National Fisherman

Gulf/South Atlantic Year in Review

Spiny lobster, stone crab enjoy banner year, but oil spill erodes demand for gulf seafood

Few Gulf of Mexico fisheries escaped harm during the terrible summer of 2010. Most that appear in our market graphic's "Losers" column do so courtesy of the BP/Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Even those that didn't suffer direct biological damage suffered huge losses in the marketplace as consumers shied away from gulf seafood.

Now, beyond immediate biological harm and market trauma, the possible long-term effects on gulf ecosystems, habitats and marine resources remain a troubling unknown.

But two south Florida fisheries not only survived but appeared likely — at the end of 2010 — to achieve extraordinary seasons, combining excellent prices and bountiful harvests for the first time in years. Spiny lobster and stone crab, most of which are caught in south Florida, were doing well after years of sporadic high hopes and disappointment.

Both fisheries are biologically healthy. But hurricanes, economic cycles and dependence on tourism have made prices and landings highly volatile in recent years.

However, 2010 was a welcome respite from the norm. The oil never came within 400 miles of the Florida Keys. Hurricanes never seriously threatened. And tourists began to come back to South Florida, perhaps because the state's peninsular West Coast and keys were among the few areas east of Louisiana that the oil spill didn't directly affect.

In mid-January, Bill Kelly, executive director of the Florida Keys Commercial Fishermen's Association, reported that stone crab and lobster harvest and prices remained on an encouraging trajectory.

"Both the spiny lobster and stone crab fisheries continue at a healthy pace with the three most important factors, supply, demand and price, paving the way for what we expect will be a record-breaking season," Kelly said.

Pete Worthington, a Marathon fisherman who gave up crabbing two years ago — after 31 years — when prices were so dismal, reported outstanding lobstering.

"It's been a great season for spiny lobster," Worthington said. "Good catches and great prices. I hope the price holds up next season."
But most fishermen, including those who work the gulf's pre-eminent fishery, weren't as fortunate.

Shrimp, with an annual ex-vessel dollar worth calculated in hundreds of millions rather than tens of millions, is the only Southeastern fishery that rivals major North Pacific fisheries. But it suffered major economic damage during the summer. And fishermen remain extremely concerned about the spill's possible long-term biological effects on shrimp and other species.

In November, more than 40 scientists and fishery experts attending a two-day symposium at the Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota, Fla., to consider the oil spill's long-term implications, concluded such concern is credible.

In effect, the oil spill isn't over.

"Long-term problems caused by the spill are likely to include damaging ripple effects through the marine food web that underpins the health of the Gulf of Mexico," a statement published by Mote reported. "These so-called trophic cascades are chain reactions that can occur when a single key species or multiple species in an ecosystem experience stress or declines in population size, which in turn lead to dramatic shifts in the overall balance of entire ecosystems on regional scales."

Dr. Michael Crosby, the Mote laboratory's senior vice president for research summed up the risk.

"A key finding of this workshop is that we could see trophic cascades starting not just with large, open-ocean species, but also with a wide variety of species throughout the gulf — so we need a risk-management effort throughout the gulf," he said.

Although shrimp landings overall were off dramatically compared to 2009, prices had recovered by November and were in fact better in most all regions late in 2010 than in 2009, according to federal statistics.

Decent prices rekindle hope after what seemed to some — and to others, was — the end of the world as they knew it. But as 2011 progresses, fishermen gulfwide will be cautiously watching both the markets and the water for clues to which future approaches, a return to normalcy or continued oil blight.
—Hoyt Childers

Alaska & Pacific Year in Review

Halibut, blackcod prices hit record levels; West Coast rides on shrimp and Dungies

Fishermen in Alaska won't soon forget record prices for their halibut and blackcod. As the season unfolded last March, bids of up to $6.50 per pound came in for the first loads of flatties.

Better yet, prices stayed well north of the $4 mark throughout the remainder of the season. A stronger yen to the dollar, meanwhile, boosted blackcod prices to above $5 per pound for most of the year.

The San Francisco herring biomass estimate fell to a threshold level, forcing harvesters to sit out the season last year. Since then, biomass has risen considerably, warranting a quota of around 1,900 tons this year.

The harvest at Sitka, Alaska, meanwhile, broke all records for volume and ex-vessel prices. Seiners caught 17,874 tons and averaged $730 per ton at the docks.

West Coast shrimp arrived in droves, and fishermen received around 35 cents per pound, which was up a few cents from the previous year. Preliminary harvest figures indicate around 40 million pounds for California, Oregon and Washington, and signs of strong recruitment bode for an even better 2011 season.

At an average $500 per ton, squid prices fell in 2010. In all, squidders landed more than 51,000 metric tons. In 2009, the fleet received more than $560 per ton and harvested around 92,000 metric tons.

Pacific whiting landings wound up at more than 54,500 metric tons. The catch was up by about 5,000 metric tons from 2009, and the average ex-vessel price of $140 per ton was $20 higher than the year before.

Alaska pollock production hit what the industry hopes will be its low point. Harvest quotas have been ratcheted down from 1.5 million metric tons in 2006 to last year's 813,000 metric tons.

China remains an important player in the pricing of various pollock products, especially fillets.

Pollock products reprocessed into other forms in China again entered markets, competing directly with product coming from the United States. U.S. pollock producers are hoping school lunch programs and other marketing campaigns will increase domestic consumption.

Biomass estimates of petrale sole stocks along the West Coast, meanwhile, went from bad to worse in 2010 as the stock was declared overfished.

