Written by Jen Finn
Northeast blue crab
Volume pays off for bay watermen following conservation measures
Summer 2010 was the best season in many years for Mid-Atlantic and Chesapeake Bay blue crabs — so much so that prices dropped dramatically, but watermen made some money on volume for once.
"The upper bay was fantastic, absolutely fantastic. The mid-bay got off to a good start before it slowed down, but it was still a good year," says Bunky Chance, president of the Talbot County Watermen's Association in Maryland.
Their catches bore out predictions from the Chesapeake winter dredge survey that showed the best numbers in 13 years, after Maryland and Virginia pushed through new conservation measures, including Virginia's controversial 2008 decision to end its winter dredge fishery on female crabs.
"There's a lot of bitterness over that," says Pete Nixon, president of the Lower Chesapeake Bay Watermen's Association. Nixon says he thinks other newer requirements like larger escape rings on pots had greater effect than ending the diminished dredge fishery.
But whatever they did, it helped on the biological side.
"A lot of crabs, and no money," quips Nixon, whose customers to his Norfolk retail store can't afford crabs two or three times a week as they used to. "The problem now is with this economy."
"Trot liners who work up in the tributaries had a very good spring but it slowed down. The potters who work in the mid-bay had an excellent season... They did very well in August and September," says Tommy Zinn, president of the Calvert County Watermen's Association. "I talked to some old-time guys on the Eastern Shore and they say they've never seen so many crabs."
Prices in the basket trade for fresh crabs got up around $60 to $70 a bushel during the summer demand in Talbot County, Chance estimates. But Calvert County watermen had so many crabs at some points that prices for males went as low as $40, Zinn says.
"We're more of a basket trade" on the bay's west side close to the Washington-Baltimore suburbs, Zinn notes. "On the Eastern Shore it went as low as $20 for the picking houses."
Maryland and Virginia state officials credited conservation rules, including the decision to end the southern bay winter dredge season, for helping bring back the crabs.
"We'd been saying for years they had to get off the sooks [breeding females]. Common sense would say that had an effect. But you hate to see anyone put out of business," Chance says.
In April 2010 results from the Chesapeake winter dredge survey showed a 60 percent jump in crab numbers, to an estimated 658 million animals. That would be the highest total since 1997. After seeing a few hopeful pops that petered out in recent years, the Chesapeake managers and biologists are happy.
"The increase was neither a random event nor a reflection of improved environmental conditions," Ron Lipcius, who runs Virginia's winter dredge survey, said when announcing those results. "From here on, we have to maintain the population at these levels to ensure the long-term sustainability and resilience of the Chesapeake Bay stock."
One question mark was the poor peeler season in southern Virginia, Nixon said.
"We haven't had an appreciable peeler fishery," he said. "We're going to be real anxious to see what happens next spring."
New Jersey fishermen, too, sensed a good year coming last winter, given both local abundance and fewer crabs in the market after Virginia closed its winter dredge fishery. By spring they saw $30 to $35 a bushel, a price supported by Raritan-Sandy Hook Bay crabbers who work the lower reaches of New York Harbor out of Belford, N.J.
"This spring's been the first good season in four or five years," Barnegat Bay crabber Jeremy Muermann said in April. — Kirk Moore
Alaska and Pacific shrimp
Landings, markets continue to grow as fleet replaces dwindling Canadian catch
West Coast shrimp fishermen were treated to a big year in terms of production, prices and market demand in 2010, and the harvest could be even stronger in 2011.
For starters, last year's harvest came in at a whopping 30 million pounds for Oregon. And California and Washington fleets together added more than 10 million pounds.
"It's the best year that people have ever seen in terms of production," says Brad Pettinger, executive director of the Oregon Trawl Commission, in Brookings, Ore. "From Coos Bay south, it was just off the charts. Guys would leave catches of two tons per hour because they could get 5,000 or 10,000 pounds an hour if they looked around a little."
Preliminary totals for the 2010 harvest in the three states hit nearly 42 million pounds, according to the Pacific Fisheries Information Network. For the past three years, harvests have surpassed 30 million pounds. The fleet caught 34.5 million pounds in '08 and nearly 32 million pounds in '09.
Besides shrimpers leaving a lot of shrimp in the water after the '09 and '10 seasons ended, recruitment of young shrimp into the fishery has remained strong during the past three years. Pettinger expects those trends to continue when the 2011 season opens in April.
"There was a pretty good holdover from last year," he says of the biomass that contributed to the 2010 harvest. "And it sounds like there are a lot of 250- to 350-count shrimp this year."
Even better for shrimpers, the huge harvest volume didn't flood markets and drive ex-vessel prices down: According to PacFIN, West Coast ex-vessel prices averaged 34 cents per pound, but Pettinger says many Oregon fishermen received 35 cents per pound.
The 2010 prices were up by around 4 cents from 2009, but far short of the 54 cents fishermen received in 2008. Pettinger attributes the rise to growing interest among domestic customers as evidenced by inquiries at the Great American Seafood Cook-Off, in New Orleans.
