Written by Jen Finn
Gulf/South Atlantic Swordfish
Foreign fleets are lusting after quota not harvested by American longliners
Swordfish prices — long off the dollar-and-something lows that followed the "Give Swordfish a Break" boycott a decade ago — have been stable for several years now. The fishery is healthy, and sometimes fishermen are rewarded by the excitement of a run of big fish, as happened off North Carolina recently.
"It was a very different season," says Steve George, general manager at Willie R. Etheridge Seafood Co. in Wanchese, N.C. For a while, he says, some Wanchese vessels were catching "very large fish, 200 to 300 pounds. It was the biggest run we've seen in a few years."
Prices were good, too. Boats were getting $5 to $6 for markers, fish weighing more than 100 pounds.
That compares very well with Gulf of Mexico prices as recent as two years ago. Back then, markers in the upper gulf were bringing only $3 or so a pound. The fall price tends to hang largely on how much Canadian sword hits the markets beginning in September.
This year, prices in Florida — recently the top sword producer among gulf and Atlantic states, with landings around a million pounds — looked good at $3.49 on average through mid-August, according to preliminary Florida Fish and Wildlife Research Institute numbers.
With North (of the Equator) Atlantic sword stocks fully rebuilt, thanks largely to the U.S. fleet's conservation initiatives in the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas, the problems domestic vessels face are primarily strategic and political.
Chief among these is the perennial quota conundrum.
The U.S. pelagic longline fleet is now reduced to so few vessels that it is chronically unable to fish out its 2,938-metric-ton baseline quota. Too much of the Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic is closed to the 70 or so remaining vessels. And they operate at a huge disadvantage to international competition, which doesn't follow the same conventions to be marine-mammal- and ecosystem-friendly.
The surviving fleet fishes offshore the length of the Atlantic Coast and into the Gulf of Mexico. Most swords are landed in Florida, Louisiana, Massachusetts and North Carolina.
Underfished quota is likely to be worse this year because so much of the gulf was shut down because of the BP oil spill, says Ernie Panacek, president of the Salem, N.H.-based Blue Water Fishermen's Association, which along with the Southern Offshore Fishing Association in Florida, represents the longline fleet.
The central question is this: Can the domestic fleet retain its ICCAT quota long enough to restore the fleet's fishing capacity so that it can fully utilize the quota?
"That is going to challenge us," Panacek says.
Many other nations lust after the U.S. share, but once it's gone, it's gone, says Rich Ruais, who, as executive director of the Blue Water Fishermen's Association, is among those on the front lines of the ICCAT quota struggle.
"We're going to continue to face this each year — to give up quota share we are not using," he says. "We'll have to fight the battle again. There is no justification for taking U.S. quota away. All of the other countries that have received U.S. quota underage are not up to the conservation and ecosystem standards the U.S. fleet follows," including safe sea turtle handling and release, marine mammal protection, the use of closed areas and circle hooks.
"We are being disadvantaged in the way we fish," he says. "The fish that costs less to produce in other countries has a marketing advantage over the U.S."
So far, the federal agencies that are supposed to address this inequity haven't been doing their jobs, he says.
"The U.S. trade representative officials and NOAA are very reluctant to engage in trade restrictions for fish products right now," he says. "Fisheries are pretty far down the policy totem pole. NOAA doesn't want to make any waves." — Hoyt Childers
Northeast Surf clams
As Jersey's inshore clams head north, soup companies, consumers go south
Surf clam landings late last summer were down nearly 12 percent from already depressed 2009 catch rates, as the recession and changing consumer tastes put a bite on the industry instead of its product.
In 2007 the industry used 95 percent of its 3.40 million bushel quota, even as the fleet experienced a consolidation period with weaker players selling to stronger companies. But as the economy nosedived, landings dropped to barely 70 percent of quota in 2009, and appear on track to sell even less for 2010.
"It's mostly the economy and the fact that the big end-users, the companies like Campbell's and Progresso, have not been marketing clams and clam products," says Thomas B. Hoff, a longtime fisheries analyst with the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council. Hoff has worked on surf clam issues since it became the nation's first transferable-quota fishery in the early 1990s.
Ex-vessel prices are holding steady around $11.50 to $12 a bushel — down from peaks a few years ago, but not the crash in both price and volume that lobstermen have seen, says David Wallace of Wallace & Associates, a Salisbury, Md.-based clam industry consultant. Prices have hovered around $12 a bushel for years, leaving fishermen and managers frustrated that the East Coast's most stable fishery is just spinning its wheels in the marketplace.
"This is one of the best-managed fisheries in the country, and it's not a resource issue," Hoff says.
The Mid-Atlantic council's science and statistical committee is forecasting biomass numbers far above the conservative quota numbers used for years on both surf clams and their deepwater ocean quahog cousins, he says.
"Everything is set up properly," Hoff says, "and the resource is not being used."
Changing food fashions and marketing successes of other seafood processors are factors, too.
