NORTHEAST YEAR IN REVIEW
Scallop prices stand the gaff despite recession; lobstermen have questions
Scallops stood up to the recession with $8-a-pound prices for extra- large and $5.50 for U-20s and U-30s this winter.
Nonetheless, 2009 ended on a down beat for scallopers after the New England Fishery Management Council's reduced days at sea in November. (The reduction would be reversed several weeks later after New England politicians forced a rehearing on the quota.)
Lobster prices in late 2009 edged up to $3 after hitting lows of around $2.40 in August. But lobstermen got little relief from the retreat in fuel prices, thanks to herring prices in excess of $20 a bushel.
The sustained low-price squeeze was blamed by some observers for a flaring of territorial disputes among Maine lobstermen, including a shooting on Matinicus Island.
Law enforcement and lobstermen worked to tamp down those problems, but low prices bred more mistrust between lobstermen and dealers. The Maine attorney general's office says it will look into complaints from a group of Washington County lobstermen who say their dealers engaged in price fixing, and in Canada, Prince Edward Island fishermen sought a government inquiry into their lowest prices in 25 years.
Look for scientists' reassessments of "data-poor" species like scup and black sea bass to yield some improvement in the harvests for those species, which were thought to be overfished, based on previous population models
The new reckoning put scup at 130 percent of its rebuilding target. That boosted the 2009 allowable landings by more than 50 percent, to 11.18 million pounds, with a better chance to recover markets for a sometimes-$2 species.
Chesapeake Bay watermen contended with a one-third reduction in the female crab harvest and Virginia's decision to end the winter dredge fishery. A 33 percent increase in the estimate for over-wintering crabs was the best number seen since 2005.
Prices in the basket trade topped $100 a bushel for early arrivals but were more often around $30, watermen said. The recession brought prices for picked crabmeat — imported and local — below $18, down from pre-crash prices of $23.
Oyster prices in the Chesapeake and Delaware Bay ranged from a high of $41 a bushel in New Jersey to a low of $22 in Tangier Sound once the season built up supply. Chesapeake watermen began to split off in different strategies for staying in oysters, as Maryland restricted more public bottom for oyster sanctuary and both states finally ended the idea of introducing Asian oysters.
Surf clam prices remained unchanged at $12 to $13 a bushel, and the industry is likely to stay in a holding pattern until the economy improves, and with it the climate for seafood restaurant chains.
On the other hand, loligo squid fishermen continued to benefit from steady domestic demand and slightly less competition from abroad following a collapse of Argentina's southwest Atlantic squid fishery. Prices stayed on par with 2008, around 75 cents to 90 cents for medium tubes and $1.20 or better for large squid.
That lowly squid could keep its price in this recession showed how calamari has been mainstreamed into the American diet, longtime squid specialists say. In 2010, Northeast fishermen may sell even more, thanks to a new system for carrying untaken quota forward between the trimester seasons.
The Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council will try moving unused January-April quota to the second and third trimesters. That should help keep squid crews working later in the year and capturing the 30 percent to 50 percent of the quota that has gone unused in some years.
The northern shrimp stock continues to show its robust 2005 year class and regulators set another six-month season that continues to May 29. But a decline in demand for shrimp from the northwest Atlantic in the United Kingdom hurt Maine and Canada, where major processors shut down their shrimp lines because of inventory gluts that persisted into the summer.
Prices to the fishermen remained depressed at 35 to 45 cents. Gulf of Maine shrimp lost a lot of market share in the past decade to the worldwide oversupply of cultured warm-water shrimp. However, the industry is keeping its eye on inventive community-supported fisheries programs in Maine ports that offer weekly subscriptions to fresh local shrimp for as little as $1.50 a pound.
"The 2006 year-class continues to be very weak and will likely be unavailable in significant numbers as 5-year-olds for the 2011 season," the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission's shrimp section forecast. "However, the 2007 and 2008 year-classes exhibited average strength when compared to past years of the survey." — Kirk Moore
ALASKA & PACIFIC YEAR IN REVIEW
Processors, feeling squeeze, spend less, want more
A sagging economy in the United States and abroad put a crimp in seafood consumption in grocery stores, restaurants and at dinner tables in 2009.
