Written by Jen Finn
Sun shines on Florida Keys fisheries,
but not on shrimpers and oystermen
Several Southeastern fisheries did well in 2011, but many fishermen, particularly in the Gulf of Mexico, find their hopes for 2012 balanced with concern.
In the Florida Keys, spiny lobster and stone crab fishermen have been beneficiaries of rare good fortune, with decent prices, no hurricanes and good landings in both fisheries for two years running, a convergence not seen in decades. The 2010-11 season was the best in recent memory, and 2011-12 is shaping up well, too.
"All in all, both spiny lobster and stone crab are on a par with last year," said Bill Kelly, executive director of the Florida Keys Commercial Fishermen's Association near the end of 2011. "The price on lobster just took a jump; stone crab is holding good."
Gulf of Mexico snapper fishermen also had a good year. Red snapper prices held strong throughout the year, and the commercial quota increased about 4 percent, to 3.66 million pounds. It was also an excellent year for vermilion snapper in the eastern Gulf.
Market and management news likewise favored red grouper, with the commercial quota increasing by nearly a million pounds — to 5.23 million — as prices remained strong throughout the year.
And the South Atlantic, with good landings and decent prices for both brown and white shrimp, proved an exception to an otherwise fair-to-poor shrimp year.
Gulf shrimpers didn't fare so well. Overall, 2011 landings from all commercial species of shrimp — the great bulk of which are browns, whites and pinks — were disappointing. This is evident in federal statistics and confirmed by dockside reports from Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana.
The winter white shrimp season, especially, was a loss, one of the worst in decades with whites simply not showing up as expected in many places. Price was flat or up a bit for most sizes in most areas compared to previous years. But with diesel fuel back in the $3.50 range, profit margins are slim.
The oyster fishery remains in post-oil-spill recovery mode, with field reports from oystermen of low spat in some areas, and spotty openings and closures on Louisiana oyster reefs, depending on local conditions. Adding to harvester's woes were extremely low salinity caused by fresh water flooding in the spring out of the Mississippi River and drought-induced extremely high salinity in Texas.
Generally, demand was depressed in 2011, said Michael Voisin, a Houma, La., seafood dealer and member of the Louisiana Oyster Task Force. The news was similar for blue crab in Louisiana, normally the region's — and sometimes the nation's — top producer. Neither harvest nor demand was as yet back to normal.
ONES TO WATCH
The Louisiana tuna fleet, after being sidelined much of the year because of uncertain demand and the high cost of running dedicated tuna trips, got back into operation during the last couple of months in 2011, said David Maginnis, vice president of Houma-based Jensen Tuna.
"We probably have 90 percent of the boats working; catch rate has been fair," he said, but the high cost of bait and fuel still make a tuna trip an iffy proposition. Fishermen and industry leaders remain concerned about the 2010 oil spill's effects on spawning.
"We're getting more effort," he said. "The main question I'm really concerned about is what next year and the year after will bring."
The summer flounder fishery — biologically in excellent shape and designated "viable" by the North Carolina Division of Marine Fisheries in 2011 — would be in the winner's column but for a nagging logistical problem. The route to market in the central Outer Bank, through Oregon Inlet between Hatteras Island and Bodie Island, remains very much in doubt as a result of persistent shoaling around the Bonner Bridge, forcing some fishermen to travel north and sell their fish in Virginia.
The Army Corps of Engineers dredged the channel last spring. But the shape and depth of the channel is subject to constant change, and funding for dredging remains an issue.
The yellowfin tuna outlook in North Carolina, generally among the top producers on the Atlantic coast, is also guarded. Very bad weather early in the year limited the activity for the Roanoke Island longline fleet, which also has to transit Oregon Inlet. Then Hurricane Irene and seasonal rough weather continued to disrupt operations, making tuna landings spotty in September. Prices have been good recently, but landings have been on the weak side for about five years. — Hoyt Childers
Scallops strong, herring cuts
go deep, cod woes continue
Scallop prices stayed strong at nearly $12 a pound into early 2012, with consumers now loyal to high quality, fresh "day boat" product in steady supply. After the 2011 earthquake in Japan, Asian markets scrambled to buy shellfish far away from the crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear reactors, and April 2011 dockside prices passed $11 for big East Coast scallops.
Exports to Europe are an uncertain part of the scallop market, given the European Union's economic troubles. When the euro traded at $1.50 in spring 2011, American scallops were comparatively cheap in France. Exports shot up to more than 1.1 million pounds in June, compared to 653,000 pounds in June 2010, according to NOAA trade statistics.
But with the EU's problems this year, scallop sales could fall given a lower euro-to-dollar exchange rate.
Summer flounder's rebound with a strong 2009 year class kept fishermen in the $2 to $2.60 range in late summer 2011. Managers planned a 31.6 million pound 2012 quota, double from the 2008 cutback NOAA decreed when it appeared summer flounder wouldn't meet a legally mandated rebuilding deadline.
But revised scientific advice led to the 2012 quota being pulled back down to 21.90 million pounds, so a return to the glory days is a ways off. Still, NOAA declared the stock fully restored.
Oyster sales continued to grow. Virginia growers estimated 2011 sales of 29 million oysters, a 74 percent annual increase, at 32 cents to 60 cents each for its 90,000-bushel harvest, the best since 1998.
Like summer flounder, scup's recovery is wildly successful by the biological numbers, with a 35 million pound quota this year up from 20 million pounds in 2011. But fishermen won't catch anywhere near those numbers if prices are again at 35 to 75 cents.
