Written by Jen Finn
Gulf/South Atlantic Red Grouper
Higher prices signal prosperity coming as reef fish skippers transition to IFQs
Prospects look good as Gulf of Mexico reef fish skippers transition to a grouper-tilefish individual fishing quota program.
In mid-November, having weathered a longline shutdown and a late-season tropical storm that brought the entire fleet back to the docks simultaneously, the market was robust.
Red grouper was bringing $2.90 a pound ex-vessel at Fishbusterz in John's Pass, Madeira Beach, Fla., well above the 2009 official state average of $2.33.
"This storm sent all of our boats to the dock," says boat owner and dock manager Greg Pruitt. "Normally when that happens, you get a price drop. That didn't happen. We don't have a fish in the house right now."
The market seemed to be anticipating the Jan. 1, 2010, IFQ program implementation.
Red grouper 2010 commercial landings are limited to 5.75 million pounds and gag to 1.41 million pounds. In mid-November, red grouper allocation was already leasing anywhere from 65 cents to $1.05 a pound, and gag allocation was going for up to $1.55.
The Pruitt family vessels, Miss Bianca and Casey's Pride, fared differently under initial grouper IFQ allocation. Miss Bianca didn't qualify for a grouper longline endorsement, while Casey's Pride did.
Pruitt is upbeat about the fishery.
"It's looking up," he says.
Pruitt tells a story that illustrates how IFQs are affecting the market even before implementation.
"For Casey's Pride, two years ago we were offered $125,000, and we turned it down," contrary to common wisdom, he added.
But now, with the IFQ longline endorsement, things have changed.
"A couple of weeks ago, we turned down $300,000," he says.
The market also was likely reacting to pent-up demand, as an emergency NMFS ruling had kept the longline fleet outside the 50-fathom contour line to limit sea turtle-fleet interactions. Vertical line vessels could still fish, but according to Florida's Fish and Wildlife Research Institute numbers, red grouper landings in July 2009 were less than half the previous year, 242,628 pounds on 276 trips compared to 579,224 pounds on 518 trips.
Finally, in October, NMFS issued a revised temporary rule allowing longliners to fish up to the 35-fathom line. Depending on sea floor profile, this change helped some ports more than others. Final 2009 landings numbers weren't available at press time, but grouper volume likely remained below normal for the year.
The Fishbusterz vessels that landed ahead of Tropical Storm Ida did well — particularly for scamp (also known as broomtail grouper), Pruitt says.
"All the boats caught more scamps than we've seen in a long time," he says.
Farther south, in Cortez, fishing wasn't so good, says Glen Brooks, vessel owner and president of the Gulf Fishermen's Association.
"Most of our red grouper are harvested between 20 and 35 fathoms," Brooks says. "It doesn't really put us in there where we ought to be. In our fleet in Cortez, we've only sent one boat out. It's like a parking lot out there."
However, Brooks also says he believes the grouper IFQ will be good for the fishery and for him personally.
"My fleet ended up in pretty good shape," Brooks says. "I've got six boats working."
With the coming of the grouper IFQ, and the red snapper program already in operation, shares, allocation and permits have become a hot market segment unto themselves.
Fishermen had been brainstorming ways to facilitate market interactions that maximize the advantages of IFQ programs and the use of the fish — in effect, setting up an IFQ tradables brokerage.
"We were all sort of hoping someone would do this," Brooks says.
When nobody did, Brooks decided he'd do it himself by starting Gulf of Mexico Quota (www.gfquota.com), an online service for buying, selling and trading Gulf of Mexico allocation and shares, plus permits and vessels. He hopes this will function as a real-time mechanism that allows skippers still on the water to lease or trade quota for what would otherwise be non-landable bycatch.
"With the new grouper and snapper IFQ we are here to help manage your business and balance your quota shares, so that you don't have to discard valuable fish back overboard," the Web site explains.
Trading, leasing, buying and selling will clearly be an integral element of the new Gulf of Mexico IFQ economy.
