Written by Jen Finn
Fleet to south avoids a moratorium, but environmetal factors worrisome
Midcoast Maine lobster prices finally stayed well above $3 in October after two years of depression that time-warped the industry's financials back a decade and more. But a struggling lobster population has harvest cuts looming in the southern New England fishery.
Deflated by a collapse of demand from processors in late 2008, lobster prices descended to an unsustainable low of $2.50 the following year. Cheaper than a pound of hotdogs, lobstermen said. Now the market seems to have established a more reasonable floor.
"The basic boat price has crept up. The catch all year has been consistent, and consistent is good," says Dana Rice, a dealer in Gouldsboro, Maine. "It's a good year so far."
Still, it's just a living wage, says Bill Adler, executive director of the Massachusetts Lobstermen's Association.
"These guys need a $4 boat price to break even," Adler says.
What Canadian processors pay for soft-shells and mixed lobsters sets baseline prices. Those rose to $3.50 or slightly better by late summer 2010, says Adler, who compiles price sources from New York to Maine for the association's weekly market reports.
"The demand has improved all through the summer. It's not climbing mountains, by any means," Adler says. "Back in the doldrums of the last two years, people weren't going out to restaurants. That has improved, but it's not busting out."
Meanwhile, fishermen see resurgent species like striped bass and dogfish chowing down on baby lobsters. Biologists agree predators are part of the problem driving lobster numbers down in the fishery's southern range from Cape Cod to Virginia.
But scientists think climate change, yielding warmer water unfavorable for lobsters, is the bigger factor. In November the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission met to talk about its next steps, after the commission rejected in June 2010 a proposed five-year moratorium on lobstering.
"The environmental conditions now seem to dominate southern New England. It's a big obstacle to recovering lobsters now," says Carl Wilson, a Maine Department of Marine Resources biologist and chairman of the Atlantic states commission's lobster technical committee.
Technical advisers recommended the five-year moratorium in an April 2010 report. But Atlantic states commissioners asked them for less drastic steps to achieve 50 to 75 percent catch reductions in the southern area.
Advisers drafted the next technical report for the November commission meeting in Charleston, S.C. Wilson says he could not talk about the details before that presentation.
"It's still bitter medicine," he says.
Lobster quotas might be one recommendation, "but they really don't have the data for that," says Bonnie Spinazzola, executive director of the Atlantic Offshore Lobstermen's Association. Its members account for about 20 percent of the landings and would take a big hit with reductions to the southern fishery.
"All the technical committee can do is respond to the board's request" for reduction scenarios, Spinazzola adds. "At this point I don't think anybody knows how it could be done."
While the recession kept fuel prices low, bait supplies and prices remain uncertain. The herring quota for Area 1A in the inshore Gulf of Maine was reduced 41 percent to around 26,500 metric tons, the latest in several years of cuts.
"There was enough bait for everyone to get by, although it was tight at times," Rice says. Prices averaged $20 to $25 a bushel with peaks to $27 in 2010, he says.
With so much pressure on bait supplies, New England fishermen who still had the inshore permits headed to New Jersey in spring 2010 to take part in a big menhaden fishery just outside New York Harbor. That wound up recreational charter captains, because their spring striped bass fishery closely follows the menhaden schools.
New Jersey state officials reacted quickly. Only New Jersey boats will be allowed in the 2011 bait fishery to supply local boats. That likely means New England fishermen will again pay more trucking costs to get menhaden shipped north. — Kirk Moore
Gulf/South Atlantic Red Snapper
Somehow, prices don't seem so good when there's no place to go fishing
Red snapper prices for 2010 were pretty good — $3.52 per pound on average through mid-August in Florida — considering the troubles the year brought. But good prices don't mean much if you can't go fishing.
With the entire South Atlantic Exclusive Economic Zone closed to red snapper fishing under an interim federal rule and a third of the Gulf of Mexico closed because of the BP/Deepwater Horizon oil spill for much of the summer, 2010 was a disastrous year for snapper fishermen on both coasts. In early October, some 23,000 square miles of mostly offshore waters between New Orleans, and Panama City, Fla., remained closed.
Some snapper fishermen — among them, Donnie Waters of Panama City — tried to keep fishing outside the closed areas.
"I fished a while on the [west] side until prices went down," Waters says. "I traveled over 300 miles to get to the other side" of the closed areas.
Finally, in June, Waters gave up on the season. The income wasn't worth the extra effort and expense, including an additional 200 gallons of fuel per trip.
"It took more out of pocket, a lot more expenses," he says. "It was taking me twice as long to catch my fish. Out of your territory, you're just kind of lost looking around. I basically took the profitability out of it.
"The last I sold was in June back to Pensacola," he says.
By June, the bad news about the oil spill had knocked the red snapper ex-vessel price down about 20 percent, Waters says.
On the Atlantic Coast, the red snapper closure has also shifted extreme fishing pressure to vermilion snapper, says Atlantic Beach, Fla., fisherman Vic Lloyd.
"It's basically created a derby fishery," Lloyd says. "Our quota was met... in just over three months."
