Written by Jen Finn
Gulf/South Atlantic Mullet
Fishery with roots deep in Florida soil struggles to flourish in modern times
The odds that the Gulf of Mexico roe mullet fishery will return to vitality — or that prices will improve — in the near future are lengthening. The Florida fishery, which in recent years has become the largest mullet producer, struggles for survival.
First globalization of production, and now the recession have waylaid much hope of resurgence. International roe buyers, once largely dependent on the Gulf of Mexico fishery, now have many options, including the Mediterranean countries, the Caribbean, Egypt and South America.
This leaves the domestic mullet market in a time warp of sorts for fish prices, though not for roe. The 2009 average ex-vessel price of 56 cents a pound for fish matches the 1992 price. But in 1992 mullet roe brought $11.10 cents a pound versus $3.78 a pound in 2009, according to Florida Fish and Wildlife Research Institute numbers.
The last decent year price-wise was 2005, when roe mullet brought $7.06 a pound ex-vessel on average in Florida.
Gulf fishermen and fish house operators must now function in an unapologetic buyers' market if they choose to play at all. Many don't, so effort is down drastically. Consequently, the downward spiral of unsteady supply and reduced market-share that began with the 1995 Florida gillnet ban continues.
Taiwan remains a buyer of gulf mullet roe, just not like in the old days.
"We sold one container to Taiwan, one went to Spain," says Karen Bell, manager of A.P. Bell Fish Co. in Cortez, Fla.
International buyers have been reluctant to commit to a bulk price.
"They are a little funky about it," she says. "I think they don't want to get into a bidding war."
It is difficult for fish houses to set a price for fishermen. "We started with last year's price and ended up down a bit from that," Bell says. She did sell some roe domestically, just in smaller lots than has been customary with international buyers.
Bob Gill, owner of the Shrimp Landing in Crystal River, Fla., says price uncertainty is difficult for fishermen and fish houses alike. "The buyers wouldn't quote any prices," he says. "It's been an increasing problem.
"Folks opted out... were reluctant to accumulate inventory."
The fish houses that did participate sometimes had to low-ball the dock price because the buyer price was unknown.
"Those that stayed in it put out a very low price to the fisherman," Gill says.
In late April, Gill was paying 60 cents a pound for non-roe fish, slightly above the 2009 average price.
Gill, Bell and a few others continue to support a mullet market hoping a tradition and a coastal culture once supported by a robust niche market can return.
Ten years ago, coastal byways commonly boasted roadside mullet-smoking shacks. Split, smoked mullet, mullet dip and community mullet-fries were commonplace. "That has shrunk a whole bunch," Gill says. "The old-time volume when everybody would attend fish-fries, they're gone." However, he added, "We're smoking here. We're trying to keep them available."
As with many gulf and South Atlantic fisheries, international competition coupled with state and federal regulations have driven the mullet fishery to the edge. Only the overall health of mullet stocks and the wish that recession "recovery" will eventually filter down to the waterfront give fishermen and fish house owners much hope that this once-vital inshore fishery has a future.
Weather also played a role in early 2010, especially. Two weeks of frigid night-time temperatures from the Florida panhandle to the Florida Keys left miles-long fish kills.
But mullet — like the fishermen who harvest them — have proven to be particularly resilient. Kills like these are not likely to have a lasting effect on stocks. — Hoyt Childers
Recession doesn't dent demand, but push to consolidate is thinning fleet
Sea scallops continued to hold their prices amid the recession, but the regulatory march toward consolidation and individual quotas is driving more people out of the fishery.
Late April prices out of the Elephant Trunk area east of New Jersey were around $6 for 10- to 20- count and up to $9.15 for U-10s, while the large sizes from New England were getting $8 to $10 in New Bedford, Mass.
The industry's biggest players and processors sought Marine Stewardship Council certification, partly to counter environmental activists' attacks on the dredge fishery. Atlantic Canada's offshore scallop fishery received MSC certification recently and American scallop fishermen are keen to do likewise.
Certification, they reason, can help them curry favor with European markets and domestic buyers like Wal-Mart.
Scallopers prevailed in their bitter fight with the New England Fishery Management Council over 2010 fishing targets. Heavy political pressure from Congress and Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick led the council to relent from a planned 29-day season for the limited entry fleet and to instead allow 38 days.
There's no such reprieve for the beleaguered day-boat fleet. Many who survived an earlier fleet size reduction the council imposed saw individual fishing quotas that split up the general category fleet's 5 percent allocation — about 2.3 million pounds — in shares that won't make viable business for them this year.
In Point Pleasant Beach, N.J., where the Fishermen's Dock Cooperative lost three-quarters of the scallop day boats, "We had 15 to 20 boats landing here and now it may be down to three or four," says skipper Denis Lovgren.
Lovgren is one of several captains who bought and converted Gulf of Mexico shrimp vessels in recent years for scallops and mid-Atlantic finfish trawling. Lovgren says his quota share was allocated at 1,700 pounds "and some people got just 800."
