Written by Jen Finn
Alaska & Pacific Halibut
Strong yen and demand, lower quota keep dock prices high through April
Halibut and blackcod markets started strong in March with respective ex-vessel prices at nearly $7 and $8 per pound for fish in the largest categories.
Early deliveries of halibut usually bring top dollar in the season's first weeks but prices subside as volume begins hitting the markets. However, with this year's smaller quota and increased demand in high-end domestic restaurants and retail outlets, prices remained high well through April in Alaska's IFQ season.
For starters, the halibut fleet took a substantial cut in the 2011 harvest quota, which was set at 30.4 million pounds. That's down a quarter from last year's quota of 40.4 million pounds. Quotas will likely remain conservative until various population surveys point toward increased recruits into the fishery.
The population of diners frequenting high-end restaurants, meanwhile, has remained robust. And retail prices for fresh halibut in grocery stores hovered well north of $20 per pound through April.
"I'm bullish on halibut," says Bob Alverson, executive director of the Fishing Vessel Owners' Association in Seattle. "The low volumes are going to keep upward pressure on the prices."
That said, ex-vessel prices through mid-April were holding at $5.65 for fish in the 10-to-20-pound bracket, $5.90 for 20 to 40 pounds and $6.56 for 40 pounds and up. As of April 14, the fleet had landed around 3 million pounds.
While low volume and high demand indicate strong prices for halibut will continue, the calamity in Japan could bolster blackcod prices.
The yen was already strengthening against the U.S. dollar in early June of last year, when it was trading at around 92. Since then, weekly averages have grown stronger, hitting around 83 to the dollar as 2011 began.
In the days following the March 10 earthquake and tsunami, the yen was valued at 76.5, which was the strongest since World War II and bested the previous record in 1995. As blackcod deliveries began arriving in April, the yen climbed into the mid 80s but had returned to 81 by Good Friday.
Economic theory suggests the yen's value would fall in the earthquake's aftermath.
Reportedly, however, large-scale Japanese foreign investors who had been buying other currencies have begun selling those currencies and buying up yen.
A stronger yen usually narrows profit margins for Japanese exporters, which is unfavorable in trade. However, as Japan focuses on its rebuilding efforts the stronger yen should add more clout in the importation of goods. In the quake's wake, provided demand is there and buyers can take advantage of it, a strong yen puts Japan in a better position to buy U.S. product.
Just how long the yen will ride strong is anybody's guess. In April, blackcod deliveries to Southeast Alaska ports were bringing $8.10 per pound for fish 7 pounds and up, $7.60 for 5- to 7-pounders; $6.80 for 4- to 5-pounders; and 3- to 5-pound fish were fetching $6, according to Alverson.
Prices were nearly identical — or even higher — for deliveries in Oregon, says Scott Adams, operations and production manager with Hallmark Fisheries in Charleston. Other years, Adams says, the fish have fetched in the neighborhood of 35 cents per pound less than the Alaska fish, which puts him at a slight advantage in selling to Japanese customers.
"Here I am, trying to sell Oregon fish that I bought at Alaska prices," he says.
Barring some resistance to the high prices from his buyers, Adams adds that he expects sales to remain strong for blackcod and other seafood coming out of the United States.
"I believe that seafood is going to hold its value," he says. "The boats are going to make some money."
— Charlie Ess
2010's hard lessons could give sectors more stability in age of quota leasing
Rising fuel costs will eat into the prices fishermen are willing to pay for leased groundfish quota in the 2011 season, the new trading market where sector managers foresee more stability after the hard experiences of 2010.
Catch share critics and allied political leaders in Massachusetts said contentious data that suggests New Bedford landings were up 116 percent and revenue 129 percent mask broad job losses in the South Coast region.
Economic analysis by the University of Massachusetts included a reckoning that nearly half of the roughly 500 vessels qualified for sectors stayed out of the fishery, but there's no clear data yet on how much those owners made by leasing their shares.
"It's still fishery revenue that stays in the local economy," says former lobsterman Richard B. Allen, a consultant to industry and environmental groups. Allen has long maintained that consolidation is inevitable despite desires to maximize job opportunity.
Fishermen who leased their quota got fairly high prices until the last week of March, when the April rolling closure loomed in the Gulf of Maine. Expiring quotas created "a fire sale mentality" to use what could not be carried over, says Vito Giacalone of the Northeast Seafood Coalition.
"Lease costs for most all stocks was between 35 percent and 80 percent of the ex-vessel value of the fish after being caught, dressed and sold," Giacalone says.
With 12 of the 17 sectors (including one operating as a private permit bank) the coalition has some 300 boats from Maine to New York working on about 60 percent of Northeast quotas.
