Written by Jen Finn
Gulf/South Atlantic TUNA
In midst of recession, relatively cheap can be too pricey for most consumers
Data on 2009 harvests from the three largest tuna-producing states in the Southeast suggest that the recession recovery touted by federal officials has done little — if anything — to improve the seafood market.
And so far this year there has been little sign of improvement as the Lenten season failed to produce the traditional bump for seafood sales, in one primary North Carolina seafood port, at least.
Preliminary 2009 harvest value numbers from Louisiana, Florida and North Carolina all show lower ex-vessel prices for yellowfin tuna, the primary commercial tuna in the Southeast. In Louisiana, ex-vessel prices dropped to $3.15 a pound from $3.60 in 2008, according to preliminary numbers through August from NMFS. In Florida, ex-vessel price dropped to $3.12 a pound from $3.72, according to preliminary numbers from the Fish and Wildlife Research Institute. In North Carolina, yellowfin prices dropped to $1.54 a pound from $1.90 in 2008, according to preliminary numbers from the North Carolina Division of Marine Fisheries.
The industry is in a double bind, especially with premium fish like tuna, said Steve George, general manager of Willie R. Etheridge Seafood in Wanchese, N.C., a major mid-Atlantic longline port. Demand has dropped with the huge loss of jobs that accompanied the recession. Dockside prices have not yet recovered, but seafood is still expensive — and unaffordable, compared with beef and chicken — for the consumer. Savings from dockside are not being passed on.
"It's very, very hard, and not just for the dealers," George said. "When seafood gets to the end user, it's expensive. If they are cheap at our end, it's not just passed on to the consumer."
Longliners, especially have had a hard time of it, with no improvement yet in sight as Easter approached.
"It's been a vicious circle," George said. "We thought Lent might help. This has been a very, very difficult winter."
Simply going fishing was especially challenging this winter, as cold front after vicious cold front slammed the Southeast with high winds and record cold temperatures for weeks on end.
And if the recession, attendant low ex-vessel prices and an especially harsh winter haven't crippled the market enough, the Pew Charitable Trusts recently launched another anti-fishing campaign in the Gulf of Mexico, this time specifically targeting the surface longliners that catch yellowfin tuna.
On March 23, a statement on the Pew Charitable Trusts Web site announced that the Pew Environment Group was leading a coalition to protect bluefin tuna by securing a time and area closure for sea surface longline fishing in the Gulf of Mexico.
Targeting of vessels in the U.S. yellowfin fishery is hard to reconcile in the view of many, Pew's record of advocacy notwithstanding. U.S. fishermen have championed international efforts for science-based protection of bluefin, which are at the heart of Pew's concern, with the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas. Moreover, the U.S. accounts for "about 2 percent of the global Atlantic bluefin tuna catch," according to NMFS' FishWatch. In the Gulf of Mexico, there is no bluefin quota, and the surface longline bluefin bycatch in those waters is insignificant. (For that matter, U.S. fishermen don't catch — never mind exceed — their bluefin quota in the Atlantic.)
As for yellowfin in 2010, the fish are there and stocks are healthy, according to NMFS.
"The Atlantic yellowfin tuna stock biomass level is estimated to be 96 percent of the level needed to support maximum sustainable yield," NMFS says.
As for prices, if the so-called recovery from the Great Recession begins to create jobs rather than just reduce the rate of job loss, look for consumers to begin buying yellowfin and other premium fish again.
But, short of recovery that actually makes a difference where most folks live, don't expect the market to improve during 2010. — Hoyt Childers
Long-term growth in stock envisioned, but prices have some catching up to do
The Northeast scup fishery may be a fraction of its historic self, but it's fully recovered now according to a stock reassessment.
Total allowable landings in 2009 at 11.2 million pounds were up from 9.2 million pounds a year before. It's a long way from the early 1960s when just commercial landings of porgies averaged almost 42 million annual pounds. In time, using gradual increases in the total allowable catch toward 35.6 million pounds, managers can test the new assessment model "while reducing the risk to the stock due to rapidly increased catch," according to the 2009 reassessment document from the Northeast Fisheries Science Center.
There won't be much danger of that in the 2010 economy. "The market has been very weak as a result of the recession," says Chris Brown, president of the Rhode Island Commercial Fishermen's Association. "A lot of it is for the frozen market, and the buyers only freeze what they think they can make money on."
A smaller portion of the scup market is fresh fish for ethnic and urban markets, where big fish got up to $2 a pound in some upscale niches before the 2008 downturn. But the Winter I season brought mostly 15 to 30 cents to Rhode Island boats, Brown said.
"Usually the freezer market will support 30 to 40 cents. But the dealers don't want to take that much because they don't know if they can make a profit on it," Brown says. "As a result the fresh market has much more fish than it can use."
