National Fisherman

Gulf/South Atlantic Yellowfin

Uncertainty over post-spill damage is keeping La. longline fleet dockside

Nearly a year after the BP/Deepwater Horizon oil disaster, the Gulf of Mexico yellowfin tuna fishery has been one of the hardest hit. Most of the tuna longline fleet remains tied to the docks, says David Maginnis, vice president of Houma, La.-based Jensen Tuna.

A few vessels have been hired for post-spill research, he says. "Other than that," Maginnis says, "we haven't had any boats working."

With diesel fuel headed back toward $4 a gallon, the complex post-spill challenges facing longline skippers are just too great to risk fishing trips that might take them deeper into the red.

"There is too much uncertainty," Maginnis says. "They are afraid there won't be anything [on their usual fishing ground], that nobody will buy their fish, that nobody will want them. It will cost them over $20,000 just to go fishing."

Plus, crew members are hard to find. And skippers and vessel owners who are due compensation from BP are uncertain whether attempting to fish might damage their claims.

"BP has promised compensation," but the industry has seen "very little," Maginnis says. "It's mind-boggling how this thing is going down."

With virtually no gulf yellowfin coming into its docks, Jensen has had to turn to other sources — domestic and foreign — Maginnis says.

"Basically, we've done whatever we could," he says. "We did not shut down; we are trying to keep our employees."

Maginnis wonders how one reckons with the less tangible, indirect damage to the market. How does he account for the fact that he can't provide customers with the fish they want from the source they want?

"The gulf tuna was known as some of the best tuna in the world," he says. "It's been devastating."

Maginnis also is concerned about the biological future of the fishery. The Deepwater Horizon blowout released millions of gallons of oil into the central gulf during the yellowfin spawning season, and nobody knows what the long-term effects will be.

"That spawn is definitely hurt," he says.

Maginnis is skeptical of federal assurances that gulf fisheries will be back to normal in two years.

"There has been major, major damage," he says. "That's a bunch of baloney, that we would be back in full production in two years."

Louisiana, with usual annual yellowfin harvests of about 2 million pounds, is typically second only to Hawaii in domestic market production.

Florida and North Carolina are generally among the top half-dozen domestic supply contributors, as well. Florida prices in 2010 may have benefited from the shortage of Louisiana fish, though volume was down in the peninsula state, as well. The 2010 harvest was off about 40 percent from the previous year, according to preliminary Florida Fish and Wildlife Research Institute numbers.

Florida ex-vessel prices averaged $3.63 a pound compared to $3.24 in 2009.

Official 2010 price data were not available from North Carolina. But preliminary numbers suggest a reduced harvest of 367,795 pounds in 2010 compared to 546,406 pounds the previous year, according to preliminary numbers from the North Carolina Division of Marine Fisheries.

In mid-March 2011,Tony Frost, president of Homer Smith Seafood in Beaufort, N.C., said recent weather had been terrible with serial blustery, cold spells that had greatly hampered fishing effort. His vessels had just begun to bring in a few tuna.

"We are just starting on yellowfin," he said.

Prices in Beaufort looked good in early March, with 40- to 60-pounders starting at $3.75 a pound and increasing to $8 a pound for the top grade.

Despite continued sluggish and halting improvement in the economy and jobs growth, and despite the fact that yellowfin is a high-end consumer product, tuna imports for January 2011 increased 22 percent compared to the same month in 2010, from $11.7 million to $14.3 million, probably reflecting at least in part the continued scarcity of Gulf of Mexico fish. — Hoyt Childers

Alaska & Pacific Salmon

Diversification paying off in Alaska; Calif. trollers again open for business

Harvest numbers and ex-vessel prices are rising for Alaska salmon fishermen, and the California fleet is gearing up for what finally may be a more robust commercial season.

Alaska's industry spent the advent of this year's season mulling economic repercussions of the Japan earthquake and tsunami. Roughly 25 percent of Alaska's salmon products wind up there.

Alaska accounts for about 95 percent of all U.S. salmon products exported to Japan. Last year's salmon exports of more than 23.5 million kilos were worth just over $142 million.

Natural disasters aside, Alaska's salmon industry is climbing higher.

Alaska Department of Fish and Game data reveals the 2010 harvest hit 168.6 million fish, up from 162.5 million in 2009 and 146.1 million landed in 2008. Gross revenues hit $533.9 million, up from $416.8 million in 2009.

According to the Alaska Salmon Price Report, published by the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute, first wholesale values of last year's salmon fillets, frozen headed and gutted fish, and roe totaled $578 million. That's up 29 percent from $447 million in 2009.

What's fueling Alaska's success?

"Diversifying product forms. That's the big thing. It's a switch from the old days when everything went into a can," says Tyson Fick, ASMI's communications director, in Juneau. "That, and we've differentiated Alaska wild salmon from other salmon on the market, and the industry has made a constant effort to improve quality."

Though the price report notes increases in nearly every product category, frozen headed and gutted salmon, driven largely by pinks and sockeyes, showed the largest increase. They enjoyed first wholesale values of $294 million, a 54 percent gain over $191 million in 2009.

Fish and Game data shows average ex-vessel prices for all five species jumped dramatically from 2009 to 2010: Chinooks rose from $2.76 in 2009 to $3.44 per pound; sockeyes, which averaged 90 cents in '09 hit $1.11 last year, and pink salmon ascended from 26 cents in 2009 to 35 cents last year. Cohos rose from 93 cents to $1.05, and chums climbed from 49 to 66 cents.

