished after July 1. The third period, which opens Sept. 1, lets seiners catch the remaining 25 percent plus any fish unharvested in the earlier allocation periods.
While there has been concern within the industry that the new system could invite a race for fish in respective harvest areas, the first year went off without wrinkles.
— Charlie Ess
North Pacific Cod
Falling production around the world is driving demand, prices ever higher
Markets continue to strengthen for Pacific cod coming out of Alaska. Reduced production along the U.S. East Coast and in Europe is adding to a world shortage of cod and spiking consumer demand.
According to various reports, regulatory agencies in Europe reduced the Atlantic cod harvest by 15 percent in 2006 and may cut it by 25 percent this year. The reductions fall in line with a steady decline in cod production over the past 40 years.
According to the "Marine Aquaculture Issue Paper No. 2," put out by the Pacific States Marine Fisheries Commission, worldwide cod production has fallen from around 4.1 million metric tons in 1968 to approximately 1.3 million metric tons in 2004.
The worldwide cod shortage is causing gyrations in the flow of cod products coming out of the United States. While U.S. export data includes Atlantic cod volumes, they comprise only 5 percent of what goes overseas.
In the past three years, U.S. exports to Japan, Norway and Canada have decreased significantly. However, shipments to China and the Netherlands have picked up the slack.
With export volumes of around 59.5 million pounds, Japan was a top customer in 2004. But exports to Japan dropped to around 39.7 million pounds in 2006. Meanwhile, cod exports to China have jumped from around 35.3 million pounds in 2005 to nearly 50.7 million pounds last year. The predominance of cod shipped to Portugal has been frozen and has leveled off at around 27.6 million pounds during the past two years.
As another volumetric factor, the North Pacific Fishery Management Council and NMFS have called for catch reductions in Alaska for 2007. The Gulf of Alaska quota remains unchanged at 52,264 metric tons. But fleets fishing the Bering Sea–Aleutian Islands harvest areas will work on 170,720 metric tons. That's down 9.2 percent from last year's 188,180-metric-ton quota.
Less fish for hungry markets has driven ex-vessel offers even higher than last year. As the 2006 season unfolded, ex-vessel offers at some Alaska ports rose to around 38 cents per pound, with some processors paying up to 41 cents per pound. In January of this year, some fishermen plying the waters near Adak Island received 51 cents per pound for their cod.
As always, weather during the early season in January hampered deliveries. That doesn't hurt ex-vessel prices either.
"The weather's been a big factor again this year," says Mike Woodruff, assistant manager and vice president with Alaska Fresh Seafoods' Kodiak facility. "Draggers have been doing pretty good; longliners have been doing fairly good, when the weather cooperates."
Woodruff adds that while Japan's cod milt markets were soft during the early season, demand for products headed to other parts of the world are strengthening.
And how are ex-vessel prices around Gulf of Alaska ports?
"Over 50 cents on the average," Woodruff says. "Somewhere between 52 and 54 cents."
This year's offers will add an optimistic spike to the ex-vessel price trend of recent years. Historical ex-vessel data gleaned from the Alaska Fisheries' Science Center's Stock Assessment and Fishery Evaluation Report for the 2005 groundfish fisheries, released last July, paints the picture of prices hard pressed to climb out of the 30-cent doldrums from 2001 to 2005.
Fixed gear groups fishing the Gulf of Alaska saw their ex-vessel offers fluctuate from a high of around 30 cents per pound in 2003 to around 27 cents in 2004 then back up to almost 30 cents in 2005. Trawlers saw a low of around a quarter per pound in 2004 before rising to nearly 27 cents in 2005.
Ex-vessel offers have traditionally been less in the Bering Sea–Aleutian Islands.
Fixed gear groups there saw a low of around 21 cents in 2002 and a high of nearly 29 cents in 2003. Last year's offers were up to around 29 cents again while trawlers were treated to slightly more than 23 cents per pound for their catches.
About the only dampening effect for Pacific cod markets could ride in the success of farming ventures.
The Pacific States Marine Fisheries Commission aquaculture paper reports that worldwide farmed cod production rose to 12,000 metric tons in 2005. By some estimates, production could hit 100,000 metric tons by 2010 and reach between 300,000 and 500,000 metric tons by 2015.
