Written by Jen Finn
Alaska & Pacific Herring
Too many fish in the sea? Seiners have big nets to fill, but the price is sinking
As 2012 opened, Alaska seiners and fisheries managers pondered the logistics behind catching — and processing — a mind-blowing 29,008-ton guideline harvest level while San Francisco herring fisherman began fishing on a 1,920-ton quota.
The Sitka fishery's previous record guideline and catch was set last year. In five openings, the seine fleet took 19,430 tons.
The huge increase is based on the usual exploitation rate (20 percent) of the total biomass. However, a recent examination of scale samples, and the subsequent data collected in years past revealed under-representation of 3-year-old herring for several years.
"There were no 3-year-olds showing up in the fishery in 2006, then the next year and the year after that" says Dave Gordon, an Alaska Department of Fish and Game area management biologist in Sitka. Gordon says the presence of 4-year-olds in the fishery, year after year, convinced the biologists who age the scale samples to take another look.
Now the model has been reconciled to reflect 3-year-olds recruiting into the fishery. But catching all those fish and maximizing the roe content may prove difficult.
A huge factor in last year's successful harvest was the behavior of a very large concentration of herring that ripened but held offshore and didn't race to the beach to spawn. The holding pattern allowed the fleet to fish heavily, then wait a day or so for processors to catch up. Fishing resumed, and roe recovery remained good at around 13 percent.
"Everything went off just fine last year," Gordon says. "It looks like we can harvest about 4,000 tons an opening, take a day off for the processors."
Gordon estimates it could take the fleet and processors 14 days to catch 29,000 tons this year.
Though harvesting the large volume in the fast-paced Sitka fishery could pose plenty of logistical challenges, market conditions in Japan will dictate ex-vessel prices on the grounds. A stronger yen traded at a rate of the low 80s to the dollar last year versus the low 90s in 2010.
But the favorable exchange rate didn't stop ex-vessel prices at Sitka from plummeting from $720 to around $175 per ton. So this year's significant GHL isn't likely to offset the drastic ex-vessel price drop.
In December 2011, the yen was trading at a monthly average of 77 to the dollar. But the climate in markets that sell the roe or kazunoko, long a Japanese New Year's treat, apparently won't support a rebound in ex-vessel prices.
Access to Russian product has also changed demand for U.S. herring imports.
"The markets have changed a lot since the end of the cold war," says Zeke Grader, executive director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations.
Given weakening Japanese demand, Grader says some of the herring will be funneled into new markets akin to the region's sardines and anchovies.
"We're developing new markets, pickling, high-end restaurants," Grader says. "Some of the chefs are interested in seeing what they can do with herring."
As the San Francisco fleet readied for its January opening, prices there were expected to follow a diminishing trend. Last year, the fleet garnered $640 per ton, down from an average of around $800 per ton in 2009, according to Pacific Fisheries Information Network data.
The 2010 harvest level was based on scant biomass estimates from 2009's spawning surveys. But estimates from last year indicate the California biomass is on the upswing again. Even better is that a substantial abundance of 4-year-olds is expected to return and hit fishermen's nets.
"Last year, they came back as 3-year-olds," says John Mello, senior biologist with the California Department of Fish and Game, in Eureka. The maturation of this year's 4-year-olds should eventually replace older age classes that died off in the winter of 2005-06, according to Mello. — Charlie Ess
Gulf/South Atlantic Shrimp
Trawlers left holding a mixed bag and hoping to clear harvest hurdles in '12
The top Southeastern fishery's prospects appear oddly mixed as shrimpers prepare for the spring season. While demand is good in most areas, price has been inconsistent and production spotty.
Ex-vessel price increased toward the end of the brown shrimp season in the northern gulf (Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana). Headless 21-25 count shrimp averaged $4.20 a pound in October 2011 versus $4.05 in October 2010 and $2.65 in 2009, based on the most recent federal statistics.
Brown shrimp landings, produced mostly May through October, were so-so.
"Production was down a bit there," says Ernie Anderson, co-owner of Graham Shrimp Co. in Bayou La Batre, Ala.
Federal statistics show landings for all shrimp for the first 10 months of the year at 102.4 million pounds, heads-off, versus 114.6 million pounds in 2009. (The 2010 January through October harvest of 72.4 million pounds would have to be considered a statistical outlier because of oil-spill-related closures).
Richard Gollott, vice president of Golden Gulf Coast Packing Co., in Biloxi, Miss., reports results similar to those in Alabama.
"Mississippi had a decent brown season," he says. "It was fair."
What is unusual — and worrisome as shrimpers look to the future — is what happened late in the year during the white shrimp season.
"In over 30 years I've not seen a white season this bad," Gollott says. "We don't know why."
Anderson also reports that the white shrimp harvest was low, but with production heavily skewed to the larger sizes.
"I haven't unloaded more than 10,000 pounds under 10-15-count heads-on since the first of the year," Anderson says.
In Louisiana, George Barisich, veteran shrimper, activist and president of the United Commercial Fishermen's Association, says 2011 wasn't a good year. Price was better at the beginning and the end of the season, but not good enough to offset high fuel costs and low production.
"Overall, production was down, price was down, fuel was high," Barisich said. "I made trips every week and ended up with a $28,000 loss for the year."
If white shrimp production returns to normal this year and the brown shrimp harvest is typical, then hindsight will render the winter 2011 harvest just one of those puzzling anomalies that white shrimp sometimes cycles through.
If either species experiences a bad 2012 harvest, fishermen will be wondering what's up, and the chief suspects will be the 2010 BP/Deepwater Horizon oil spill, the 2011 Mississippi River spring floods, and the 2011 summer drought in the western gulf.
Further complicating the shrimp picture is the surprising success South Atlantic boats enjoyed.
Warren "Bubba" Rector, whose 68-foot Desco trawler fishes out of Shem Creek near Charleston, S.C., is encouraged by both landings and prices in the South Atlantic.
"We had a good brown shrimp season, and we've had a good white shrimp season," he says. "Especially on the white shrimp, they showed up big, and they stayed big."
Rector caught lots of 15-20-count shrimp, and has been selling them dockside for $5 a pound heads-on and $8 heads-off.
"We'll sell 90 to 95 percent of what we catch right there at the dock," he says.
Overall, the domestic shrimp industry has held its ground recently as prices have increased to more reasonable levels. But market share remains a fraction of what it was before the 21st century ushered in a seemingly endless flood of imported Asian farm-raised shrimp.
January through September 2011, imports of shell-on, heads-off shrimp — the preparation that competes most directly with the domestic industry — were, at 343.1 million pounds, down a bit from the 382.7 million pounds of 2010.
It is still possible to make a living in this business, but surviving shrimpers have to work smart and enjoy a measure of luck, too, to thrive in the age of $3.50 a gallon diesel. — Hoyt Childers
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