The same economic woes also limited the amount of credit bankers were willing to extend to processors, forcing them to buy more fish with less money, which translated to reduced ex-vessel prices.
In that vein, Pacific cod fishermen received 20 cents per pound, about a third of what they'd fetched in 2008. Halibut and blackcod fleets experienced a slightly different situation. The majority of halibut funnels through markets in the United States while an estimated 70 percent of the blackcod winds up in Japan.
Less disposable income in the United States meant less dining out, a dampening factor for halibut prices. Skimpy and well-timed deliveries early in the season held halibut prices up to more than $4 per pound, slightly lower than in 2008.
Though the Japanese economy (where 70-percent of Alaska's blackcod wind up) has also contracted, the relative strength of the yen to the dollar held blackcod prices at roughly 50 cents per pound higher than the average $4.70 per pound they received in 2008.
With the catastrophic salmon-run failure and fishing closures in California, Oregon and parts of Washington, blackcod became a replacement species for salmon in some West Coast restaurants while Alaska fish enjoyed stronger demand in filling the void.
Ex-vessel prices for Alaska salmon seem to have stabilized at around 75 cents per pound for sockeyes as the industry builds new markets to replace the boom years of the 1980s.
Sagging returns of sardines, meanwhile, caused early closures to the fishery in February. West Coast quotas have been dropping steadily through the years, which follows a worldwide trend. If the fish return, markets are hungry, and fishermen can expect ex-vessel prices upward of $150 per short ton.
High-volume whitefish fisheries saw lower ex-vessel prices even in times of worldwide shortages. Alaska's pollock quota was reduced again for 2009, from 1 million metric tons to 815,000 metric tons.
The Pacific whiting fleet experienced an even greater sting as quotas fell almost 50 percent, from 269,500 metric tons in 2008 to 136,000 metric tons last year. At the same time that whiting quotas dropped, ex-vessel prices also slumped, as foreign banks in the business of financing cod and whiting processors went broke.
Pollock fillet markets responded to the curbed quota positively at first, but as the price point for fillets remained high and money began to run thin, buyers switched to cheaper substitute species. In the industry's favor is that large domestic school districts have begun placing orders for Alaska single-frozen fillets.
With a bountiful harvest and high ex-vessel prices, West Coast squid went for a good ride in 2009. Harvests had made a gradual slide from around 49,000 metric tons in 2005 to 36,600 in 2008, but in 2009 the fleet caught more than 59,000 metric tons.
Ex-vessel prices during the same period have climbed from $500 per short ton to last year's $700 and settled out at around $600 in 2009. With squid production waning elsewhere around the globe, fishermen can expect steady demand.
The petrale sole fishery also experienced quota cuts — from around 2,500 metric tons in years past to about half that for 2009. Based upon pessimistic stock-assessment surveys last year, federal regulators launched stringent quota measures for 2010 and reduced petrale sole trip limits to a fraction of what they've been in years past.
Moreover, ex-vessel prices of around 95 cents per pound (similar to years past) have been held in check by tilapia and other substitute species standing ready to fill markets if price point creeps up.
The West Coast's salmon catastrophe continued in 2009 with closures in California. However, no fish there contributed to ex-vessel gains for Alaska's salmon, which were sent south to fill the voids.
Shrimp resources along the West Coast stand to increase as fishermen wait for ex-vessel prices to recover from global economic flutters of late 2008. Prices during the 2008 season averaged 54 cents per pound; last year, the fleet suffered offers of 31 cents.
Live markets bolstered ex-vessel prices for West Coast Dungeness crab. The Dungies fetched around $1.60 per pound at the beginning of the season and wound up at an average of $2.20 for 2009.