— Charlie Ess
Gulf/South Atlantic Blue Crab
Harvest up in La., North Carolina, but imports have sapped market's vitality
In early 2007, blue crab production had improved over the previous season in both Louisiana and North Carolina, the two top producers in the Southeast, but chronic market problems trouble the business in both states.
Louisiana crabbing continues to recover from effects of the 2005 hurricanes, but prices were soft.
During the 2005-06 season, crabbers got 35 cents a pound or less in some places thanks to a glut of product relative to hurricane-damaged processing capacity. However, the 2005 average hard crab price eventually improved to a respectable 71 cents a pound on production of 37.9 million pounds, according to NMFS data.
This season, Louisiana prices have been generally disappointing, says St. Bernard Parish crabber George Barisich.
"We're catching a few crabs, but the price is too low — 65 cents for females," Barisich said in February. "When you're catching a decent volume, the price is OK."
Preliminary NMFS statistics show an overall 2006 hard crab average price of 62.5 cents a pound.
By comparison, Louisiana hard blue crab prices averaged 65 cents a pound seven years ago — in 2000.
Production appeared very good for 2006, with 35.3 million pounds landed just through August, according to preliminary NMFS figures.
"The catch has remained good for a portion of the year... but has been slacking off," says Vince Guillory, senior biologist and crab specialist with the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries. "There's more fishermen coming back to work, but the effort is not as great as it was before the storms."
As is the case in most crab-producing states in the Southeast, few crab houses are left in Louisiana, and most of the crabs are shipping of state, Barisich said. Domestic blue crab's market share continues a depressing slide relative to imports.
Between 2000 and 2005, U.S. blue crab production value decreased from $164.3 million to $123.2 million. Meanwhile, the value of imported swimming crab, the domestic crab's primary competitor, increased from $116.9 million to $293 million.
By the end of 2006, swimming crab imports had topped $304.8 million, according to the latest foreign trade numbers from NMFS' Office of Science and Technology.
North Carolina hard blue crab production for 2006 was up slightly — to 24.4 million pounds — from a recent low of 23.6 million pounds in 2005. However, leaving out the banner harvest years of 1991-2000, when harvests ranged from 39 million pounds to 66 million pounds, the more recent years' totals are consistent with the 1978-1990 cycle.
Back then, blue crab harvests fluctuated from 23.6 million pounds to 38 million pounds. The 2001-06 harvests have ranged from 23.6 million pounds to 41.6 million pounds.
Some industry insiders also believe the recent smaller harvests are being caused at least in part by lower fishing effort, as marketing has become more of a challenge. Picking houses are disappearing, and prices have been more or less stagnant for several years.
The North Carolina Division of Marine Fisheries reckons the 2006 harvest will be worth $16.4 million dollars, a best estimate based on 2005 prices, according to Don Hesselman, the division's statistics coordinator.
Georgia is one of the blue crab market's small players. But beginning about 2001, the crab fishery there was the focus of a drama that pitted a few tenacious crabbers against proposals from within the state Department of Natural Resources that would have — the crabbers say — destroyed the commercial crab fishery.
With the help of a few key state government allies, the crabbers thwarted the most extreme of the proposals until the recovery they had been predicting vindicated their position. From a low of about 2 million pounds in 2003, the harvest had increased to 4.3 million pounds by 2005.
The recovery is continuing in the 2006-07 season, although "barely enough rain" during the past few months appears to be depressing the harvest somewhat, says crabber David Karwacki.
Despite unpredictable cycles, Gulf of Mexico and South Atlantic crab stocks always seem to rebound. The Gulf States Marine Fisheries Commission is collecting post–Hurricane Katrina data to determine crab abundance across the Gulf. However, the process is just beginning, and no analyses are yet available.
Discussions with various sources since Katrina suggest that for all the destruction the hurricanes inflicted upon the region, the 2005 storms have had little or no detrimental effect on crab populations, though access and shoreside facilities certainly suffered.
Far more worrisome for the long run is the chronic hemorrhage of the U.S. domestic crab market relative to imports.
