Written by Jen Finn
Gulf/South Atlantic Shrimp
Prices looking up for shrimpers back on the water, but spill is still a concern
The outlook for both the market and the fishery remain uncertain as shrimpers in the Gulf of Mexico look to the winter and spring of 2011 in the aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon/BP oil spill.
Shrimpers report that prices have rebounded somewhat from lows of the past summer. But a Nov. 24 reclosure of 4,213 square miles of deepwater royal red shrimp grounds south and east of Louisiana's Plaquemines/St. Bernard parish peninsula — after a shrimper netted tar balls — will hurt vessels that depend on this niche fishery.
Marilyn Solorzano, owner of The Shrimp Lady fish house in Jacksonville, Fla., says the closure will hit her business hard.
"Our winter season is made with royal reds, December through April," she says. "That's just shot. That is going to be a big effect on the deepwater species."
Fishermen report regional bits of good news, but overall, the gulf shrimp fishery and markets are far from having recovered from the disastrous summer of 2010. And with marine diesel fuel prices creeping back up toward $3 or more, profit margins for those who are able to work are getting slimmer once again.
Diesel prices in the Southeast are up about 40 to 50 cents from a year ago, according to reports from fishermen, and the trend is likely to continue, at least the near term, based on industry forecasts.
The U.S. Energy Information Administration, in a short-term outlook report published in early December, forecast generally rising prices for diesel and other petroleum fuels as supply slows and demand grows through 2011.
"Gradual tightening in global oil markets continues to support world oil prices," the report states.
In early December, shrimp harvests were good in eastern Louisiana for those who were fishing, said George Barisich, president of the United Commercial Fishermen's Association.
"Right now, they're slamming the shrimp, the boats that are working," he said. But in parts of eastern Louisiana, that amounted to only about 10 percent of the fleet.
"Those of us that are working are doing quite well because we don't have any competition," he said. Processors that are in business "are getting all they can handle."
In December, ex-vessel prices were up but not yet even halfway to the early summer level, before the oil spill had really affected the market. Heads-on shrimp, 36-40 count, were bringing about $1.25, Barisich said, compared to $2.10 in June and 90 cents after the crash.
The state of the fishery varies greatly by region. Barisich says while production was good for the few fishermen working in eastern Louisiana, there were worrisome anomalies on the shrimp grounds.
"We still have areas that typically produce that still aren't producing," he says, and fishermen fear the oil spill is to blame.
"I don't know of any other reason," Barisich says.
On the other hand, harvests from the Fort Myers, Fla., fleet on the lower Gulf Coast were excellent in October, says Dennis Henderson, owner of Gulf Shrimp.
"I've never seen so much shrimp; the production is really good," he says.
January-November harvest numbers from NMFS illustrate this regional variation and undoubtedly reflect oil spill disruptions.
Gulfwide, production of all species of shrimp (heads-off) was 84.9 million pounds, down drastically from 124.5 million pounds in 2009. 2010 production in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, the states most affected by the spill, was a fraction of the precious year, but Texas was off to a lesser degree, to 39.6 million pounds from 47.1 million pounds. Meanwhile, Florida production actually increased, to 4.9 million pounds in 2010 from 4.4 million pounds for the same months in 2009.
On Florida's Atlantic coast, Solorzano, whose big freezer boats fish in the Atlantic and into the gulf, says only East Coast Florida rock shrimp pulled them through 2010.
"Whites were few and far between... Our brown shrimp season was a bust," she says. "Rock shrimp was very late this year, but we salvaged out a season with that in the end." — Hoyt Childers
Demand and prices hold steady despite economy, long-term decline in landings
Squid landings in the Northeast were down sharply in 2010, a marked dip two years into the recession that could be tied to regional ocean conditions as much as the still-unstable international market.
The nearly 30 percent drop-off in loligo (longfin) squid catches to 14.12 million pounds by late December was the steepest in a trend of decline that began in 2007 and accelerated after the financial crash in 2008.
Yet squid captains say domestic demand and prices for loligo are steady with a base price of $1 a pound. Plummeting economies in Spain and other Mediterranean nations affected squid exports. European Union forecasts and American fishermen say that's coming around.
"The market's been good for us. The fresh price is about $1 a pound. The world market has seen a shortage, so exports have been good for us to places like Spain, Italy and Greece," says captain Chris Roebuck of Wakefield, R.I.
Roebuck's boats Karen Elizabeth and Yankee Pride respectively pack out fresh and frozen squid. "We're seeing squid in the normal places," he says. "We've been filling up the boats."
Poor squid catches in the South Atlantic during 2009 didn't drive up prices much because the European economy was so bad and demand was down, according to the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization. Argentina's fleet landed better catches of illex (shortfin) squid in 2010, yet export prices did not improve much, according to international monitors.
European Union economists foresee a continued slow improvement through 2011.
"This year, the economic situation seems to be improving and hopefully increased demand for squid and other cephalopod products in the Spanish market should lead to higher prices, also in view of the depleted coldstorage holdings," the FAO reports.
