Written by Jen Finn
Alaska & Pacific Halibut
Quota cut should hold halibut price up;
weaker yen to affect blackcod fortunes
As the longline gear splashed into the water for the 2012 season, halibut and blackcod fishermen found ex-vessel prices slightly below where they were when the season closed last year.
Shortly after the halibut season began on March 17, deliveries brought prices ranging from $5.80 to $6.25 per pound in Seward, says Bob Alverson, executive director of the Fishing Vessel Owners' Association, in Seattle.
However, this year's quota of 25.5 million pounds for Alaska areas is 16 percent lower than last season's 30.4 million pounds. That will have an effect up and down the distribution chain, and ultimately on ex-vessel prices.
The 2011 quota represented 25 percent a cut from the 2010 quota of 40.3 million pounds. Reactions to the cuts last year on the retail end drove flatfish fillets north of $22 per pound during the season, when the fish are fresh. Ex-vessel prices for fresh halibut in Cordova were running at $5.65 for fish in the 10-to-20-pound bracket, $5.95 for 20-40s and $6.56 for 40-ups through April, according to the association's April 2011 newsletter.
But by July 2011, the association's newsletter said, fresh fish falling in those same weight categories fetched $6.40, $6.80 and $7.10 respectively in Seward. Ex-vessel prices held strong through September and October as suppliers tried to build cold storage inventories to keep product available to supermarkets and restaurants from November through March, when the season is closed.
Bidding wars to acquire those inventories may have dampened prices going into the early weeks of this year's season, despite the overall projected shortage in the fishery. That's because those who stocked up on halibut still had product in the early part of the season.
"There was an expensive carryover in halibut," Alverson says. "But that should bleed out of the market by June, and I think the lower quota will keep prices up later in the summer."
With a quota of around 29 million pounds, Alaska's blackcod fleet is poised to surpass halibut in landings volume. On the West Coast, fishermen are expecting to land around 14 million pounds.
While this season's blackcod harvest quotas are up by about 20 percent from last year, the relative value of the yen to the dollar has declined since the close of the season last year. As of last October the yen traded at 76.6 to the dollar, which made the currency strong when buying blackcod, but the value slipped to around 82.5 at the opening of this year's season.
With the weakening of the yen and product still unsold in Japan, where 90 percent of Alaska's blackcod is exported, more than a few traders are stuck with carryover inventories from last year.
Last fall's prices of around $7 per pound to the fishermen have come back to bite the buyers, according to Scott Adams, operations and production manager with Hallmark Fisheries in Charleston, Ore.
"There are people who are still holding inventories," Adams says. "They don't want to sell for less than they've got into it."
Adams adds that some folks have resorted to "dump and run" tactics to liquidate last year's fish in the belief that markets for the high-end blackcod products have gone soft.
Adams says ex-vessel prices in April were running $3.50 per pound for fish running from 2 to 3 pounds, $5.25 for 3- to 4-pounders, $5.50 to $6.26 for 4 to 5s, $6.50 to $7.25 for 5 to 7s and up to $7.75 for fish weighing 7 pounds and up.
According to Alverson, while the Alaska-caught 2- to 3-pounders sold for $4.75 per pound, prices for the larger sizes were higher than along the West Coast, peaking at $8.50 for 7-ups.
"That's about 40 cents off from where we ended up last year," Alverson says. "But the fish prices, in general, have been good for everybody." — Charlie Ess
Turtle-friendly dredge could enhance
sustainability, appeal in marketplace
Sea scallop fishermen who fish west of 71 degrees longitude will spend more than $4,000 to replace each of their traditional New Bedford-style dredges with the new turtle deflector dredge — an investment that could end the long turtle protection battle between the industry, NMFS and environmental groups.
"We did it proactively and prodded NMFS to make them mandatory," says Jim Gutowski of the Viking Village dock in Barnegat Light, N.J.
Scallop vessel owners in the big-boat limited access fleet invested heavily in turtle deflector dredges, committing boats to extended testing trips.
Some environmental groups have long targeted scallop dredging. Turtle bycatch became a focus when more turtles appeared on scallop grounds in the early 2000s.
The new dredge design shifts the location of cutting and pressure plates, giving the dredge's front end a 45-degree angle, versus the traditional New Bedford dredge's squared front. Corners are likewise rounded to help turtles bounce off, and spacer bars are no farther than 12 inches apart so the creatures don't get jammed into the structure.
Combined with time and area limits during peak turtle migrations, TDDs will be required in 2013 from 71 degrees west on Massachusetts' south shore down to North Carolina.
"We're seeing this as very similar to the turtle excluders in the Southeast shrimp fishery. It does a great job of pushing the turtle up and over out of harm's way," says Gib Brogan of the environmental group Oceana, which advocates greater turtle protection.
Scallop prices in late April held around $10 per pound and exceeded $11 for U/10 sizes off day boats. Industry and management success at providing reliable, quality product — and a customer base that has learned to value it — has helped the industry defy the recession's downdraft of most seafood prices.
That value enabled the industry to be proactive regarding turtles and fund extensive research trips on scallop vessels. Cape Cod gear designer Ron Smolowitz and his Coonamesset Farm Foundation worked for years to take scallop dredge design beyond the first expedient step of "turtle chains" — mats originally made to keep rocks out of dredges on rough bottom.
The chains also kept turtles out. However, there was still danger of turtles getting jammed into dredge frames, or run over when feeding on the bottom.
Adopting the new dredge design could help long-term sales and help scallops gain sustainability certification — an increasingly critical label for large multinational retailers.
"We feel we have very low contact with the turtles to begin with," says Ross Paasche of the American Scallop Association, which is leading the industry effort to obtain Marine Stewardship Council certification. "Whether [the new dredge] is a game-changer will be up to the MSC."
Since 1998 rotational area management in federal waters increased the catch nearly fivefold to 58 million pounds in 2011; now Maine officials are considering a similar strategy to revive the inshore diver and trawl scallop fishery. Areas would be closed for two years, with the season cut from 70 days to 34 days, and daily landing limits reduced from 200 pounds to 135 pounds.
Area closures started in 2009 to divers' and fishermen's dismay, and about 20 percent of Maine's scallop grounds were closed in 2011, but those management measures expired in May.
Fishermen suggested thresholds for stopping harvests when limits are reached in different areas. However, state Department of Marine Resources officials say they want an "all encompassing plan," asserting that scallop biomass has already increased sharply in 13 closed areas.
Maine scallop landings were reliably over 1 million pounds of meat annually until 1997. That decline bottomed out at 33,141 pounds in 2005, according to Department of Marine Resources statistics. Landings crept back up, but the preliminary figure of 173,250 pounds for 2011 is a whole order of magnitude below the good times of the 1990s.
— Kirk Moore
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