— Hoyt Childers
NMFS wants midwater trawl fleet offshore, but can they take the bait?
With political battles over herring done for the moment, lobster fishermen are braced for higher bait prices, and trawler captains are learning the fine points of purse seining in the Gulf of Maine.
Some predict the closure of Area 1A in the inshore gulf to herring midwater and pair trawls will be a classic case study of unintended consequences in fisheries management.
"Hang onto your wallets this summer," warned Jennie Bichrest of Purse Line Bait in Phippsburg, Maine, during a daylong March 1 public session at the Maine Fishermen's Forum in Rockport, Maine. The session examined fallout from herring restrictions.
Others believe the enforced return to purse seining and other traditional gear will benefit coastal communities and the ecosystem, if at a higher initial cost to the lobster fleet.
"Basically, we've seen a precipitous drop since the midwater trawlers came in," said John Stanley, a fisherman from Mount Desert Island who uses a stop seine to take herring. "Everyone hopes the fish will come back. I guess we're going to find out in these next couple of seasons."
The sardine market for traditional Down East fixed gear fishing is greatly diminished. But at $4 per bushel for sardines versus $15 per bushel for bait, it's not much of a contest anymore.
"I spend $15,000 a year on herring [for bait], so I'd like to catch some myself," Stanley remarked.
People in the herring trawl fleet — which now has some boats re-gearing to enter Area 1A as purse seiners — say the lobster fishery drives their business. Not much herring now gets shipped overseas to export markets, said Jeff Kaelin, a longtime industry consultant.
"There's very little frozen product going overseas. The world [market] is flooded," he said. "What you have is a whole lot of lobster traps, and a lot of demand."
Lobsterman Bob Baines, president of the Spruce Head (Maine) Fishermen's Cooperative, estimates his annual bait bill went from $15,000 in 2001 to $35,000 last year. That domestic market has owners of big boats determined not to be shut out of inshore Maine waters by the Area 1A restriction, nor lose offshore permits under limited access rules the New England Fishery Management Council adopted last year. At least three offshore vessels appear to be shut out by qualification criteria.
Trawl fleet representatives said they will go to federal court and challenge the limited access rules. For inshore Maine waters, they're re-equipping and retraining to use purse seines.
"All it has done is force people to spend money to participate," said David Ellenton of Cape Seafoods in Gloucester, Mass. He predicts purse seines will take just as many herring as the big boats could have with trawl gear.
But those inshore harvest numbers could decrease again next year.
Already, the inshore gulf's allowable catch has been reduced from 60,000 to 50,000 metric tons. Now NMFS wants to drop the Area 1A harvest down another 5,000 metric tons, to 45,000 in 2008-09. The agency's proposed rule would shift that 5,000 metric tons of catch out to offshore Area 3 on Georges Bank, raising the maximum catch there to 60,000 metric tons next year.
The New England council wants observer coverage on one of every five offshore herring trips to monitor bycatch — the fleet's accidental take of haddock there has been an issue. Yet all the conflict in the Gulf of Maine makes a powerful incentive to push the herring fleet offshore.
Some fishermen accuse NMFS of making an arbitrary move to drop the Area 1A catch. Pat Kurkul, the agency's Northeast regional administrator, said the 2007 50,000-metric ton limit was itself a compromise by the council. Risk analysis showed the limit had only a minimal chance of staying within the goals for maintaining maximum sustainable yield.
"This is a healthy fishery, and we want to make sure it stays that way," Kurkul said.
Fishermen's correlations of ecological change to the herring fishery led the push to restrict trawlers.
"We can't say that it's due to a decline in herring... but it dovetails perfectly" with the arrival of midwater trawls, said Lexi Krause, a Rockport, Maine, tuna harpooner.
Herring make up 50 percent or more of bluefin tunas' diet. But by virtue of their numbers, dogfish and groundfish are by far the biggest natural predators on herring, said scientist Bill Overholtz of the Northeast Fisheries Science Center, whose team prepared a sort of predators' budget for Northeast herring.
Fish and marine mammals consume about 300,000 metric tons of herring a year, scientists say. Humans, on the other hand, catch around 100,000 metric tons, the scientists estimate.
— Kirk Moore
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