Trawlers faced restrictions that included trip limits of 6,300 pounds per two months in '09. The plan was to engage in more rigorous stock assessments last year and adjust trip limits accordingly for 2011 in case implementation of the impending IFQ program got stalled.

The West Coast Dungeness crab fleet hit a good lick at the tail end of '09 to finish off a harvest of nearly 58 million pounds. Last year's total for California, Oregon and Washington came in at around 23 million pounds, and crabbers received an average $2.58 per pound. That was up slightly from the average $2.11 per pound the crab fetched at the docks in 2009.

Alaska's king crab stocks have been declining, and ex-vessel prices have reacted by climbing. In the 2009-10 season, crabbers worked on a quota of 16 million pounds, down from the 20.3 million pound quota of 2008-09, and received more than $5 per pound.

As the 2010-11 season got underway on a quota of 13.4 million pounds, crabbers were getting $6.25 per pound.

The Alaska salmon industry finished up 2010 with ex-vessel revenues of around $534 million. Ex-vessel prices for sockeye averaged $1.11 per pound, and fishermen landing more than 105 million pink salmon were treated to 35 cents per pound at the docks.

Though California had a salmon season for the first time since 2007, fishermen worked on a meager quota of around 27,000 chinooks during late July. In all, the California fleet landed around 262,000 pounds of chinooks for average ex-vessel prices of $5.45.

Fleets in Oregon landed 2.2 million pounds of chinooks, while Washington enjoyed a bountiful sockeye harvest of 11 million pounds. — Charlie Ess


Fluke and blue crab are ready to rebound, but bait, rising fuel prices vex lobstermen

Baby booms in summer flounder and blue crabs could bring two long-troubled fisheries back in 2011, and American consumers' love for sea scallops and loligo squid remains, even amid the great recession.

Yet the lobster industry still struggles to recover, with no help from restrictive herring catch limits and the prospect of escalating fuel and bait prices.

Gulf of Maine shrimp made a strong showing, so much so that the season closed early for the first time in years. Prices, now 45 to 50 cents, were just a dime around the fishery's rock bottom in 2008. But busting the 11 million pound quota in April was a milestone after a moribund decade.

Gulf of Maine shrimp made a strong showing, so much so that the season closed early for the first time in years. Prices, now 45 to 50 cents, were just a dime around the fishery's rock bottom in 2008. But busting the 11 million pound quota in April was a milestone after a moribund decade.

Stagnant prices again bedeviled surf clam and ocean quahog producers in 2010. While calamari remains popular on restaurant menus, fried clams with their dated pedigree are competing with chicken wings and every other inexpensive protein.

Lobster prices finally crept back over the $3 mark — still short of real profitability for the fleet, but with a consistent improvement through the summer, according to dealers and industry associations.

A 53,800 metric ton cut to the herring quota drove up lobster bait costs and sounded a final knell to the Stinson Seafood sardine canning plant in Gouldsboro, Maine. The last canner in America and its 128 jobs had been at risk for years. Owner Bumble Bee acquired it in 2004 with an anti-trust settlement that only required it keep the former Connors Bros. factory open until 2010.

Bait prices near the Prospect Harbor plant were around $11 a bushel in early 2010. The April 18 plant closing had lobstermen and dealers worried about losing its wharf as a supply point.

Just outside New York Harbor, 300 miles to the southwest, New England purse seiners glommed onto a big spring showing of menhaden close to the beach. New Jersey state government reacted quickly by instituting limited-entry rules for 2011.

Doing so ensured that recreational striped bass anglers won't be upset by the sight of those boats in 2011 and New Jersey-based purse seiners and packers will make money shipping pogies north to New England lobstermen.

The Maine Lobstermen's Association calculated that bait prices had escalated tenfold since the 1990s to account for 30 percent of the cost of doing business.

Surveys in Chesapeake Bay showed a 60 percent increase in blue crab numbers. Managers claimed success for implementing conservation measures like ending Virginia's winter dredge fishery.

Likewise, biologists think summer flounder has finally roared back with a 2009 year class estimated at 82 million fish. That's a number not seen since the fishery's boom years of the 1980s. Even the best prices of 2010 around $2 to $2.25 were no improvement over seasons before the recession.

Scup is another stock with improved science and better fishing prospects, but the recession weighed heavily on prices.

Rhode Island fishermen who sell to freezers got 15 to 30 cents a pound compared to 30 to 40 cents a couple of years before. New Jersey draggers with buyers in urban and ethnic fresh markets saw fluctuations from 60 cents to $1.50 but mostly on the lower end.

Sea scallop prices ranged from $6 to $10 on size, down from pre-recession peaks but still very dependable. That didn't help general category permit holders much. They got just 5 percent of the scallop quota under the scallop management plan and found themselves with too little quota to make viable business plans.

Northeast oyster producers didn't receive a windfall out of the Gulf of Mexico oil disaster. Prices for Delaware Bay oysters were around $45 a bushel, just $5 more than in 2009.

Like their southern counterparts, Delaware and Chesapeake oystermen also had to contend with higher costs imposed by state regulators aiming to prevent outbreaks of vibrio contamination during the hot summer of 2010. — Kirk Moore

Inside the Industry

The Northeast Fisheries Science Center has announced that Dr. Jon Hare has been selected to serve as the permanent science and research director effective Oct. 31.

Read more ...

It’s no secret that fraud is a problem in the seafood industry. Oceana repeatedly touts a mislabeling epidemic. While their method has been criticized, the perception of rampant fraud  has been established.

Read more ...
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