"It was amazing how many people had interest in seafood from the West Coast," says Pettinger, who attended the August event. "Did that translate into increased sales? I don't know."
According to Globefish, an international data and market service of the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization, total U.S. shrimp production satisfies about 10 percent of U.S. consumption, which means the remainder rides on import volumes. The loss of key production areas from the Deepwater Horizon oil rig spill in the Gulf of Mexico represents about 6 percent of domestic consumption, according to Globefish.
In addition to less shrimp coming out of the gulf, eastern Canada's production of cold-water shrimp — a direct competitor with West Coast shrimp — has been declining.
At the same time that weaker biomass has been blamed for dampening Canadian harvests, imports of shrimp from Canada to the United States have been whittled from more than 14 million pounds in 2007 to 11.4 million pounds in 2008, to 4.6 million pounds in 2009. Preliminary import data from NMFS suggests that last year's import total from Canada would wind up being roughly the same as that in 2009.
That should firm up domestic markets for West Coast shrimp. However, Europe has been a major market for West Coast shrimp.
Europe has relaxed import tariffs on Canadian shrimp to the point where the first 20,000 metric tons come in free. That's not the case for U.S. shrimp, according to Rod Moore, executive director of the West Coast Seafood Processors Association, in Portland, Ore.
Moore estimates that U.S. West Coast shrimp exported to Europe have been hammered by a 20 percent tariff.
"The major market continues to be Europe," Moore says. "Without the tariff on Canadian product, it's difficult to raise the price, and that trickles back down to the boats." — Charlie Ess
Gulf/South Atlantic Grouper
Fleet says it can avoid declining gag, but instead will swallow overall cuts
Just when Gulf of Mexico grouper fishermen — at least those who qualified for shares of 5.75 million pounds of red grouper quota under the new grouper-tilefish IFQ program — might have expected some smooth sailing, fishing is becoming a lot more complicated.
Red grouper is in the best shape in years, near optimum stock levels, and the price has begun to recover to the $3 range in the aftermath of the catastrophic BP/Deepwater Horizon oil spill.
Gag also has been bringing a very good price, about $4 ex-vessel, according to a report from Cortez, Fla., in November, but gag price may be largely irrelevant in the near future. Gag, the latest stock assessment asserts, is not in good shape, and therein lies the management quandary.
In two Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council proposals NMFS is now considering, the red grouper quota would be cut to 4.32 million pounds to reduce gag bycatch, and the gag quota would be cut from 1.41 million pounds to a token 100,000 pounds.
Fishermen generally seem to recognize the necessity for gag conservation measures, but the need to cut the red grouper IFQ quota is not so clear.
It's a complex issue, says Glen Brooks, president of the Gulf Fishermen's Association.
"I think we needed the reductions on gag," says Brooks, who runs seven bottom longliners out of A.P. Bell Fish Co. in Cortez, Fla. "Red grouper — that's kind of a hard one. There may be some validity there."
Brooks and others, including Bob Spaeth, owner of Madeira Beach Seafood and executive director of the Southern Offshore Fishing Association, say they can successfully target red grouper while largely avoiding gag. And they have made that point to the council.
"We have told them time and time again we can target red grouper," Spaeth says.
Brooks says it's possible to catch red grouper while "very minimally" interacting with gag.
Martin Fisher, another Madeira Beach fisherman and boat owner, worries especially about juvenile gag.
"There is a huge year class coming up through the fishery," he says. "We are going to have a serious bycatch issue. This is a very complicated issue."
Fisher, a federal Marine Fisheries Advisory Committee member, says part of the problem remains that stock assessments aren't current.
"We need more money for stock assessment," Fisher says. "All these stock assessments are like throwing water into the wind. We are always introducing management measures that are three to four years out of date."
Overall, it was not a good summer. The oil spill closure unquestionably hurt the market and cut into landings this past summer, Brooks says.
"I'm still sitting on deepwater quota I'm not going to be able to catch," he says.
Grouper trips were a fraction of normal, as were landings, indicates preliminary 2010 data from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Research Institute in St. Petersburg. Fast-changing closed areas created real logistical headaches.
"I actually had one boat that was fishing in deep water when the oil spill happened," Brooks says. "I had him come down here just east of Tampa."
By the time the vessel reached the Tampa waters, the closure had been extended there, so Brooks sent him down to the Dry Tortugas, about 70 miles west of Key West. By the time he arrived there, the Tortugas were closed.
"We couldn't keep up with the areas closed," Brooks says.
Now, even fishermen outside the areas of direct impact worry about the oil spill's long-term environmental effects. Most gulf fishermen can tell stories about fishery or habitat anomalies they continue to commonly observe in the oil spill's aftermath.
"Some of the guys report seeing more predators [sharks, dolphins] over this way," Brooks says. That's raising concerns that the spill may have pushed predators to the east out of the central gulf, which could, in turn, impact commercial fishery landings. — Hoyt Childers
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