The January to April trimester is allotted most of the quota at 45 percent, with about 39 percent for May through October. About 65 percent of the Winter I trimester allocation was caught by the end of March, leaving a good possibility that under-harvested tonnage would be carried over to later in the year when inventory and prices might come back up with the economy.
Landings reports to NMFS showed more fish to the south this year. Landings were much higher in New Jersey, usually in third place behind Rhode Island and New York in recent years. Garden State draggers brought in 1.2 million pounds, followed by 808,000 pounds in New York and 639,000 pounds from Rhode Island.
"Prices have been like a yo-yo — up and down, but mostly down," said John Cole, manager at the Fishermen's Dock Cooperative in Point Pleasant Beach, New Jersey. Co-op members sell porgies to the fresh market and saw 60 cents to $1.50 this winter, Cole says. "We had some lean years with porgies but the stocks are recovered," Cole says.
But the real reason for higher landings is that regulations "are pushing us into a box," he adds. "We have less to work on with summer flounder. With all the dogfish out there eating every squid in the ocean, we haven't landed any squid this winter. I think we're at 17 percent of the quota. I had 13 or 14 boats day scalloping here last year and it's down to four" under new quotas, Cole says. "All that plays into the fact that everyone gets pushed into scup."
Reassessing the status of scup began with the 2008 "data-poor species" peer review panel, an effort that covered some other misunderstood animals like black sea bass. The panel and a subsequent 2009 working group of biologists came up with a potential total allowable catch up to 35.6 million pounds.
"The upper limit on that will be recommended by the science and statistical committee," says Jessica Coakley, an analyst with the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council. Science and statistical committees were empowered by the last reforms to federal fisheries law, and the Mid-Atlantic group cautiously recommended a 10 percent increase in scup catches for this year.
They will meet in July to decide 2011 numbers. — Kirk Moore
Alaska & Pacific salmon
Three keys to forecasting this year's returns: location, location and location
The salmon industry can expect healthy production from Alaska, nothing of much of volume from California, and so-so seasons in Oregon and Washington.
The dark cloud on the horizon for California and some Oregon fisherman is the bleak outlook for fall chinooks bound for the Sacramento River. Last year, the industry reeled after fisheries scientists had predicted a return of 122,000 chinook and only 39,000 showed up.
According to Zeke Grader, executive director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations, Sacramento chinook account for around 90 percent of the catch in California and about 50 percent of the catch in Oregon.
This year the Sacramento run has been projected at an optimistic 245,000, but the fleet doesn't expect a season in California.
"A 2010 season is not a sure thing and would be extremely small at best," says Grader, adding that limited fishing this year won't do much to help the fleet beset by two previous years of closures.
In southern Oregon, fishing will be limited to protect the Sacramento stocks, but the forecast is for good fishing in northern Oregon and Washington, where the fleet will target stocks headed for the Columbia River. This year's predictions call for a return of 652,700 chinook to the Columbia, which is 56 percent more than fisheries scientists predicted for 2009 and could translate to hefty hauls in August, September and October.
When it comes to West Coast coho, however, the run projections are down for 2010.
On the Columbia, fishermen can expect 245,300, down from predictions of 681,400 in 2009, and the late-run coho, if they materialize true to forecast, will come in at 144,200, which is down substantially from 374,100 in 2009.
The Alaska salmon fleet, meanwhile, geared up for a total predicted run of 137.3 million fish, 143,000 of which would be chinook and 69 million of which would be pinks. The coho harvest, if it comes in as predicted, could tally up to 4.4 million. Of the predicted 45.8 million sockeye returning to the state, 30.5 million would come from Bristol Bay.
As the season progresses, all eyes will be on ex-vessel prices. In Alaska, Southeast trollers were treated to dockside offers or around $8 per pound for their chinook in early March. As a generality, chinook prices in Southeast drop as volume from the Copper River production kicks in during May. In the past five years, the annual average ex-vessel prices for chinook in Southeast have fluctuated between around $2.50 and $3 per pound while the Copper River fish have held up at around $5 per pound.
As chinook harvest volumes in California fell from around 5 million pounds in 2005 to 1.7 million pounds in 2007, ex-vessel prices for California fishermen climbed from $2.97 to $5.16 per pound. In the absence of a notable harvest this year, chinooks from Oregon, Washington and Alaska will likely fill the void.
"Ironically, California fishermen have become big proponents of Oregon, Washington, [British Columbia] and especially Alaska wild salmon, to keep our markets in wild salmon until we get back out on the water."
Ex-vessel prices for coho salmon caught in Southeast Alaska, Washington and Oregon dropped significantly in 2009. In 2008, the annual ex-vessel price average for Southeast cohos stood at $1.64 per pound while the Washington fleet enjoyed $1.57 per pound and Oregon fishermen saw $1.30 per pound.
In 2009, the Southeast fleet received $1.03 per pound, the Washington fleet received offers of $1.19 and Oregon stayed unchanged at around $1.30. — Charlie Ess
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