Written by Jen Finn
Northeast Blue Crab
Chesapeake packers feel the pinch of federal labor rules, flood of imports
Strong blue crab numbers in the Northeast helped mitigate a hot summer in 2011 and water quality problems; Maryland reported the second-highest stock assessment since 1997. But the industry narrowly averted a lockdown over federal labor rules for migrant worker wages.
"We've had crabs, they're readily available in the bay, says Jack Brooks of the Chesapeake Bay Seafood Industries Association. Packers won a delay of mandated increases of 27 percent or more in wages paid to foreign crab pickers at the October peak of their season.
In November the industry was scrambling to keep the wage increase at bay and obtain the H-2B visas to bring back experienced Mexican workers in 2012. Each H-2B visa worker provides for four or five American jobs on boats and in restaurants and retail, Brooks says.
"These costs we just can't absorb," says Brooks, who operates the J.M. Clayton Seafood Co. in Cambridge, Md. "Venezuela and Southeast Asia [crabmeat producers] are already all over us."
Good Maryland jumbo lump meat sold at $21 to $22 a pound. Chesapeake packers — down now to no more than 15 active picking houses from 54 in the 1970s — say their profit margin is around $1 a pound thanks to relentless pressure from imported swimming-crab meat.
"We now have markets that pay us a fair price" and value American-caught crabs, Brooks says. But every year imports crash the market at $9 to $10 a pound.
"When Venezuela is on, it just crushes us. We can't breathe," Brooks says.
Congress has intervened before on wage rules for the hotel and landscaping industries. Crab packers hope legislators will do likewise for them.
Last summer the bay's midchannel "dead zone" of depleted oxygen stretched more than 80 miles from Baltimore to the Potomac River. Watermen reported other unexpected patches of bad water in the bay's shallow tributaries.
Long-term climate trends, like prevailing winds shifting from the southeast to the west, mean there's less mixing of bay water and a tendency for early-summer dead zones, Johns Hopkins University and the University of Maryland researchers say.
But the good news, researchers say, is that the overall size and duration of dead zones has shrunk greatly. That's a sign, they say, that a 20 percent reduction in average annual nutrient pollution levels coming down the Susquehanna River is working.
Comparing the last 60 years of water quality data shows the midsummer dead zones have shrunk since the 1980s, says Rebecca R. Murphy, a doctoral student at Johns Hopkins University's Department of Geography and Environmental Engineering, and the study's lead author.
Better sewer plants, stormwater systems and farm management have helped shrink them. Stricter air pollution controls also helped hugely in reducing nitrogen oxide fallout.
"A good part of it does come from air pollution across the watershed," says Michael Kemp, a study co-author and an ecologist at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science.
Crab numbers increased three years running from 2008 through 2010, for the first time since the early 1990s. Despite the region's unusually cold winter, the 2011 winter trawl survey estimated 460 million crabs. While the 2011 total decreased from the 2010 survey's 658 million crab, the population numbers hearten biologists who saw earlier pops fail to carry through in following seasons.
Maryland and Virginia state officials say the results show that earlier harvests took up to three-quarters of the crab population. They say capping maximum harvest at 46 percent will still allow years like 2010, with its estimated harvest around 90 million pounds, and a 2011 season that was estimated to hit about 82 million pounds. — Kirk Moore
Alaska & Pacific Shrimp
Boom of 2011 season will be tough to top, but trawlers hope the price holds
Before last year's West Coast shrimp harvest was even over, officials knew the 2011 season was shaping up to be pretty remarkable in many ways.
The average ex-vessel prices were about 50 percent higher than in 2010, and strong recruitment of 2-year-olds into the fishery produced catches of under 250-count shrimp. The fleet's catch per unit of effort for 2011 was impressive — half-hour tows were loading the boats, says Brad Pettinger, executive director of the Oregon Trawl Commission, in Brookings, Ore.
"I don't think the average trips were two days long," he says. "And if they were out there for two days, they sure weren't fishing that long."
Pettinger and Bob Hannah, Oregon Department of Fish and Game shrimp project leader, both report some boats towing for longer periods caught too many shrimp and tore trawls or ruined the rigging on their boats.
"There were guys breaking their booms," Pettinger says.
In 2010, shrimpers broke records with CPUEs of 5,500 pounds per hour off the northern California coast. CPUEs in popular Oregon beds ran up to 3,000 pounds per hour.
Though the numbers aren't final, Pettinger suspects CPUE data for the 2011 season could leave 2010 in its wake. As of November, the harvest had already climbed past 57 million pounds.