Meanwhile, less Russian king crab filtering into domestic markets bolstered ex-vessel prices (to around $5 per pound) for Alaska king crabbers. Quotas stand to decrease in the future, based upon stock- assessment models. — Charlie Ess
GULF/SOUTH ATLANTIC YEAR IN REVIEW
If the 'Great Recession' is over, could someone please let fish buyers know?
The federal government has formally declared the "Great Recession" to be history, but job and seafood markets in the Southeast apparently haven't gotten the news.
One of the region's worst-hit fisheries is Florida spiny lobster, with average ex-vessel prices crashing by at least 50 percent, to $3.20 in 2009, compared with 2009. Reduced tourism, retail sales and restaurant demand all are factors in the sharp decline.
"People weren't buying; they weren't spending the money," said Marathon lobster fisherman Tony Iarocci.
Shrimp news was grim, as well. For most species and most places, year-over-year prices went the wrong way. Prices for the largest shrimp, U-15s, dropped to $2.15 a pound on landings of 67,200 pounds across the Gulf of Mexico, compared with $3.40 a pound on landing of 75,500 pounds for a comparable week in 2008.
Effort appears to be down, as well; short of a trip to known productive waters, many trawlers stay tied to the dock. Speculation wasn't worth the cost.
What good news there was in the Southeast had more to do with politics than with markets or prices. The most-recent stock assessment in the Gulf of Mexico shows red snapper well on its way to statutory recovery, mirroring what fishermen have been observing for at least three years. In Florida, average annual snapper prices, at $3.47, were down slightly compared to $3.51 in 2008, though late in the year fishermen were reporting some very good local prices.
As of Jan. 1, grouper and tilefish came under an individual fishing quota program favored by most fishermen in the Gulf of Mexico. And a 50-fathom shoreside limit that had regulated the longline fleet out of productive shallow-water grouper grounds was shifted back to a more reasonable 35 fathoms in the fall.
On the Atlantic side, commercial and charter captains alike, heavily dependent on the snapper-grouper fishery, are waiting to hear what kind of future management intends to allow them. The South Atlantic council has proposed closing down about 10,000 square miles to fishing for the entire 70-plus-species snapper-grouper complex for an indeterminate time period. Meanwhile, an interim rule has already closed down red snapper fishing in the entire Exclusive Economic Zone. The council's schedule calls for the plan to be finalized at its June meeting.
In another political drama, coastal Democrat and Republican members of Congress joined forces to waylay a Food and Drug Administration ruling that would have banned the sale of raw oysters for eight months of the year. Under heavy pressure, the Obama administration backed off the ban that Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) and others said clearly overstepped authority. Gulf oyster-producing areas like Apalachicola Bay, in Florida, are heavily dependent on the summer harvests.
In a victory for the U.S. swordfish fleet, Rebecca Lent, director of the NMFS Office of International Affairs, and other U.S. negotiators were able to achieve what many in the industry feared they could not: The International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas dropped the international total allowable catch for North Atlantic swordfish slightly, from 14,000 metric tons to 13,700 metric tons, in order to maintain a fully rebuilt and sustainable stock while simultaneously maintaining the U.S. baseline quota.
Louisiana blue crab continues to improve, said Vince Guillory, marine-fisheries biologist manager with the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries. Harvest numbers for 2009 are not yet available, but in 2008 the fishery had already managed to scrabble a first place by volume among crab-producing states despite hurricanes Gustav and Ike. Partial year figures for 2009 also are encouraging.
"Preliminary 2009 Louisiana landings through July were approximately 27.6 million pounds, or 20 percent higher than for the same time period in 2008," Guillory said. Resource officials and the industry continue to seek to fill the gap left by the import-driven demise of the picked-meat business.
A Louisiana crab task force is continuing efforts — including a new stock assessment — necessary to get Marine Stewardship Council certification for blue crab.
"The task force, through marketing funds for the crab industry, is attempting to fund a full assessment for MSC certification," Guillory said.
Prices for yellowfin tuna in the Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic and summer flounder in North Carolina appeared to be constrained by the general economic malaise, as did stone crab in Florida, though not to the extremes of spiny lobster. — Hoyt Childers
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