National Fisherman

Northeast Surf Clams

Closed for 20 years, Georges Bank prospect delights struggling harvesters

Surf clam prices remain bottomed out at $12 to $13 a bushel, but the industry is nearing a milestone toward future investment.

In October the Interstate Shellfish Sanitation Conference considered a new protocol for testing clams on Georges Bank for paralytic shellfish poisoning, a biotoxin that closed the area for clam and mussel harvests in 1990. Fishermen and regulators think it is safe now, but need an ironclad testing system to reopen the Georges resource.

"This is actually a very big deal. The people in the clam business who ground it out and stayed with it deserve to be recognized," says David Wallace of Wallace and Associates, an industry consulting group in Cambridge, Md.

Easton, Md.-based Sea Watch International provided backing over six years for the pilot project that had clammers on the vessel Sea Watcher I carrying out at-sea screening tests for PSP in clam samples. During 2010 they landed Georges clams in Rhode Island and New Jersey, which were then processed in Sea Watch processing plants in Rhode Island and Delaware.

This is critical to the clam industry's future, because lots of clams are on Georges Bank, while the industry's old troves off Delmarva and New Jersey are slowly drying up.

Scientists say increases in average water temperatures off the Mid-Atlantic states are shifting the best spawning conditions for surf clams and other species like summer flounder farther north, into waters with cooler average temperatures off Long Island and southern New England.

As the clam population shifts north and east, the industry follows. New Jersey was the sea clam fleet's birthplace, and 58 million pounds worth more than $31 million were landed there in 2000. By 2010 the totals had fallen to 25 million pounds worth $16 million.

Clam landings in New Bedford, Mass., fluctuated widely in the last decade. But recently, they've shown steady growth back to 8 million pounds worth $6.8 million dockside in 2010.

With sanitation conference approval, clamming on Georges Bank could become part of the national shellfish sanitation program, with exempted fishery permits granted to qualified operators.

"You have to have crew members certified to run the at-sea screening process," Wallace says.

Georges Bank has been closed to clamming since 1990 after a PSP outbreak off New England. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration never had resources to completely certify shellfish from the vast area as being safe for consumption.

A 2012 stock assessment will update the surf clam shift, and the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council is preparing a plan amendment for a possible Georges Bank opening, Hoff says.

"If we do that I'd expect three, four or five boats to go up there and take half the quota," he says.

States from Massachusetts to Delaware would be able to participate, and the shellfish conference program allows them to set testing requirements stricter than the federal standard of seven samples per boat.

In time, the success of PSP at-sea testing "will open up some opportunities for other people," Wallace predicts.

At the northern end of the sea clam fishery, off Down East Maine, the small-boat fishery for mahogany clams — small ocean quahogs that retail as an inexpensive half-shell alternative to hard clams — continues to shrink slowly.

"People just aren't buying the things," says Tom Hoff , the Mid-Atlantic council's sea clam analyst.

Aggressive wholesaler cost-cutting has lowered prices from more than $40 to $30 per bushel, according to the council. The fleet in 2010 took just over half its 100,000 annual quota. — Kirk Moore

Gulf/South Atlantic Swordfish

Swords drawn for battle to keep U.S. quota, despite rising landings and prices

As the U.S. representatives who will negotiate at the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas meeting in November again ponder how they might preserve the U.S. swordfish quota, persistent rough weather off the East Coast hindered the longline vessels that catch swords.

Hurricane Irene, followed closely by a northeaster, limited fishing in late August and well into September.

Cruiser Midgett, manager at Wanchese Fish Co. on Roanoke Island, N.C., said in late September that local vessels were only beginning to catch swordfish. "They're just bringing in a few," he said.

North Carolina sword harvests were second only to Florida's in 2010, and the Wanchese fleet landed most of those.

Steve George, general manager at Willie R. Etheridge Seafood Co., which handles most of the swordfish, reported similar results. "Sword — we've heard there's a few out there," he said.

Largely, however, pelagic fishing effort off North Carolina's coast had been limited to tunas. "It's been so windy and rough, we've had a handful of tunas — bigeyes and yellowfin," George said.

Near-term prospects looked more promising, George said. "We think here next week we'll start catching some fish," he said in September.

Farther north, the season was beginning to pick up, with Grand Banks trips beginning to make port, said Ernie Panacek, general manager at Viking Village, Barnegat Light, N.J.

"We're handling some sword," Panacek said.

The overall market appears strong. Ex-vessel prices have been improving for a couple of years now, following a sharp drop with the recession in 2008 and 2009. "Throughout the year the price has been strong," Panacek said.

Florida, the No. 1 state for swordfish harvests among Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic states for several years now, has shown healthy ex-vessel price increases for the past two years. Prices have increased from $2.84 a pound in 2009 to $3.56 in 2010 to $3.98 for the first seven months of 2011. Volume likewise increased from 1.07 million pounds in 2009 to 1.15 million pounds in 2010, despite the BP/Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

Florida peninsular ports, largely unaffected by the spill, probably picked up volume from oil-spill closures to the west. And 2011 January-through-July Florida landings appear to be well ahead of the same months in 2010, so volume seems to be increasing along with price, always a good sign.

