Written by Jen Finn
Bushel of bait still a big-ticket item for lobstermen in the Gulf of Maine
Even in this economy lobstermen shouldn't expect herring prices in 2009 to fall below a newly established floor in the lower $20s per bushel, between the downsized quota for the nearshore Gulf of Maine and various restrictions.
But when their areas were open, purse seiners and midwater trawlers did well in 2008, and saw good catches in early 2009.
"The winter's been going fine, if the weather would cooperate. Area 2 has been better than usual... They've caught about 65 percent [of the area quota] and there's about 9,000 metric tons left," says Mary Beth Tooley of the Small Pelagics Group of fishing vessel owners.
Along with lots of herring last year, pogies were plentiful, too. They provided a bait alternative. Jennie Bichrest of Purse Line Bait in Phippsburg, Maine, says there's hope the menhaden will book a return engagement this season.
"The pogies took a lot of the pressure off," says Bichrest, who orders that bait from New Jersey and Virginia suppliers but had lots of local supply, too, in 2008. "I have a lot of guys who would rather use pogies," and they were able to save 3 cents a pound compared to herring, she says.
"If we have pogies again in Casco Bay there could be some price slashing," Bichrest says. Substitution can only help lobstermen, who nervously eye hovering lobster prices, and see a collapse of 2008 diesel costs as a sole bright spot.
At public meetings this winter the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission offered more ways to parcel out the 45,000-metric-ton quota for nearshore Area 1A, where purse seining is the primary fishery three days a week from June through September. It's down from 60,000 metric tons a few years ago, and pair trawlers can't fish there before Oct. 1, the result of a fierce debate that pitted various commercial and recreational sectors in a political catfight.
Now the problem lies in smoothing out a supply that had rough patches in 2008 when days-out and spawning closures prompted shortages.
"They have some tools to stretch the season out," says Patrice McCarron, executive director of the Maine Lobstermen's Association. But closures have made the bait business chaotic the last two years. At times in latter 2008, "there was literally no bait to sell," McCarron says. "But when it started flowing, there was plenty of it."
This year, 72.8 percent of Area 1A's quota is reserved for June through September, with the remaining 27.2 percent saved for October through December. Regulators are leaning toward a trimester allotment for 2010, with 62.8 percent of the quota slated for June-September.
Prices around $20 to $22 a bushel are about double what they were five years ago.
"There's only so much you can do when there's not enough fish to go around," Tooley says. "I think we're going to be stuck with this mess for a while."
As spring approached, representatives from Maine, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts were to meet and hash through plans for days-out and other measures to optimize the Area 1A herring supply.
The New England Fishery Management Council continues to wrestle with Amendment 4 to the herring plan, a planned monitoring regime that could be costly to fishermen if industry critics get their wish for near 100 percent observer reporting.
The Pew Environment Group-funded Herring Alliance called for 100 percent coverage, estimating it could be done for $600 to $700 per sea day, charged as 3 to 3.5 percent of an estimated $20 million annual fleet revenue.
Industry advocates argue such coverage is unjustified without any new biological evidence that herring boats are straining the resource or causing more bycatch problems. Instead of its onetime demand for full at-sea observer coverage, the CHOIR Coalition, another midwater trawling critic made up of fishermen and ecotourism businesses, called for "maximized retention" of all herring caught and a rigorous dockside monitoring program like Alaska uses to verify catches.
This June a new herring stock assessment comes out, and the council will set a 2010 total allowable catch — followed by "a three-year specification package," Tooley says. Doing so would at least give fishermen some consistency for business planning.
Maine fishermen were briefly startled in February when a bill was introduced in the state Legislature to ban dragging for bait fish within two miles of shore, a measure that sponsor Rep. Linda Valentino (D-Saco) said was suggested by a recreational fishing constituent. But the bill fizzled; at a first committee hearing, recreational captains testified against the measure, saying Maine doesn't have a problem with its small-mesh bait fisheries. — Kirk Moore
Gulf/South Atlantic Blue Crab
North Carolina watermen enjoy spoils of 50 percent increase in crab harvest
After years of shrinking landings, made all the more worrisome by the near collapse of the Chesapeake Bay crab fishery, North Carolina watermen finally had a good year in 2008.
