Written by Jen Finn
Gulf/South Atlantic Flounder
Oregon Inlet dredging issues resolved, N.C. ports relieved to be open for fall
Market prospects are encouraging for the Mid-Atlantic flounder fishery. North Carolina participants hope a navigational nightmare that spoiled an otherwise decent 2010-11 season won't trouble the fall fishery.
The largest summer flounder quotas in years reflect a stock that is all but officially rebuilt, and average ex-vessel prices are holding firm even as the supply increases. But shoaling between Hatteras and Bodie islands on the North Carolina Outer Banks closed down the economically critical Oregon Inlet for weeks preceding the April 15 end of summer flounder fishing.
Without Oregon Inlet, sound-side seafood houses on the mid-Carolina coast, especially those on Roanoke Island and in Manteo, are land-locked. Hatteras Inlet is too far to the south, so vessels unable to transit Oregon Inlet must steam north to Virginia to sell their fish.
Normally, a handful of boats might be diverted to Virginia to because of shoaling, weather or other problems. This year it happened more than 150 times because of shoaling alone, and the state lost millions in commercial harvests.
"It has been devastating," says Mark Vrablic, vice president of Willie R. Etheridge Seafood Co. in Wanchese on Roanoke Island. "It ended flounder season; we lost out on March and April."
Shoaling has been a problem for years, but the Army Corps of Engineers normally is able to keep the channel open with more-or-less constant dredging. Dredging this season fell victim to recession-born budget constraints.
"All we hear is no money, no money," Vrablic says. "What we need is a jetty."
The jetty debate has continued for decades, as have erosion and shoaling around the inlet and the 2 1/2-mile Herbert C. Bonner Bridge ever since it opened in 1963.
The good news is that by mid-May 2011 the corps had dredged the channel back to a minimum 11 feet, sufficient for most of the commercial vessels that use the inlet. At this point, fishermen can only hope weather and currents that promote shoaling will moderate and dredging resources will be adequate.
Sean McKeon, president of the North Carolina Fisheries Association, says he has been told that the Army Corps will have enough money to fund the dredging in the fall and into 2012.
"They have gotten some additional money," McKeon says. "They are going to be able to keep a dredge there through February and March."
Prior to the failure of Oregon Inlet, the summer flounder season was decent, Vrablic says.
"Flounder, it was good while it lasted," he says. "Last price we paid to the boat was $1.25 or $1.50; the market stayed pretty stable."
As of the closing of the spring fishery, approximately 27 percent — or nearly a million pounds — of the annual quota remained for the fall fishery. Having extra fish for the fall season is good news, assuming Oregon Inlet remains navigable.
North Carolina fishermen enjoy the largest share — or 27.5 percent — of the Atlantic summer flounder commercial quota, which was raised to 17.29 million pounds. Thanks to the success of the rebuilding program, the summer flounder stock is expected to meet a 2013 federal deadline for full recovery.
State officials say more than a million pounds of North Carolina's 2011 harvest had to be sold in Virginia because of Oregon Inlet problems.
"That," Vrablic says, "don't do much for the home team."
Southern flounder (Paralichthys lethostigma), which is caught mostly inshore with gillnets or pound nets, remains overfished, according to the North Carolina Division of Marine Fisheries.
Despite restrictions, 2008 National Fisherman Highliner Tilman Gray, owner of Avon Seafood in Avon, says he did well with southern flounder in the fall.
"It probably averaged $1.75 a pound," Gray says. "We had a great winter, too." — Hoyt Childers
Exchange rate, Japan earthquake send prices soaring and U.S. product abroad
A strong euro and weaker dollar, along with the earthquake in Japan and the Fukushima Daiichi reactor accident, sent scallop prices climbing sharply when Asian buyers wanted anything but shellfish from Japan.
Radiation from the crippled power plants posed much more of a problem to nearby communities than to the ocean ecosystem, experts say. But consumer perception ruled in East Asia. Within two weeks customers' concerns showed up as higher prices on the other side of the globe.
Japan, China and Chile are the Pacific rim's top scallop producers. An undersea pulse from the Japan tsunami was powerful enough to rip up Chilean scallop farms. With so much unease, demand soon telegraphed its way into prices for American East Coast scallops, driving prices up $2 to past $11.50 a pound in early April.
By the first week in June prices for big scallops were still around $11 a pound and 20/30-count pounds were sold at New Bedford, Mass., for around $9.60, according to NOAA market reports.
Even before the tsunami, prices had been escalating as the stronger euro, worth nearly $1.50 American, made U.S. scallops attractive to European buyers. Steady supply from a healthy resource feeds a remarkably strong domestic market, even after nearly three years of a brutal economy.
"It's a user-friendly seafood that doesn't need a lot of preparation. Scallops have had a lot of exposure on cooking shows and magazines in the last few years and that's helped tremendously," says Erik Orman at Tempest Fisheries Ltd. in New Bedford.
Exports to Europe and "the weakness of the dollar against the euro has encouraged a lot of that market," particularly in France, Orman says.