The quota calculation disadvantaged boats that had concentrated on other species like flounder, which are now more restricted. The diminished scalloping possibilities left crews last winter focused on lower priced scup, co-op captains say.
"There were supposed to be 380 boats" in the general category fishery before the 2010 quotas were doled out, Lovgren says. "I wouldn't be surprised if that's down to 100 in a couple of years...They are still pushing people out at every chance."
One year after six fishermen died on the Elephant Trunk, Coast Guard boarding parties greeted scallopers there as the season started in March. Cutters and helicopters were deployed as part of Operation Safe Catch, the periodic safety push that traces its roots back to disastrous East Coast clam boat losses in 1999.
"We've been on board about 20 boats," says Cmdr. Brendan McPherson, captain of the cutter Vigorous and a veteran of the Coast Guard's decade-long drive to improve fishing vessel safety.
McPherson says the March 2009 sinking of the Cape May boat Lady Mary partly inspired last winter's push for fishermen to get dockside examinations. The cutters Bainbridge Island and Elm started the sweep of the Elephant Trunk and other northeast areas that followed.
"We normally would not have a big ship like this doing fisheries enforcement," McPherson says. His 210-foot cutter deployed small boat boarding parties coordinated by its on-board helicopter crew.
They found safety compliance to be very high. Just one boat was due for a dockside safety exam and another was short one flare in its emergency kit.
Stonington, Conn., captain Michael Bomster says the boardings "are a pain" but he agrees the industry has seen a turnaround in attitudes toward safety issues and crew training.
One shortcoming he sees in his experience: "It was mandated by law to do these [crew] drills and keep these drill logs...[but] the Coast Guard has not been asking for the drill logs." — Kirk Moore
Alaska & Pacific Blackcod & Halibut
Halibut, blackcod harvesters make hay while sun shines and high prices reign
North Pacific halibut and blackcod fishermen began their season optimistically with strong prices. Processors posted record high ex-vessel offers for those who ventured out in a raging storm to get the season's first deliveries.
With cold storage holdings of halibut depleted last winter, markets were hungrier than they've been in years.
The outcome of the International Pacific Halibut Commission meetings provided even more impetus for higher prices this year. When the panel met in January, it reduced the harvest quota from 43.6 million pounds to 40.3 million pounds. Population estimates have led the regulatory agencies to ratchet down quotas steadily from around 50 million pounds in 2007.
The combination of diminishing availability, depleted frozen supplies and typically rough weather during the early part of the season added up to big prices at the docks.
Such were the market conditions when the 82-foot Jeanoah headed out of Kodiak in time for the March 6 opener. The marine forecast was for southwest winds at 35 knots. But the Jeanoah encountered gusts of 80 knots by the time it reached the grounds. "The seas were 30 feet, easy," said James Stevens, the boat's owner.
Although Stevens had sworn off fishing in such conditions, he knew the fish would command top dollar. The Jeanoah pulled into Kodiak with shattered antennas and other vestiges of heavy weather and sold its halibut, 40 pounds and up, for $6.25 per pound.
Weather drove prices during the first week or so of the season. But prices at Kodiak held strong through mid-April when appreciable harvest volumes came in. Stevens reported receiving $4.30 for halibut weighing between 10 and 20 pounds; $4.50 for fish between 20 and 40 pounds and $4.70 for flatties weighing 40 pounds and up.
In Homer, prices were even higher, with the price breakdowns for the respective weight splits beginning at $4.75 per pound and topping out at $5.15. Prices a year ago broke down at $3, $3.25 and $3.75. West Coast halibut deliveries followed a similar vein, with prices hitting a high of $5.21 per pound in comparison with last year's $4.17.
"There's lots of competition this year for halibut," says Jessica Yeoman, marketing agent with the Auction Block in Homer. Yeoman reports new buyers have entered the market and some retailers have begun purchasing directly from fishermen.
Market dynamics behind record high blackcod prices have some processors scratching their heads. Stevens received $6.50 per pound for blackcod, 7 pounds and up, delivered to Kodiak. Last year fish in that size range fetched a high of $5.40.
"Some buyers are paying really, really large prices," Yeoman says.
Scott Adams, production and operations manager with Hallmark Fisheries in Charleston, Ore., concurs that blackcod prices have gone ballistic. He attributes competition among buyers to supply fresh fish to customers in Japan during Golden Week — a week spanning late April and early May during which many national public holidays occur — as the primary cause.
With deliveries running between 3,500 and 4,500 pounds per boat, per week at Charleston, supplies had been weak, and ex-vessel prices were at $6.10 per pound "My concern is that this in-fighting among competitors in the market could backfire," he says.
After Golden Week, Adams adds, blackcod consumption in Japan drops drastically, and fish begin accumulating in cold storage. "You bought that fish, cut for $6 per pound," he says, "and now you've got more expenses to keep it in the freezer." — Charlie Ess
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