Not only did landings spike from a dismal 20.6 million pounds to 31.6 million pounds, but the overall price for hard crab appears to be at least holding steady, based on preliminary information from the North Carolina Division of Marine Fisheries.
With 2008 landings increasing at least 50 percent over 2007, it would be good news for hard-pressed Tar Heel watermen if the average price does indeed hold at the 2007 level of 88 cents a pound when the numbers are finalized.
"The guys have been doing better," says Scott Crosson, socioeconomics program manager for the Division of Marine Fisheries. "The prices have been going up steadily for the past few years."
Healthy demand for North Carolina hard crab no doubt benefits from the shortage of product in the Chesapeake, in addition to disruption of the Louisiana supply by yet another season of back-to-back hurricanes, with Gustav and Ike slamming the central Gulf Coast in September.
Most hard crab from North Carolina, Louisiana and the smaller crab-producing states in the South now goes to northern live crab markets. The picked meat market has pretty much been ceded to the imports. It is now the live crab — or basket crab — market that sustains the fishery.
"Our picking houses are mostly gone now," Crosson says. "Even the ones we have are having trouble getting labor."
Sean McKenna, a biologist with the fisheries department, says it is very difficult to determine the cause of cycles in the blue crab fishery. The drop in landings in recent years was in part caused by economic rather than biological factors, as reduced effort coincided with the disappearance of the picking houses.
The current number of North Carolina crab harvesters, about 1,000, is a fraction of the number of harvesters working during the peak years, McKenna says.
But biology is a factor, with the North Carolina coastal drought of recent years probably contributing to harvest declines.
"I think it's a lot of little things," McKenna says. Salinity levels, related displacement of crab populations and reduced effort probably all play roles.
Regardless of the cause, biologists and watermen alike were relieved when the 2008 harvest rose dramatically from the 30-year low of 2007.
In Louisiana, though the hurricanes of 2005 and 2008 have been a factor in declining effort, the problems of the fishery are market- rather than stock-oriented, says Vince Guillory, a blue crab specialist with the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries.
Official state numbers for 2008 were not yet available, but Guillory says landings through November were down about 12 percent from slightly more than 44 million pounds in 2007.
"2008 is what I would consider an average year," he says.
"Our fishing effort has been steadily declining since 1999," Guillory adds. "The total number of trips has also declined."
As in North Carolina, reduced effort has paralleled the decrease in crab houses, and the market focus has shifted from picked crab meat to the basket crab market in the East.
"We see the same thing; the number of processing plants is steadily declining," he says. "What's keeping the crab going right now is shipments of live crab. The live crab does not have competition from imports."
Preliminary, incomplete numbers from NMFS show average Louisiana hard crab prices increasing to near a dollar a pound for 2008 from about 80 cents a pound in 2007.
Live crab may be keeping the domestic fishery in business, but overwhelming imports of picked meat leave fishermen with few options for selling culls that don't measure up for the basket market.
In an effort to maximize profits and demand for Louisiana crab, a Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries task force is looking into obtaining Marine Stewardship Council certification.
"More and more of the market is looking for certified seafood," Guillory says.
One Louisiana processor has hired a consultant to determine whether certification would be worthwhile.
"None of the blue crab fisheries are certified right now," Guillory says.
In Florida, the third-biggest crab producer south of the Chesapeake, the 2008 hard crab price was very strong at $1.20 a pound, though preliminary numbers suggest the 2008 harvest was well off the 10.3 million pounds of 2007. — Hoyt Childers
Alaska/Pacific Pacific Cod
Economic crunch pops P-cod balloon; fast fishing pace stymies sardine fleet
Last year might mark the apex of Pacific cod ex-vessel prices as markets in the United States and abroad react to strangled economics.