"It's not a shortage," he says. "The industry has never looked better. We're projected to harvest 55 million pounds, which is pretty much what it was last year."
Demand far exceeds domestic supply in France. Consumption there ramped up to a record when the French ate 180,000 metric tons and spent 210 million euros (around $251 million) on imported scallops in 2009, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization.
The temptations of high prices have brought on some problems with mislabeling and short weights, according to the American Scallop Association. In late 2010, the association said it would begin using outside auditors to check for problems, and work with federal and state agencies to fight fraud.
During a mid-decade boom in the 400-pound day-boat scallop trade, business was brisk but prices at times went as low as $6 to boats. However, many small boats are gone, eliminated by limited access rules.
High prices factored into NOAA's decision not to reopen the Nantucket Lightship Access Area as had been scheduled for June 15, a move the New England Fishery Management Council and industry advocates had recommended.
An opening might have led to fishermen exceeding the area's allocated annual catch limits for both scallops and yellowtail flounder, triggering accountability measures, and could have confounded the fishery's highly successful system of rotational area management, council chairman John Pappalardo said in the council's letter requesting the emergency action.
The lightship area is one where yellowtail flounder bycatch is a limiting factor for the scallop fleet. The extraordinary scallop prices could attract far more fishermen than expected to an opening and exceed the limits, Drew Minkiewicz of the industry group Fisheries Survival Fund said in a joint statement with NOAA.
A delay in implementing Framework 22 to the scallop management plan would have led to "last year's paperwork rolling over" to allow the opening, had not industry advocates lobbied the administration and Congress for emergency action, says Harriet Didriksen, a New Bedford vessel owner: "It's for the best because that's one problem that's off the table." — Kirk Moore
Alaska & Pacific Whiting
Clean fishing and new cooperative top priorities for fleet choked by rockfish
A larger quota, a shore-based IFQ regime and the formation of a mothership cooperative under the newly implemented trawl rationalization program spell changes for the West Coast whiting fleet this season.
One such change is a smaller fleet. A 2004 groundfish buyback program thinned the fleet from 263 to 171 vessels. And according to the Amendment 20 final environmental impact statement released in June 2010, further trimming is anticipated, though it's unclear exactly how much smaller the groundfish fleet will become.
The program promises changes in how the remaining boats conduct business and how each vessel's allocations of bycatch species — mainly rockfish — will affect its whiting harvest.
"It's complex," says Dave Fraser, owner of the fishing vessel Muir Milach and manager of the Whiting Mothership Cooperative in Seattle. "It's an adventure in bycatch management."
This year's commercial whiting quota of 220,995 metric tons dwarfs last year's quota of 157,000 metric tons.
As for suballocations of the quota, the mothership fleet will chip away at 53,039 metric tons. Catcher-processors were awarded 75,138 metric tons, and the shore-based sector will fish on 92,818 metric tons. The tribal fleet allocation is 66,908 metric tons, and another 3,000 tons is set aside for research.
But despite the larger whiting quota, respective allocations of rockfish species haven't changed. Exceeding the quota for rockfish species, especially some slow-growing ones with very limited quotas, could cause the whiting fishery to close prematurely.
That means trawlers will have to fish squeaky clean to maximize their whiting catch. According to Kevin Duffy, the groundfish branch chief of NMFS' Sustainable Fisheries Division, in Seattle, darkblotched, canary and widow rockfish pose the greatest concern to the whiting fleet.
"Last year, with substantially less whiting to catch it was difficult enough," Fraser says. "Boats are really going to have to be careful to take this year's allocation of whiting and not hit the bycatch limits."
In their favor, allocations of shares among mothership operators and the March formation of a single 36-catcher-boat cooperative should slow the fishery's pace.
"It was classic derby fishing last year," Fraser adds. "We basically took our quota in three weeks."
Likewise, vessel owners from the shore-based sector who were awarded their respective whiting and rockfish quota shares are expected to spread the harvest throughout the season.
That's the theory. What transpires as the inaugural shore-based IFQ season progresses is anybody's guess, says Pete Leipzig, executive director of the Fishermen's Marketing Association in McKinleyville, Calif.
"The processing plants are geared up to process fish for a certain period," he says. "I think the harvest will stretch out, but I don't think it will go from an eight-week season to a 24-week season."
Fraser says that in May just eight of the mothership boats had been fishing. The remainder of the fleet was planning trips for later in the season.
As for changes in market dynamics with a big quota and new harvest regime, that too is an unknown, Leipzig says.
Japan was a major taker when a more sizable portion of the whiting harvest went into surimi production. But the earthquake and tsunami there may increase demand for whitefish species to supplement decreased production from Japan's domestic fisheries.
Early deliveries this year brought trawlers 22 cents per pound. Average ex-vessel prices settled at 7 cents last year versus 6 cents per pound in 2009 and 10 cents per pound in 2008.
In May it was too early to tell how strong ex-vessel prices would average out over the season. But Leipzig ventures that they were expected to wind up a bit higher than last year.
"I think there's a general sense of optimism, that prices will be up," he says. — Charlie Ess
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