The 2011 Alaska harvest projections, meanwhile, stand at 203.4 million fish. Of those, 44.7 million are expected to be sockeye, up from 40.8 million last year, and Fish and Game is predicting a harvest of 133.5 million pink salmon, a 25 percent increase over last year's 107.6 million. The chum catch could reach around 19.5 million, slightly higher than last year.

In California, the salmon season was on hold until after May 1. Any fishing after that was to be established during April meetings with the Pacific Fishery Management Council.

Among options up for consideration, fishermen south of Point Arena might not see a long fishing season but one that stretches through May and into some of June. To the south, near Bodega Bay and Farallon Islands, fishing might last throughout much of the summer.

Overall, California's troll fisheries may be on the rebound since the 2008 water pumping restrictions on the delta, says Zeke Grader, executive director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations, in San Francisco.

"It's looking fairly positive, the best it's been in several years," Grader says. Driving that optimism, he says, is that the 2011 season holds the promise of the first age class to return since the restrictions were enacted.

"We've had good ocean conditions," Grader adds. "So these 3- and 4-year-olds will be coming back at 12, 13 pounds."

And when they do, hungry local markets will be ready to take inventories off fishermen's hands. Widespread closures in the West Coast salmon industry in 2008 and '09, and an abbreviated season last year shorted local markets. Wholesalers turned to wild salmon from Alaska, Oregon and Washington to keep supplies flowing to local fresh markets.

"This will probably be the first year in a while that we're not pumping Alaska wild salmon to the chefs," Grader says.
— Charlie Ess

Northeast Scup

Plenty of fish in the sea, but falling prices have harvesters looking abroad

Amid all the noise about fisheries declining worldwide, America's Mid-Atlantic stocks look pretty good by comparison, and scup may be the best of all — by the biological numbers, anyway.

Reassessments jacked the scup stock size estimates past 200 percent of the rebuilding goal. But the little bronze fish are becoming a tough sell to most American consumers who want the convenience of cut fillets and packaged products.

In 2005 New York draggers saw peaks of $1.75 a pound for jumbo porgies, as they are also called, in the Mid-Atlantic. Many more scup are available now, but captains say once-robust urban and ethnic markets aren't so strong anymore.

"There is plenty of scup out there, but I don't bother going for it. The shipping costs are 20 cents a pound freight, and it's just not worth it," says New York captain Bill Reed, who fishes out of Shinnecock Inlet on Long Island. "There's no market for scup."

"I had a trawl of porgies that was the best tow of my life," Shinnecock captain Dave Lofstad said in late March, recalling a 50,000-pound haul. "It was crazy. It was like, 'What am I going to do with these?'"

Lofstad came down from the thrill because of prices that were 30 cents a pound for mediums, 50 cents for large, and 75 cents for jumbos that in better times would claim well over $1.

Nevertheless, limited choices sent Mid-Atlantic crews after scup during the Winter I period that began in January and ended April 30. At the beginning of the month New Jersey boats were leading the pack, landing 1.18 million pounds, followed by New York with 665,000 pounds and Rhode Island at 608,000 pounds.

Still, perhaps reflecting low prices, just 46 percent of the 6.89 million pound quota was landed in three months.

Long Island fishermen kept their longtime whiting fishery going for some time with exports to Spain. They've lost their domestic market as customers who prefer traditional seafood like whole fish gradually fade from the American population.

Reed says he wonders if the same thing is happening with scup and if fishermen should be looking to export more.

"It's a global market now. People buy fish in King Kullen [a New York supermarket chain] from halfway around the world. We have good products here, too."

The scup biomass is still growing, with total allowable landings of 20 million pounds this year. That's an increase of 6.5 million pounds from the 2010 total. After several years of cutbacks, scup limits were revised upward after a review of "data poor" stocks in the Northeast yielded a more optimistic outlook.

Managers allowed a 30,000-pound weekly landing limit for boats during the Winter I season to accelerate the pace of fishing. Still, biologists caution, the stock data isn't richer now.

Biologists don't understand the lives of older scup past age 2 and their role in the population very well. And there are poor estimates of discard mortality, which is a big factor with the stock.

From 2003 through 2007, commercial scup landings held steady at close to 9 million pounds before dropping to around 5.2 million pounds in 2008. They rebounded back to 8.5 million pounds in 2009, according to federal statistics.

A reassessment by the Northeast Fisheries Science Center in 2009 suggested that scup's spawning stock biomass began climbing sharply in 2003-04. Recruitment does seem to be high in recent years, but the experts are not sure how those numbers compare to historic levels.

That's all compounded by the chance factor in meeting up with scup during trawl surveys. Encounters like Lofstad's big haul can make big differences in the year-to-year survey indices, the Mid-Atlantic council's science and statistical committee noted in their 2010 scup review. — Kirk Moore

Inside the Industry

The Northeast Fisheries Science Center has announced that Dr. Jon Hare has been selected to serve as the permanent science and research director effective Oct. 31.

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It’s no secret that fraud is a problem in the seafood industry. Oceana repeatedly touts a mislabeling epidemic. While their method has been criticized, the perception of rampant fraud  has been established.

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