"Taking Georges haddock and pollock out of the equation, dabs were around 20 cents per pound for leasing but everything else was 50 cents to $1.50 per pound, with cod being the highest, then gray sole," Giacalone says. Gulf of Maine cod at $1.50 dropped by 30 cents toward the end of the year, Allen said.
Volatility and wide-ranging prices were "not a great surprise. This is the first year of a brand-new trading system with a new currency," says Hank Soule, manager of the Sustainable Harvest Sector that has 35 boats from Maine to New Jersey.
"In New England the prices for the product itself are volatile," says Soule, former manager of Maine's Portland Seafood Exchange. "At the beginning there was great uncertainty of what quota leasing would be worth. People felt like one pound of cod might be worth, say, two pounds of something else.
"But there has been a migration to a more currency-based system," Soule says. "The market has developed and matured in a relatively short time."
Catch rates were high in May 2010, leading NMFS to reduce trip limits to avoid overruns. That probably led to quota leases being over-valued at first, but "the market calmed down when folks saw we wouldn't be shut down too early," Soule says.
Lease values dropped more as the season drew toward its close. For 2011 he expects lease prices will be moderate, because of fishermen's experience now with the system and the escalating cost of fuel.
Snapshots of May prices compared to 2010 showed not much change for the big spring catches of scrod haddock — just shy of the $1 a pound paid last year. Market cod was $1.43 to $2.63 versus $1.65 the year before.
Medium to large Atlantic pollock ranged from 78 cents to $1.36. That's down from the $1.55 a pound in May 2010, just before the dreaded choke species was re-examined to avoid a widespread shutdown of the new system. That reappraisal found pollock was not overfished as thought. In early 2011 there was so much pollock flowing south that New York area supermarkets offered bargain fillets at $4.99 retail.
— Kirk Moore
Gulf/South Atlantic Mullet
'Sustainable' label hasn't helped price for small band of Florida cast netters
In 2009, Florida's 10.3 million pound striped mullet harvest was greater than the combined landings of Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, Virginia, Texas and Hawaii.
During the 2010-11 season, a hardcore group of small-boat cast-net survivors hung on despite periods of bitterly cold weather, the recession's continuing effects, rising fuel prices, the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill and economic ravages of globalization that have all but obliterated the once-lucrative Florida roe market.
Near-term prospects don't look much better than was the case this time last year, though calendar year prices for both roe and fish improved a bit over the previous year. Volume dropped by more than half, from 10.3 million pounds to 4.8 million pounds, according to preliminary Florida Fish and Wildlife Research Institute numbers.
These numbers are frequently revised upward when finalized. But there seems little doubt that effort in the mullet fishery is in a downward spiral, driven mostly by moribund prices. However, the BP oil spill also probably hurt landings in the Florida Panhandle. Another very cold winter didn't help, either.
In 2010, mullet roe brought $4.59 a pound, a pretty decent increase over 2009, but the roe market is tiny compared to what it once was. Overall, fish brought 57 cents a pound on average compared to 54 cents in 2009.
The Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch program has listed wild-caught Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic striped mullet as a Best Choice safe and sustainable seafood since 2004. And some mullet products — the red roe, certainly, and properly smoked mullet, arguably — deserve gourmet status.
But so far neither the listing nor the products have been able to do much to raise mullet's low-budget fish-fry image. Hence, prices remain stuck in the past.
For example, in 1993 mullet brought 59 cents a pound, two cents more than the 2010 price unadjusted for 19 years of inflation. But that's an equation no fisherman who intends to stay in the fishery really wants to contemplate.
Melrose fisherman Tom Diehl trailers his boat across the state and chases the winter roe mullet runs down the west coast. He says it was just one of those years.
"Gas went up; fish went down," he says. "We had to catch a lot of fish to make a living."
Diehl says he got anywhere from 50 cents to a dollar a pound for roe-bearing fish, depending on the time and the buyer.
It was a quirky year in the fishery. Mullet were abundant in some places but hard to find in others.
"They ran late; the weather had a lot to do with it," Diehl says. "It was strange; March 1 we're sitting here catching roe mullet."
Typically, the roe runs end in January.
"There's plenty of mullet around if you could sell enough," he says.
On the Atlantic Coast, John Polston, owner of King's Seafood in Daytona Beach, says the market price there improved a bit during the season.
"It was OK," Polston says. "It was better than last year, up 15 to 20 percent this year.
"I like to see it when it's up, it helps the fishermen out," he adds. "They work hard for it."
Bob Gill, owner of Shrimp Landing in Crystal River on the Gulf Coast, says he didn't see much change in the market over the previous season.
Systemic changes in the world market have given Asian and European buyers of mullet roe other options, whereas the Gulf of Mexico once was the primary source. It has become much more of a buyer's market.
"I think that will continue," says Gill, who is also a Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council member.
The fish remains in abundance; it's just a lot harder to move at a decent price. — Hoyt Childers
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