In John's Pass, Pruitt says Fishbusterz vessels did well on initial allocation, with more than a million pounds.
"For the guys that don't have enough shares, we're going to be able to lease them some shares," he says.
— Hoyt Childers
Northeast Blue Crab
Stock gains not offsetting price drop as Virginia, Maryland buy up permits
The free fall of Chesapeake Bay's blue crab population appeared to hit a trampoline in 2009. The winter dredge survey estimates the population is 418 million crabs, a rise back to the last level of optimism in spring 2005.
That 33 percent jump in overwintering crabs might seem to validate Virginia's bitterly contested decision to close off the winter dredge fishery — along with other rule changes and this year's buyout using 2008 federal emergency funds that in all permanently retired 75,000 crab pots from state waters.
But crab recruitment rates are still slow and remain far below the early 1990s levels, when blue crab harvests were 70 percent higher.
"They've got to get the bay cleaned up before they can get the resource back," says Ken Smith, president of the Virginia Watermen's Association.
Smith's referring to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's long-delayed program to set total maximum daily loads of nitrogen and phosphorus. The aim is to force reductions of fertilizer wash-off and stormwater pollution to bay tributaries by 2025.
Meetings began throughout the bay watershed in November to explain how towns and states will need to reduce their pollution to tributary streams.
Meanwhile, "we didn't catch as many crabs, and we didn't get as much for them," says Robert Evans, president of the Anne Arundel County Watermen's Association in Maryland. "You saw some big, pretty crabs this fall that didn't bring as much money, because they had to go to the picking house because of the economy.
"I've been selling to the same people since the 1970s and now I sell to their children and grandchildren," says Evans, who has his own direct retail business. "Those people who would buy a bushel a weekend now are buying a couple of dozen... People do not want to stop buying crabs, but they have to find the right price now."
Basket trade prices ranged up to $100 for the first arrivals of spring but were more often around $30 and "this year they got as low as $8," Smith says. Without mirth, he adds, "If you've got a job on land that pays $20 an hour and tell your wife you're going crabbing, that marriage may not last long."
Before the September 2008 financial meltdown, poor harvests in Southeast Asia drove prices for imported canned product as high as $23 a pound for lump in late 2008. Amid the recession's hammering of demand, those prices toppled to the $15 to $16 range in mid-2009, but it did not help watermen.
"Over the season the prices were down quite a lot," says Doug Lipton, an associate professor and blue crab expert at the University of Maryland Sea Grant program. Imported product held its price only because "supply from the Chesapeake is still pretty depressed," he says.
"Most of the imported stuff goes to restaurants. They're selling $28 platters and they'd rather pay for that junk than $16 or $18 a pound for local product," Evans fumes.
Virginia set aside $6.7 million of the disaster aid to fund a crab license buyback, using a reverse auction for watermen to offer up their permits. Of some 1,850 permit holders, 664 proposed to sell and 359 got acceptance letters, says John Bull, a Virginia Marine Resources Commission spokesman.
Rough analysis shows the population is stable and increasing, and by removing one-third of Virginia fishing power, "we're heading in the right direction" for a recovery, Bull says. Watermen are skeptical, Smith says, because "the average age of a waterman in Virginia is 58. They're all getting ready to quit anyway."
The best deal he's heard of was a 72-year-old crabber who made a successful $45,000 bid. "He figured he had one more year to go," Smith says.
Maryland's similar effort to buy out and retire about 1,300 inactive holders of the state's 3,700 part-time licenses — one-third of those fishermen — got about 530 takers who accepted the $2,260 offer by early November.
"Between the two states they bought back more than 800 licenses. That's not an insignificant amount," Lipton says.
Watermen are weighing their options: Take an offer now, before the fishery becomes more restrictive, or keep the license as a Plan B in this economy.