Despite these encouraging market trends, the U.S. swordfish fleet remains thwarted by structural constraints born largely of domestic closures that have been in place in the Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico since February 2001. The closures have effectively shut off more than 130,000 square miles to a pelagic longline fleet that has consequently shrunk to only about 70 vessels.

These remaining vessels are able to harvest only a fraction of the North (of the equator) Atlantic share of swordfish allocated to the U.S. fleet. It's a catch-22 that perennially threatens to diminish the domestic industry even more as other countries with fewer restrictions on their fleets covet the chronically underutilized U.S. quota.

In 2010, the U.S. underharvest was 2,370.6 metric tons, dressed weight, out of an adjusted quota of 4,406.4 metric tons. Panacek, who is president of the New Jersey-based Blue Water Fishermen's Association, says the fleet-size and fishing-area factors make it difficult for the industry to sustain itself.

"We can't attract new talent into the fishery," he says.

With North Atlantic swordfish stocks thriving and healthy (105 percent of sustainable population level, according to NMFS), it may be time to reconsider the big longline closures, especially some of those in the South, Panacek says.
— Hoyt Childers

Alaska & Pacific Dungeness

Demand for live crab escalates price as landings soar, especially in the south

Going into the primary West Coast Dungeness crab season in November and December, fishermen and state agencies are looking forward to another good year. Inventories are relatively small, and early signs predict a strong population.

"This coming year should be a continuation" of the 2010-11 season, says Peter Kalvass, senior marine biologist for the California Department of Fish and Game's Marine Invertebrate Management Project in Fort Bragg. "I think it's safe to say it may not be as great as we've seen but still should be pretty robust."

Last year Washington, Oregon and California all had strong landings, and still demand and price held strong throughout the year, contradicting the law of supply and demand.

In Oregon, the average ex-vessel price for the 2010-11 season was $2.30 a pound — more than 25 cents a pound higher than in 2009-10. Oregon's total value reached $49 million, the second best on record. The 2009-10 season yielded higher landings — 23.14 million pounds vs. 21.23 million pounds in 2010-11 — but with an average price of $1.93 a pound, total value was lower, at $45 million.

For the first time in years, California landings and value surpassed those in Oregon and Washington. Statewide landings were 27.48 million pounds worth $57 million — both records.

Fishermen also discovered a dramatic shift in the presence of crab in the central management area, south of the Mendocino/Sonoma county line, often called the San Francisco fishery. Landings there typically are a fraction of the statewide landings.

The highest volume there was 9.3 million pounds in the 1956-57 season until local fishermen discovered a Dungeness bonanza during the 2010-11 season — 19.04 million pounds. Northern California landings for the season weren't even half of that at 8.44 million pounds.

"It just blew away the previous high," Kalvass says of the San Francisco fishery.

A shift in fishing effort and changing environmental conditions between two and four years ago are likely responsible for the San Francisco boom.

"A lot of northern [California] fishermen stayed down there," Kalvass says. "There was no reason to come back home."

He says a perfect storm of ocean conditions helped the crab population during the spring transition — when crab are hatching and going into the plankton phase. Though Kalvass doesn't have specific ideas about what conditions were right, biologists are looking into it.

If environmental conditions helped increase landings, what helped boost the ex-vessel price? Nick Furman, the Oregon Dungeness Crab Commission's executive director, cites increased live crab demand.

In years past, a few buyers with pickup trucks or vans bought limited supplies of live crab, usually a month or so after the season opened. Last year, semi-trucks full of live crab appeared as soon as the first boats hit the dock. It gave the brick-and-mortar processors, who were trying to put up their packs and frozen inventories, some stiff competition.

"I think it contributed to the upward pressure on price this year," Furman says.

Dan Ayres, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife's coastal shellfish lead biologist, says the agency's fish tickets also show an increase in live crab sales, even though it doesn't track them as closely as the industry itself does.

"We've certainly seen an increase in price," Ayres says.

China's appetite for live crab is one explanation. Furman cautions that so far, solid figures are sparse on exactly how much live crab was shipped to China. Often, live crab is sent to Canada first, where it's shipped to China on cargo planes — not as freight on passenger planes like it is out of smaller U.S. West Coast ports.

Still, NMFS figures show that for 2010 (which includes only the beginning of the 2010-11 season), 1.4 million pounds of live crab were shipped to China; in 2009, the figure was only 221,532 pounds. The value also was up: $5 million in sales to China in 2010, $775,647 in 2009. — Susan Chambers

Inside the Industry

The Center for Coastal Studies recently announced that Owen Nichols, Director of the Center for Coastal Studies’ Marine Fisheries Research Program, has been selected as this year’s recipient of the John Annala Fishery Leadership Award by the Gulf of Maine Research Institute. 

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Cummins  announced the opening of a new Alaska service location on Kodiak Island last week that will serve as a service and support location for commercial marine applications.

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