Written by Jen Finn
Gulf/South Atlantic Red Snapper
IFQs a boon to the fleet, but industry pushes back on catch shares expansion
Despite post-BP oil spill worries and the global economy grinding toward a fifth year of malaise, average annual ex-vessel prices are holding at record levels — $3.53 a pound for red snapper in Florida for the first nine months of 2011 — according to the latest available data from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Research Institute.
Red snapper's price has been strong since the Gulf of Mexico individual fishing quotas were implemented in 2007. The program ensures a steady, year-round supply to meet likewise strong demand, which is a good predictor that prices will remain robust in 2012.
For 2011, the Gulf of Mexico red snapper total allowable catch increased to 7.19 million pounds, with the commercial quota rising to 3.66 million pounds. In the South Atlantic, the entire EEZ remains closed to red snapper fishing — unnecessarily so, fishermen say.
Overall, the market looks promising. But the commercial sector is politically fractured as the industry grapples with a federally mandated five-year review of the gulf red snapper IFQ program and with the controversy surrounding the federal push for widespread implementation of catch share programs. Fishermen's opinions differ on the merits of IFQs.
The political waters are muddied even more as environmental nongovernmental organizations enthusiastically support catch shares management, leaving some to wonder if such advocacy represents a stealth agenda. Red snapper IFQ shares become available Jan. 1, 2012, for trade by any U.S. citizen, a provision fishermen grudgingly accepted to gain fishery council approval for the program.
David Krebs, owner of Ariel Seafoods in Destin, Fla., and president of the board of directors for the Gulf of Mexico Reef Fish Shareholders Alliance, a group that wants to expand IFQs to all reef fish, says the alliance supports self-determination.
"What is the real angst behind letting a fisherman decide his own fate?" Krebs says. "It was never the understanding of the alliance that a catch-shares program should exist without a fishermen's referendum. If fishermen don't want catch shares, we don't want them to have them."
Bob Spaeth, the Southern Offshore Fishing Association's executive director and co-owner of Madeira Beach Seafood, wants the rush toward IFQs slowed down.
"We don't feel it prudent that we move forward with any new IFQs until we work out the problems with this one," Spaeth says. "Our guys want to fix it; nobody's saying get rid of it."
Spaeth also is suspicious of NGO involvement.
"EDF [Environmental Defense Fund] has taken on the job of promoting IFQs for all species in the Gulf of Mexico come hell or high water," he says. "We want this thing studied; it's disrupted the small-time fishermen."
Since 2007, shareholders in the IFQ snapper fleet have decreased 22 percent, from 546 to 425.
Donnie Waters, a Pensacola, Fla., red snapper fisherman and original red snapper program shareholder, favors IFQs in principle when fishermen ask for them. But he says he's concerned about what might happen when shares are available to the public.
"I didn't vote for IFQs to become a symbol on the Nasdaq stock market," he says. "I voted to protect the fishery."
Waters also is leery of the push for reef-fisherywide IFQs, which the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council is now considering. He questions the wisdom of bringing fish that are largely unregulated — such as vermilion snapper — into an IFQ program.
Vermilion snapper, or B-liners, have a size limit but no federal quotas or trip limits in the Gulf of Mexico. They are worth considerably less per pound than red snapper but — as of late September — surpassed red snapper in both total value and volume in Florida in 2011. Where, Waters asks, is the advantage to fishermen in unnecessarily limiting a viable open-access fishery?
"I don't see why you need to force regulations on yourself until you are in a tight space," Waters says. "That's when I get suspicious... we needed to draw a line somewhere." — Hoyt Childers
Lobstermen weigh harvest cut against rising prices in southern New England
Base prices for Northeast lobster in fall 2011 of $3 to $3.75 a pound held slightly higher than 2010 levels — better than the "cheaper than a pound of hotdogs" mantra that was heard on the docks in 2009.
"It was better than the two previous years when you saw $2 and $3. You were out there catching 1,000 pounds day, in the best fall I've seen, two years ago, but you couldn't make money," says Mike Grimshaw of Stonington, Conn., president of the Southern New England Fishermen's and Lobstermen's Association.
Autumn 2011 brought prices around $5.50 for Long Island Sound hard-shell lobsters, and "even our new-shell stuff is higher than what they're getting in Maine," Grimshaw says.
But fishermen in the southern states of lobster territory will see the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission reduce their catch by 10 percent. That's a lot less than the 50 and 75 percent cuts or five-year shutdown the commission considered to deal with declines in southern New England waters.
"Our harvest has already fallen by 90 percent from the late 1990s. Ten percent of what's left is not as big as it used to be," says Dave Simpson, director of the Connecticut Marine Fisheries Division.
The general consensus among Connecticut fishermen favors season closures to attain the 10 percent reduction, rather than gauge size changes that would burden the industry with more handling and marketing problems, Simpson and Grimshaw say.
Lobsterman Joe Healy of Niantic, Conn., says he'd like more urgent measures.