Meanwhile, West Coast sardine seiners have healthy markets — but not much fish to send their way.
The collapse among banks that have traditionally extended credit lines throughout the seafood distribution chain has shaken confidence among those trying to move cod products. Since the season began Jan. 1, processors haven't offered ex-vessel prices anywhere near what they were willing to pay last year.
Alaska Department of Fish and Game data shows last year's statewide average ex-vessel prices for cod hit 56 cents per pound, up sharply from the 44 cents per pound of 2007 and the 36 cents per pound fishermen saw in 2006. In some cases, fishermen in Kodiak and elsewhere received ex-vessel offers north of 60 cents.
This year, fishermen plying the Gulf of Alaska during the parallel cod season — a combined state- and federal-water fishery Fish and Game manages — only received ex-vessel offers of around 30 cents. In late January as the fleet began delivering more fish, prices slid even further.
"They were 30 cents," says Bob Alverson, executive director of the Fishing Vessel Owners' Association in Seattle. "Then they dropped to a quarter, and now the guys are getting 18."
Iceland's increasing Atlantic cod production affects the ex-vessel offerings. Iceland, too, faces an economic crunch. And as part of a cod-driven stimulus package, its 2009 harvest quota rose from the original total of 130,000 metric tons to 160,000 metric tons. That will put more Atlantic cod — a direct Pacific cod competitor — into world markets.
"There's too much supply," Alverson says. Given global demand, Alverson is confident the industry will liquidate inventories, but at a compromise in value.
"It will move," Alverson says of this year's P-cod harvest. "But the question is, at what price?"
Meanwhile, Alaska's overall Pacific cod production could decline slightly from last year. Though the 2009 Bering Sea quota increased from 2008's 170,000 metric tons to 176,540 metric tons, the Gulf of Alaska quota dropped from 2008's 50,269 metric tons to 41,807 metric tons.
This year's Bering Sea pollock quota reduction will shorten whitefish supplies, and P-cod could fill the void. Alverson says species winding up as fish sticks might fare better in an ailing economy than species headed for white tablecloth restaurants.
Sardine fleets plying the waters off California, meanwhile, have a lot less quota this year. Fishermen are feeling the sting of a coastwide harvest reduction from more than 152,000 metric tons in 2007 to 89,000 metric tons in 2008 to the 60,000 metric tons on tap for 2009.
"It's down significantly again, which is painful," says Diane Pleschner-Steele, executive director of the California Wetfish Producers Association, in Buellton, Calif.
Worse yet, this year's seasonal split of the allocation — around 23,000 metric tons for the period between Jan. 1 and June 30 — aligned with a fast-paced harvest early on in the fishery. That convinced fisheries managers to err on the side of caution and close the first season by Feb. 19.
"The fishing had been going great guns in January, and then the weather came down," Pleschner-Steele says. "They closed it on us with a couple thousand tons yet coming."
That 2,000 metric tons of uncaught quota will be added to the second half allocation split when the fishery reopens on July 1. But until then, the sardine fishery's absence leaves seiners with few economic alternatives other than to chase anchovies, squid or find some other line of work.
Adding to the anxiety while they wait is that sardine production worldwide has been sagging; the shortage has markets offering higher ex-vessel prices.
Larger, higher-priced sardines in the 175- to 200-gram range have become scarce in recent years. Hence, fewer fish in the 80- to 100-gram range are going to tuna farms and more are winding up in cans. Ex-vessel prices, Pleschner-Steele says, climbed to around $150 per short ton and even close to $200 for fish larger than 125 grams.
New methodology in biomass estimates offers hope for better seasons ahead, Pleschner-Steele says. The traditional model has been based on sardine spawn deposition. But incorporating hydro-acoustic surveys of the fish at other times of the year could yield a more accurate, if not optimistic, picture of the harvestable biomass. — Charlie Ess
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