"We've had some good indications as to the stock rebuilding," and climatic conditions this winter through 2010 will determine how the next recruitment goes, Lipton says. "For sure, the industry's hit bottom, and by taking the pressure off... we might have a better future for this fishery." — Kirk Moore
Price is down sharply, but shrimpers optimistic about volume of harvest
Despite healthy resources, West Coast shrimpers will likely have to endure rock-bottom ex-vessel prices until the global economy gets back on its feet. And as the industry waits for the economy to recover, it stands to reason that less shrimp will be caught. That should mean bigger shrimp and greater volume will be available for better times ahead.
But first the bad news: The fleet saw ex-vessel offers of just 31 cents per pound in 2009. That's down sharply from the 54 cents per pound shrimpers received in 2008.
"This year was really the dumps," says Brad Pettinger, director of the Oregon Trawl Commission, in Brookings, Ore.
According to Pacific Fisheries Information Network data, prices haven't been this low since they were offered a quarter per pound in 2003. Ex-vessel prices since then climbed to 36 cents in 2004, then 41 cents in 2005, dropped to 33 cents in 2006, rebounded to 46 cents per pound in 2007 and hit a zenith of 54 cents in 2008.
According to Pettinger, the tone for 2009 ex-vessel prices was set in the fall of 2008, when about half of the shrimp crop was sold, the global economy began to flutter, and markets went soft. Thus, many processors were sitting on inventories they couldn't get rid of, Pettinger says.
"A lot of guys got left holding the bag," he says.
The situation turned even worse last winter when financiers weren't willing to extend processors much money for the 2009 pack (the volume of shrimp they expect to buy this season).
"If you can't borrow the money to buy a pack, why do it?" Pettinger adds.
While markets remain in the doldrums, resource abundance should continue rising, especially on the heels of a bountiful 2009 season. Pettinger says many trawlers towed 20 minutes to load their cod ends. In other years, he says, the trawlers would have towed for more than an hour to match such volumes.
"The abundance on the grounds this year is really high — some of the highest we've ever seen," says Robert Hannah, pink shrimp project manager with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, in Newport, Ore. Though Hannah ventures the catch per unit of effort didn't quite reach historical highs, he adds trawlers won't soon forget the short tows and plumpness of their cod ends.
"The catch-per-unit effort was just insane," Pettinger adds.
The 2009 harvest neared 13,600 metric tons, or around 30 million pounds for the California, Oregon and Washington fleets, according to PacFIN data. Pettinger estimates about 75 percent of the West Coast harvest is taken offshore of Oregon.
Though the harvest is down from the 15,660 metric tons ,or 34.5 million pounds landed in 2008, Pettinger and others reason that the harvest shortfall and the high abundance can only mean the fleet left a lot of uncaught shrimp.
To those whose specialties are tied to the biological and management aspects of the industry, the 2009 season put money in the bank.
"The weaker market is actually helping the stock," Hannah says. "They're leaving more shrimp in the water."
Barring unforeseen oceanic factors or environmental catastrophes that could jeopardize the leftover 2009 shrimp, conventional logic holds that greater volumes of larger shrimp await the industry when the 2010 season kicks off April 1. Strong representations of 1-year-old shrimp, which contribute the majority of the harvest volumes in most years, were evident in 2009, and those will grow to be larger 2-year-olds this year.
"I'm anticipating a great fishery at the beginning of the season, regardless of what recruits into the fishery," Hannah says.
Translated to size, the 2010 fishery should hold copious quantities of shrimp in the 250- to 300-count-per-pound range (processed), and a substantial portion of the older shrimp should wind up larger.
On top of that, Hannah notes there was no shortage of age zero shrimp in 2009, which should be ready to recruit into the fishery this year.
"We saw some pretty strong signs of zeros down along the south coast," he says.
While the fate of ex-vessel prices for the 2010 season rides on market confidence, the blue seal of sustainability the West Coast fishery received from the Marine Stewardship Council in 2008 should eventually gain favor among customers as their demands shift toward buying eco-friendly cold-water shrimp. Pettinger says European customers have been among the first to express a preference for MSC-labeled shrimp over other shrimp produced worldwide. — Charlie Ess
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