"We're in trouble down here. When there should have been lobsters in July, there were none," says Healy, who used to fish 120 traps but cut back to 80 in 2011 because lobstering was so slow. "They are talking about a lot of factors — water temperature, pollution, shell disease. Big-time lobstermen now realize we've got to do something."
But New Jersey lobstermen say they don't see those problems — and a 10 percent reduction is still enough to blow their businesses out of the water at dock prices ranging from $3.50 to $3.75.
John Godwin at Point Lobster Co., New Jersey's biggest dealer, says the Atlantic States commission is looking at faulty data when it sees a decline in southernmost waters. Record landing levels shown for 1989 to 1990 were in fact years when he and other dealers were not required to report, Godwin said at a hearing with lobstermen in Belmar, N.J.
"That's the key issue. No one had to report" if they were dedicated to lobster and not working under federal multispecies permits, says Ed Davis, a lobsterman who fishes out of Shark River Inlet in New Jersey. "So the numbers are bunk."
In the commission picture, "abundance levels are close to all-time lows," commission staff analyst Toni Kerns told fishermen. A 2009 assessment found the southern stock overfished, and the goal is to get stock abundance up from around 15 million lobsters now, past the biological threshold of 20 million and up to 25 million, she said.
Long Island Sound fishermen trace those problems to a frenzy of mosquito spraying after the West Nile outbreak of 1999. They are still pushing to end the use of methoprene as an insecticide on Long Island and in Westchester County.
New Jersey captains said they don't see anything like the same level of shell disease and declining numbers.
"We shouldn't be balled into someone else's problem. I've never seen so many small lobsters," said Shark River captain Joe Horvath Jr.
At some point, when the economy and lobsters rebound, the states will need to deal with another issue in the background: inactive lobster permits that could suddenly be worth a lot of money. "There's like 110 permits [in New Jersey], and only 30 of us that are active," Davis says. — Kirk Moore
Alaska & Pacific Petrale sole
Strong '07 year class could help fleet muzzled by IFQs
Customer demand for petrale sole is strong in San Francisco, but while prices are good, supplies are limited. As a result of a lower annual catch limit and fishermen feeling out the West Coast's new groundfish IFQ management regime, paltry volumes have come in over the docks.
However, petrale stocks appear to be rebounding, which could mean fishermen's allocations will grow in the next few years.
Diminished deliveries helped ex-vessel prices climb throughout last summer. And with plenty of uncaught quota still left in October, some in the industry wondered if meager harvests might be a continuing trend.
"A few boats were busy all summer, and kept petrale coming in once or twice a week," says Scott Adams, operations and production manager with Hallmark Fisheries, in Charleston, Ore. "That gave them the biggest bang for their buck and kept prices up."Adams estimates about 90 percent of the petrale fillets sell fresh in the San Francisco area. Much of the remainder goes to Los Angeles markets.
Summer and early fall ex-vessel prices ranged from $1.65 to $1.85 per pound, Adams says. That's up significantly from the average prices of $1.39 last year, $1.15 in 2009 and 93 cents per pound in 2008.
As the West Coast groundfish fleet adjusts to the catch share system, the delivery pace of petrale and other non-whiting groundfish species has been lackluster in comparison with years past. It's one reason ex-vessel prices are higher."There's a whole lot less fish coming in than we had before," Adams says.
Rod Moore, executive director of the West Coast Seafood Processors Association, in Portland, Ore., agrees. He adds that harvest data his organization gleaned during the new management regime's first 10 months suggests West Coast trawlers had landed only 18 percent of all groundfish complex species they had caught during the same period in 2010.
In comparing data from Jan. 1 to Oct. 15 from 2009 through 2011, English sole landings dropped from 426 metric tons to 202 metric tons, then to around 108 metric tons. Petrale, meanwhile, fell from 1,770 to 670 to 502 metric tons during that period.
"One of the promises of the IQ program was that the guys were going to be able to access more fish," Moore says. "But they're landing less fish."
One reason for the reduced landings, Moore says, is low initial allocations of species such as petrale sole. Harvesters whose allocations totaled just a few tons aren't willing to risk exceeding those allocations as they target more abundant species, which often frequent the same waters.
"Your catch can get pretty small," Moore says. "You don't want to go out fishing for English or Dover because you'll catch more than your allocation of petrale."
While the fleet appears to be catching fewer petrales (shrimp has become a more appealing alternative), the stocks have shown signs of rebounding. Though annual catch limits are set in two-year cycles, revisions are often made right around the end of the year for the upcoming season.
Catch limits for petrale have fallen from around 2,400 metric tons in 2008 to 2011's 976 metric tons. Stock surveys from last fall, however, suggest higher limits are coming.
"There's above average recruitment from the 2007 year class," says Colby Brady, a fisheries management specialist with NMFS in Seattle. "It looks like we've turned the corner."
Mid-October stock assessment surveys indicate ACLs are poised to increase already this coming season. Brady says the proposed rule in the federal register calls for 1,160 metric tons in 2012. Though ACL recommendations for 2013 and 2014 are "extremely preliminary," Brady says, they could hit 2,592 metric tons and 2,652 metric tons. — Charlie Ess
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