Domestically, the U.S. market for calamari that went national via chain restaurants in recent years seems to be withstanding the recession.
California's market squid fishery hit its quota limit of 118,000 tons and closed early Dec. 17 for the first time in eight years. Biologists credit the success to the cold-water La Niña conditions in the Pacific. State officials reported October landings at San Pedro Harbor were five times that of fall 2009 and even with that volume, prices were up.
Off the Atlantic coast, the loligo landings decline likely has more to do with local conditions than the market, says captain James Ruhle of Wanchese, N.C. His dragger Darana R is the research platform for the Northeast Area Monitoring and Assessment Program, conducted by the Virginia Institute of Marine Science.
"It's been a strange year. The bottom temperatures were 4 to 5 degrees cooler during the spring and fall NEAMAP surveys," Ruhle says.
That cold water "played a role in the migration of squid to their traditional grounds," Ruhle says. "It's not a stock issue." During the fall survey, "we caught a lot more of young-of-the-year than I've seen before... Not just small squid, but a lot of squid inshore, for September and October."
Ruhle thinks squid were avoiding patches of cold water — and fishermen's nets. There's no market problem, he says: "The price for illex, summer squid, was as high as I've seen, 30 cents a pound for RSW [refrigerated seawater]."
This is the first year for a hard cap on butterfish bycatch in the squid fishery, at 75 percent of the 1,500 metric ton butterfish allowable biological catch. The slight, silver fish that swim with squid are down in numbers from past years, and are managed with twin goals of conserving their stock and maintaining the much more valuable loligo fishery.
At the end of December 2010, the butterfish quota had been overrun by 151,000 pounds or 14 percent of the 1.1 million pound quota, according to NMFS landings reports.
The butterfish limit was hit around Oct. 23, according to those reports. Managing that bycatch will be key to keeping the squid fleet working through this fall. — Kirk Moore
Alaska & Pacific herring
Booming year class will duke it out with yen's strength to determine prices
The good news for herring fishermen in San Francisco is that they'll have a season in 2011. But prices could be dampened for the industry on the West Coast and in Alaska as increased Russian production promises to flood roe markets in Japan.
Another market factor to watch as the 2011 season unfolds is increased product coming out of British Columbia and a record quota in Sitka.
News of last year's herring closure in San Francisco Bay stunned the fleet, even though many fishermen agreed with fisheries managers that there wasn't much biomass to be found. At an estimated 4,833 tons of herring swimming in the water the California Department of Fish and Game called for closing the 2009-10 season.
The picture appears to have changed drastically for 2010-11. Spawn deposition surveys taken last year suggest biomass has increased to around 38,400 tons.
"We had strong recruitment of 2-year-olds," says John Mello, senior biologist supervisor with the California Department of Fish and Game in Eureka.
"Interestingly enough, that 2008 age class was the same age class negatively impacted by the  Cosco Busan oil spill. We definitely had a good spawn in areas where the oil didn't reach."
Based on an exploitation rate of 5 percent, California Fish and Game set the San Francisco quota at 1,920 short tons for the season's opener on Jan 2.
"Five percent will hopefully sustain the strong year class, and keep the mortality low enough on the returning 3-year-olds," Mello says.
Meanwhile, Alaska Department of Fish and Game managers are using exploitation rates of 20 percent in the Sitka fishery to set a whopping harvest limit of 19,490 tons for this year's quota. That's a strong increase over last year's record 18,293-ton quota.
Managers hope to take the fish in several well-timed openings that will maximize roe content but not swamp processors with an onslaught of product, says Bill Davidson, the department's regional management coordinator for Southeast Alaska.
"We hope to get through the quota in four or five openings and allow the processors to keep on pace," Davidson says. "Then again, the herring don't know that."
If the weather and water temperature kick the entire biomass into spawning mode all at once, it could be a challenge to take a portion of the quota.
As Sitka readies for a record harvest, the fleet in British Columbia also expects healthy production.
Preliminary data from the province's Oceans and Marine Fisheries Branch of the Ministry of Environment shows an increase from 10,500 metric tons of B.C. fish harvested in 2008 to 11,622 metric tons in 2009, then a decrease to just short of 9,000 metric tons in 2010.
As for Canadian roe products exported to Japan, however, data with the Ministry of Agriculture notes a gradual rise from less than 2 million kilos in 2008 to more than 2.3 million kilos in 2009 and 2.6 million kilos as of October in 2010.
Though it has been hard to pin down exact volumes of Russian herring exported to Japan, consensus within the industry has been that it's on the rise. In 2008, herring exports from Russia to Japan increased by 37 percent from 2007, according to the most recent report from Globefish, an international data and market service of the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization.
That could dampen ex-vessel prices. Last year, and in 2009, the fleet at Sitka averaged $720 per ton, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
One factor that could lead to stronger prices on the grounds this year is that the yen continues to gain strength against the U.S. dollar. As an average from January to May, which encompasses most of the herring season, values have strengthened from around 105 yen to the dollar in 2008 to 95 in 2009 and 91 yen to the dollar last year. — Charlie Ess
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