The surf clam and ocean quahog industry remains stuck in its trap of increasing costs and more competition in the casual dining and convenience food sectors. Prices have been stuck at $12 to $13 a bushel. But the industry's persistent campaign to open up the rich Georges Bank clam beds, with testing to guard against health risk from paralytic shellfish poisoning, could pay off soon.
Loligo (longfin) squid landings dropped nearly 30 percent in 2010. Yet prices around $1 a pound have been steady even in bad economic times, because calamari has been mainstreamed across the casual-dining market.
The squid fleet is coming under more pressure from the drive to reduce bycatch, especially for declining East Coast river herring populations. Managers are considering time and area closures among methods to keep squid trawls away from Mid-Atlantic winter herring concentrations.
Tighter herring quotas that contributed to the closing of Maine's last sardine cannery in 2010 claimed a freezer business too. The Northern Pelagics Group (Norpel) plant in New Bedford, Mass., closed its herring operation in April with the loss of 80 jobs, a move the company blamed on restrictions over haddock bycatch rules.
In July NOAA officials said they would consider raising the haddock bycatch to 2 percent of the acceptable biological catch, 10 times the 0.2 percent level that the herring trawl fleet bitterly opposes.
ONES TO WATCH
New England groundfish prices were up, $1 higher overall for January cod compared to 2010, a boost that reflected both stormy winds and industry consolidation from catch shares. About 17 percent of the fleet dropped out during 2011 and landings declined 14 percent, according to one analysis by NOAA.
Lobster prices held to a base level of $3 to $3.75, but there's no sign they'll return to pre-Great Recession prices even as the economy recovers. Gulf of Maine herring restrictions make bait more expensive. Meanwhile, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission is preparing a 10 percent catch reduction for southern New England and Mid-Atlantic lobstermen.
Northern shrimp fishermen got a reprieve from early shutdown, when the commission kicked the 2012 season quota up by 211 metric tons over the original 2,000 metric ton limit. That move came in response to fishermen and processors' concerns that they could lose market share after working hard to bring Maine shrimp back. Limited entry and quotas could happen in 2012.
— Kirk Moore
Alaska & Pacific
Dungies and Alaska salmon rock solid;
quotas shock halibut, king crab fleets
The West Coast Dungeness fleet has enjoyed strong recruitment of young crab since 2007. Last year's landings tallied up to 43.4 million pounds, according to the Pacific Fisheries Information Network, and with average ex-vessel prices just under $3 per pound, the fishery posted $128 million in revenues.
Alaska salmon rocked the docks again last year with a total preliminary harvest of 172 million fish. Much of the volume came from Southeast pink salmon, which contributed more than 60 million fish. Better yet was that seiners received around 40 cents per pound for their pinks. Bristol Bay delivered a harvest of 27 million sockeyes, which was weaker than the forecast, but many fishermen reported ex-vessel prices of $1 per pound or more after the season ended.
Blackcod fishermen landed almost all of a 26.8 million pound quota (a slight increase from the 24.9 million pounds of 2010) last year. Fish weighing 7 pounds and up fetched prices north of $8 per pound. The strong yen played a heavy hand in setting the tone of last year's prices, as product sells primarily in Japan.
The Bering Sea pollock fleet recovered from declining quotas of 813,000 metric tons in 2009 and 2010 to harvest a quota of 1.25 million metric tons last year. Legislation calling for increased servings of fish on the menus in public schools and other institutions should firm up domestic markets for fillets.
West Coast whiting trawlers also saw a substantial quota increase from 2010's 193,935 metric tons to last year's 290,903 metric tons. As of December, landings stood at around 102,000 metric tons with average ex-vessel prices of 10 cents per pound.
Shrimpers on the West Coast enjoyed their fourth best season on record last year. With very short tows, boats were able to load up, and the fleet landed more than 57 million pounds as of November. Prices held steady at around 50 cents per pound for total revenues of more than $50 million.
In Alaska, a sharp reduction in the harvest quota for red king crab shocked crabbers. Though the industry had expected less than the 13.4 million pound quota of 2010, news of just 7.8 million pounds put a crimp in their season. The strong value of the Japanese yen against the dollar helped some, but not enough to offset the paltry catch.
Halibut fishermen in Alaska know that feeling: They saw their 2011 quota whacked from 40.3 million pounds in 2010 to 30.4 million pounds last year. Ex-vessel prices were higher, topping out at around $7 per pound, but nowhere commensurate to the decline in harvest volume.
ONES TO WATCH
Petrale sole fishermen landed around 700 metric tons of a 976 metric ton quota last year and received an average ex-vessel price of $1.39 per pound. Strong representation of younger fish bode for quota increases to around 1,160 metric tons this year and possibly double that in 2013 and 2014.
According to PacFIN, sardine seiners landed 46,614 metric tons of a 50,526 metric ton quota in 2011. Ex-vessel prices hit an average $200 per ton, up from $160 per ton in 2010.
For the first time since 2007, West Coast salmon fishermen had a plausible season last year. Landings of 1.13 million pounds and average ex-vessel prices of $4.36 per pound made for gross revenues of more than $5 million for trollers in California.
Herring seiners at Sitka came within tons of catching the largest quota in history, at 19,490 tons. Problem was, ex-vessel prices tanked from an average $720 per ton in 2010 to $175 per ton.
In light of waning demand for kazunoko in Japan, the West Coast herring industry sent some of its 1,920 tons to chefs and restaurants to develop menu items that might become a delicacy and bolster domestic demand.
Colder waters on the West Coast made for a bountiful squid season last year. The fleet landed around 89,000 metric tons at ex-vessel prices of 25 cents per pound for gross revenues of $48.7 million.
— Charlie Ess
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