The interim red snapper closure was in effect while a new amendment to the South Atlantic snapper-grouper fishery management plan — still awaiting federal approval in late October — moves through the regulatory process.
South Atlantic fishermen were hoping a new stock assessment, released this fall, would prove an earlier, much-disputed stock assessment was faulty and that Amendment 17A's proposed long-term snapper-grouper closures are overkill.
But the new assessment indicates red snapper stocks are at about 7 percent of historic levels versus 3 percent in the earlier assessment. Fishermen are still highly skeptical.
"They basically bent everything around to show the other assessment wasn't that far out of whack," Lloyd says.
The South Atlantic Fishery Management Council, which passed Amendment 17A in a split vote, has indicated it might consider downsizing the snapper-grouper closure. The amendment proposes closing about 5,000 square miles between 98 feet and 240 feet from Melbourne, Fla., to 31 degrees north a few miles above the state line.
For now, fishermen must determine how they can make a living with basically no bottom fishing off the northern coast of Florida.
"Anybody who's going to fish has to go above 31 degrees," Lloyd says. "They are going to have to resettle if they want to stay in business; I don't see any way around it."
Snapper fishermen also report disturbing anomalies they fear may be oil spill-related, says Andalusia, Ala., fisherman David Walker. They're finding sea turtles that seem sick and disoriented, an absence of blue crab where they are normally common, and, perhaps most worrisome, an almost total lack of small and juvenile red or vermilion snapper.
"It really concerns me about not having any juvenile fish," Walker says.
Price has rebounded a bit, but fishing remains slow, and fishermen and buyers face a challenge in reviving the market.
"We're having to fish inshore; we're making some trips, but it's nothing like we were hoping it would be [after a long closure]," Walker says. "We've got to re-establish some of these markets."
— Hoyt Childers
Pacific Petrale Sole
Overfishing designation, catch shares snare West Coast groundfishermen
The bad news for the West Coast petrale sole fishery is that the biomass has gone from bad to worse, and the species was designated as overfished in February. After the new year, implementation of a new individual quota program for West Coast groundfish could spell further catch reductions for petrale and other species as the industry adjusts to the new system.
The individual quota program is slated to begin Jan. 1. It will allocate catch shares of more than two dozen groundfish species among trawlers based on their catch histories.
The new program is around seven years in the making. Like ITQ/IFQ regimes in Alaska and elsewhere, its proponents say it will spread out the delivery pace to bolster markets for fishermen, increase safety at sea — as the fishermen will be able to fish year-round — and help rebuild ailing populations of petrale sole and several rockfish species.
And like quota programs elsewhere, the West Coast program has drawn sharp criticism for how it could affect vessel owners, deckhands, processors and many businesses that are peripheral to the fisheries.
In October, the San Francisco-based Crab Boat Owner's Association, the Port Orford (Ore.) Ocean Resource Team and the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations filed suit to block implementation of the rationalization program, which they say will thin the fleet and eliminate thousands of coastal jobs. They say it will allocate 90 percent of the groundfish to trawlers, leaving hook and line boats high and dry.
Another beef with the program is an amendment within it that could halve landings to shoreside plants along the Oregon coast. In a letter to NMFS late last year, Steve Bodnar, representing the Coos Bay Trawlers Association, urged administrators to reconsider an allocation scheme that would award shares of overfished species to boats that fished shoreward of rockfish conservation areas and cut out the boats that fished seaward.
Bodnar's letter says the seaward boats avoided catches of canary, dark-blotched and widow rockfish. Hence, they don't have those species in their catch histories.
As fishermen filed applications for shares of the various species in November, NMFS filed a proposed rule to rebuild the ailing petrale population along with a half dozen rockfish species.
Last year, the fleet faced restrictions in hopes of minimizing impact to the petrale stocks. The stock will undergo more rigorous stock assessment studies in 2011, and the hope is to have it rebuilt in 10 years.
Meanwhile, fishermen this year whittled away at a substantially reduced petrale quota. The 2010 quota, originally set at 2,393 metric tons, was reduced to 1,193 metric tons after stock assessments in the summer of 2009 indicated that the fleet needed to ratchet down the harvest.
After Jan. 1, it's anybody's guess how fishing effort and the volume of landings will play out. Fishermen will have all year to land their allocations of the various species.
"The trawl IQ program is launching us into the unknown," says Rod Moore, executive director of the West Coast Seafood Processors Association, in Portland, Ore. Given the latest round of events, he wouldn't venture how much petrale trawlers would land for the remainder of 2010, much less for 2011.
Scott Adams, operations and production manager with Hallmark Fisheries, in Charleston, Ore., says he's already felt the crunch of reduced landings.
"Right now there's not much product coming in," Adams says. "We're paying 50 cents (per pound) more for petrale."
According to Pacific Fisheries Information Network data, average ex-vessel prices for 2010 came in around $1.12 per pound, up from around 91 cents last year, $1.02 in 2008 and $1.01 in both 2006 and 2007.
Demand for petrale is strong, but Adams adds, higher prices will never make up for the industry's loss in volume.
"Some guys are going to have quota that's going to be worth fishing for," Adams says. "And some are not." — Charlie Ess
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