"In the old days during a recession, people would still go out to dinner and buy down the menu. They'd get fried clams instead of lobster. But now we're not even getting the head counts in the restaurants to sell product," Wallace says.
Fried clam strips went national when the old Howard Johnson's restaurant chain put processed New Jersey product on its menu in the 1960s. Now the same thing is happening with squid, as calamari has spread from Italian-American neighborhoods to restaurants across North America.
Along with competition and flat prices, the sea clam industry is dealing with the resource shifting northward in response to mid-Atlantic climate change.
New Jersey's inshore surf clam fishery — the birthplace of the industry — has shriveled from a 700,000-bushel quota in 1999 to around 50,000 bushels. Clams are so sparse within three miles of the beach that hardly anyone bothers, except for a small bait fishery. The seafood clam fleet works off northern New Jersey and Long Island.
It's been several years since any significant catches were taken from New Jersey state waters for processing, says Jim Joseph, the state's senior clam biologist and chief of its Bureau of Shell Fisheries. Scientists say rising average water temperatures have sent clams into deeper waters. Climate-related changes to the shellfish food supply might be another factor.
In the long term, big clam companies like Easton, Md.-based Sea Watch International and the New Jersey-based Truex family companies see their future on Georges Bank, where clam harvests have been prohibited since 1990 because of paralytic shellfish poisoning outbreaks.
Forty percent of the surf clam resource is on Georges now, and clammers and government scientists are working on PSP testing technology that could open those beds. One boat has been clamming on Georges this year under an experimental fishery permit, making one trip a week so an onshore laboratory can verify test results for PSP-safe clams, Wallace says.
Last spring the U.S. Food and Drug Administration said it is safe to open a small area on the Cultivator Shoal for clamming. However, NOAA is moving cautiously on that recommendation. — Kirk Moore
Alaska & Pacific Dungeness
Fleet hopes to celebrate the holidays with another bountiful winter season
West Coast Dungeness crab fishermen coming off the bountiful 2009-10 season can look for another good shot of crab when the 2010-11 season opens in December.
Such optimism could be especially ripe if the weather holds out like it did last year. An unseasonably calm spell fell over Oregon waters for 25 days straight when the fleet put in around 17.8 million pounds of an annual harvest that would eventually hit 23.1 million pounds.
"The beauty of this last season was that everybody got in their licks," says Nick Furman, executive director of the Oregon Dungeness Crab Commission, in Coos Bay, Ore. "Big boats. Small boats. The weather made it so that it wasn't just a big-boat show."
In a similar vein, in November and December of 2009 the California fleet landed more than 13.5 million pounds of a 16.8 million pound harvest. It's a significant increase from the 6.2 million pounds landed in '08-09.
Washington, which posted data from the 2009-10 season in September, reports that the fleet there landed around 9 million pounds of its 12.1 million pounds in December '09 and January '10. The total bests Washington's '08-09 harvest of 8.3 million pounds.
Last year, Alaska's Dungeness fleet landed 5.5 million pounds, according to Alaska Department of Fish and Game data. Alaska landings declined from 2009's total of 6.9 million pounds.
Most of last winter's Oregon catch wound up as either fresh cooked whole crab in outlets where crab feeds fall in line with Christmas tradition, such as large West Coast cities, or as frozen sections elsewhere in domestic markets.
"Dungeness has really become a national product," Furman says. "It used to be regional."
In recapping the 2009-10 season, which runs from December through Aug. 14, Furman says the crab were large, with an average weight of 1.75 pounds and some during December hitting more than 2 pounds.
"We had a year class this last season that was phenomenal," Furman says.
Strong representation of 4-year-old males in the fishery have made for great harvests in the last decade. Furman points out that Oregon's catch has only once dipped below 10 million pounds since 2001. The fishery saw a high of 33.7 million pounds caught in the '04-05 season, and this year's season topped out at 23.2 million pounds.
Washington and California fisheries appear to be following suit.
"It looks like we may have started another upswing last season; so that bodes well," says Pete Kalvass, senior marine biologist with the California Department of Fish and Game in Fort Bragg. "Also, the zero-age crab abundance index in San Francisco Bay showed increases in 2007 and 2008, which would also bode well for this coming season."
With ex-vessel prices running at around $1.60 per pound, according to Furman, product moved well through the distribution chain during the high-volume pace of the fisheries in winter. But prices ratcheted up sharply as summer approached, with processors paying upward of $5 per pound for some deliveries where crab went to live markets along the West Coast or were exported to China.
Part of the impetus for high summer prices lies with the imposition of weekly trip limits of 1,200 pounds from June 15 through Aug. 14, according to Furman.
When it comes to management of the fishery, pending certification of the Oregon Dungeness fishery as sustainable by the Marine Stewardship Council should firm demand among eco-conscious customers. The Oregon fishery began the assessment process in 2004, and California joined the process in 2005.
In September, the Oregon fishery had entered the public comment period. Barring any unforeseen snags, it should earn the MSC blue label of endorsement in December or January. — Charlie Ess
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