"It's the fourth largest harvest in history," Hannah says. "And it's possible that it could slide up to third best."
In 2010, the fleet of around 53 boats landed 37.9 million pounds of shrimp in California, Oregon and Washington, comfortably besting 2009's 31.9 million pounds, according to Pacific Fisheries Information Network data.
So the fleet enjoyed the large harvest and the shrimp sizes. But the news got better still.
Trawlers received ex-vessel prices of more than 50 cents per pound for some deliveries.
"The price was a big increase over last year," Pettinger says. "And we had volume. For the whole coast, you might be pushing 60 million pounds for the season."
An early read on the fleet's 2011 revenues for the three states came in at just over $29 million. It's a hearty increase over revenues of $17 million in 2010 and about triples 2009's $9.8 million total.
Consequently, 2011 will prove difficult to top. Fewer shrimp could be in the recruitment pipeline, Hannah says. Strong representation of 1-year-old shrimp in 2010 meant a plethora of 2-year-olds for the 2011 harvest.
However, 2011 harvest information indicates strong 2-year-old representation but a weaker abundance of 1-year-olds for 2012. Hannah says some of the 2-year-olds will survive to come back as yet larger 3-year-olds, but with the caveat that shrimp are short lived, and their contributions to the biomass are expected to wane.
"We might see a drop-off in landings next year," he said of the upcoming 2012 season. "Nothing drastic, but I'd really be surprised if it would be a repeat of this year." — Charlie Ess
Gulf/South Atlantic Grouper
Competition down and quota up, fleet looks to Lent to keep prices climbing
Market prospects for grouper look promising heading into 2012. The price of red grouper has been rising over the past year, and the red grouper commercial quota, which increased by nearly a million pounds late in 2011, is set to increase again in 2012.
Fisherman Dean Pruitt was unloading a grouper boat on Nov. 21 in Madeira Beach, Fla. He's happy with the price progression he saw throughout the year.
Ex-vessel price opened at $3 a pound on Pruitt's first trip of the year, rose to $3.16 on his second trip and finally hit $3.35. "It's been $3.35 most of the year," Pruitt said. "The market is stable; nobody's flooding the market."
With the Lenten season approaching, fishermen can anticipate robust demand. These seasonal sales usually give grouper a boost in the early spring, and there is no indication this year will be different.
Last year near the end of Lent, Lee Deaderick, owner of Northwest Seafood in Gainesville, Fla., said action was strong at the retail level. "We've had good prices on domestic grouper and good movement," Deaderick said.
The supply of red grouper, the most popular commercial species, should increase moderately in the coming months. Grouper fishermen got a welcome end-of-year increase in the 2011 commercial quota — from 4.32 to 5.23 million pounds — just in time for the holiday season. The quota increases again in 2012 to 5.37 million pounds.
Another good sign for domestic grouper fishermen is that fresh grouper imports during the first nine months of 2011 actually decreased — from 7.2 million pounds to 6.6 million pounds — compared to the same months in 2010, according to the latest available import data from NMFS. The decrease in imports may be in part a result of the dollar's general weakness, a phenomenon Deaderick noted earlier in the year.
"I think that the value of the dollar has pushed up the price of imports," he said.
NMFS' import figures show a 2011 price of $3.16 a pound versus $2.85 in 2010, narrowing the price gap between imports and fresh domestic fish.
While red grouper restrictions are gradually easing, gag's market presence has decreased dramatically as federal rebuilding mandates have resulted in deep quota cuts. For commercial fishermen, that leaves scamp and yellowedge as the remaining primary grouper species, though their value is a fraction of red grouper's $8 million to $10 million annual harvest value.
The Gulf of Mexico grouper fishery is managed under an individual fishing quota program, approved by a referendum of qualifying fishermen in late 2008 and implemented in January 2010.
As the debate over IFQs has heated up, a large number of gulf fishermen, seafood dealers and associations have signed a petition opposing more IFQ funding, but opposition isn't universal.
Fishermen like Pruitt, who are largely satisfied with the IFQ, believe it's fostered stable price and supply in the fishery and given fishermen more control. Pruitt says opponents forget that the choice wasn't between IFQs or open access.
"It wasn't going to be status quo, it was going to be limited entry or IFQ," he says. "Something was going to happen in our fishery."
Some opponents, like Madeira Beach seafood dealer Bob Spaeth, detest the aggressive IFQ policy push that disregards obvious problems with current programs.
"Let's get this one fixed," Spaeth says. "I feel confident that most people in the industry want to take a look at this IFQ and see what it's done" before considering new ones. — Hoyt Childers
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