Written by Jen Finn
GULF/SOUTH ATLANTIC FLOUNDER
Carolina dealers' loss is Virginia's gain as shoaling woes force quota transfer
North Carolina fishermen retain, at 27.4 percent, the largest share of the Atlantic summer flounder commercial quota of 13.1 million pounds, but it's not doing the state's dealers much good this year.
Chronic shoaling problems at Oregon Inlet on the central Outer Banks has forced vessels that normally work out of ports on the mainland side of the state's vast sounds to land in the next closest commercial fishing port, Virginia Beach, Va. After losing more than $4 million in transfers in 2011, North Carolina has transferred most of its 3.5 million pound 2012 quota to Virginia, leaving, as of late April, only 1.6 million pounds for the remainder of the year.
"It really hurt the people down here," says Steve George, general manager at Willie R. Etheridge Seafood in Wanchese.
North Carolina fishermen can still harvest on the transferred quota but must land their catch in Virginia. Pric es should be about the same, but fuel costs, still in the $3.50 range at the end of the season, will be higher for most fishermen if they can't land their fish on Roanoke Island.
Virginia dealers will benefit, however, with the quota there standing at 4.6 million pounds as of the end of April, up from 2.7 million as originally allocated Jan. 1. North Carolina, Virginia, New Jersey and Rhode Island, in that order by percentage allocation, are the top summer flounder producers, together accounting for 81 percent of the total quota.
Fortunately for fishermen, summer flounder is one of those premium products — quota limited — for which demand always exceeds supply.
North Carolina's shoaling problem was much worse in 2011 than in previous years. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers dredges couldn't keep up with the problem during critical harvest months when vessels most needed the passage.
"They just couldn't get in and out," George says. "It's in good shape right now; when we really need it to be in good shape is in September."
During 2011, the product shift affected dealers as far south as Beaufort/Morehead City, and similar hardship can be expected during 2012.
The shift left fish houses with few options late in the season, said Billy Tillett, co-owner of Moon Tillett Fishing Co. also in Wanchese.
"We are squeaking by," Tillett said. "We've got 17,500 pounds for the whole month of March."
Fishermen may be able to land the remaining 2012 quota in North Carolina, if current dredging plans are realized. The Army Corps of Engineers has scheduled the dredge Merritt to work Oregon Inlet July 20 through Sept. 30.
With almost 50 percent of the Atlantic quota between them, North Carolina and Virginia tend to drive the summer flounder price. In North Carolina it has been stuck in the $1.93 to $2.18 ex-vessel range since 2008, caused to some degree by continued economic hangover from the 2008 financial crash. Ex-vessel price was about $2 for much of the season but dropped at the end, Tillett says.
"Last trip they were $1.50," he says.
All states receiving commercial summer flounder quota got less than the 7 percent increase they had anticipated for 2012, as NOAA rejected Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council and Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission recommendations. A report by NOAA's Northeast Fisheries Science Center indicated the proposed 7 percent increase, on top of a 33 percent quota increase the previous year, could result in a return to overfishing.
New Jersey's 2012 quota has decreased by more than 700,000 pounds. Nevertheless, fishermen there are optimistic, says Greg DiDomenico, the Garden State Seafood Association's executive director, and deserve credit for summer flounder's now-official rebuilt status.
"There's been a tremendous burden on the industry to get there," DiDomenico says. "This has not been done without sacrifice." — Hoyt Childers
ALASKA & PACIFIC WHITING
Prices are high, but big catch reduction could play larger role in fleet's earnings
While West Coast trawlers will be fishing on a significantly reduced whiting annual catch limit this year, the Pacific Fishery Management Council will re-examine the process by which it allocated initial harvest shares between the fishery's mothership and shoreside sectors in the groundfish IFQ program that began last year.
However, the quota reduction is more likely to affect trawlers' wallets than any possible council action, says Pete Leipzig, executive director of the Fishermen's Marketing Association in McKinleyville, Calif.
"The quota, overall, has been reduced substantially from last year," Leipzig says.
This year's ACL of 186,037 metric tons falls substantially below last year's 290,903 metric tons as well as 2010's 193,935 metric tons. Minus allotments for tribal catch, bycatch and research, the fleet's 2012 commercial harvest guideline is 135,481 metric tons, versus 220,995 metric tons last year.
"We had a real good survey in 2010, and it suggested a real strong representation of younger year classes coming in," says John DeVore, the Pacific council's groundfish management staff officer. That survey predicated the large 2011 harvest limit.
Last summer's surveys were weaker, DeVore says. "It was a real head scratcher."
According to Pacific Fisheries Information Network data, prices for last year's Pacific whiting catch, which was valued at $23.7 million, averaged 10 cents per pound. That's up from the 7 cents per pound averaged in 2010, when the catch was worth $9.9 million. In June, PacFin reported an early 2012 ex-vessel price average of 13 cents. However, it's likely price will ebb as more volume comes in.
Last year, trawlers feared low catch limits for widow rockfish, darkblotched rockfish and canary rockfish would prevent them from maximizing their whitefish catch. Leipzig says those fears weren't realized.
"With the quotas [IFQs] people weren't in a frenzy to go out and catch all the fish," he says. "No one that I'm aware of has run into a situation of being shut down."
As for tweaking the IFQ program that began last year, the council received a court order in February asking it to reconsider the process it used to make the initial share allocations to harvesters and processors.
At issue is the control date the council used to establish which fishermen and processors were qualified to receive shares. The court order stems from a lawsuit brought by the owners of three fishing vessels and two processing operations who participate in the whiting industry. They're challenging the council's decision to use 2003 as the ending year in a period that determined historical involvement in harvesting and processing whiting and other groundfish.
The council was to decide at its June meeting on adopting one of several alternatives presented in April. Leipzig says the council could also reaffirm its rationale for making the initial allocations as it did.
"At this point, no one knows what will occur," he says.
A final recommendation will be presented to NMFS in September.
NMFS foreign trade data shows export values of frozen whiting in dollars per kilo have slipped in some countries and strengthened in others, which may indicate where U.S. product is headed.
For example, in Germany — a mainstay market that has claimed approximately 6 million kilos in the past two years — values have slipped from $3.12 per kilo in 2010 to $2.76 per kilo in 2011 and to $2.57 so far this year. Likewise, the fish's value fell from $19 million in 2010 to $16.8 million in 2011.
By far the largest export volumes have gone to Ukraine. Shipments there skyrocketed from 9.6 million kilos worth $17.1 million in 2010 to more than 17 million kilos worth $33.9 million last year. Prices have climbed from $1.78 in 2010 to $1.98 in 2011, and to $2.49 so far this year. — Charlie Ess
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