National Fisherman

Pacific Sardines and P-Cod

Californians benefit from better count; rise in P-cod price is viewed as at end

New methodology in population surveys spells more accurate quotas for West Coast sardine seiners, but can they find the fish?

Thanks to the sharp eyes of pilots, aerial photography and the Photoshop computer program, the industry and fisheries managers now see a more accurate picture of the actual biomass.

In previous years, harvest guidelines (of more than 152,000 metric tons in 2007) had been derived from biomass estimates based upon spawning samples.

Last year, managers embraced new information gleaned from pilots who flew transects above the sardine schools and shot high-resolution photos of them.

Fishermen were then directed to make test sets at the specific points where the fish had been photographed, and scientists using Photoshop were able to extrapolate the biomass of the surrounding schools of fish by comparing their densities to those of schools lassoed inside of the seine sets.

The results from the inaugural population estimates last year led to an optimistic harvest guideline for sardines this year.

"With the survey, we have around 72,000 metric tons," says Diane Pleschner-Steele, executive director of the California Wetfish Producers Association, in Buellton, Calif. "Without the aerial survey we'd have been looking at around 9,000 tons and had no fishery this year."

Despite the bountiful harvest quota sardines were harder to catch in February as the apparent effects of El-Niño brought rough seas, hard rains and significant freshwater runoff which sends fish deeper into the water column and makes them harder to see.

"The fish have been skittish," says Pleschner-Steele. "The fishermen aren't even using spotter pilots."

As for this year's prices, the sardine fleet has been finding offers of $160 per short ton at the docks when they deliver. Prices have remained steady at $160 since they shot up from the $100 per ton that processors offered in 2007, according to data from the Pacific Fisheries Information Network (PacFIN) Web site.

Pleschner-Steele says prices have held steady in concert with demand in the canned market, especially for deliveries of fish larger than 60 grams. "Prices for those are pretty good," she says.

Last year's Pacific cod season began with ex-vessel prices that dipped below 20 cents per pound, but markets recovered, and by the time year-end data from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game was compiled, statewide average ex-vessel prices ended up at 49 cents per pound. Cod had enjoyed a steady climb in value for around a statewide average of 25 cents per pound in 2004 to a high of 56 cents per pound in 2008.

Depressed global economics will continue to depress Alaska's P-cod prices, especially for processors sending fish to Europe. "The European market was pulling us along," says Glenn Carroll, a cod fisherman and marketer from Homer. "Once Europe was out of the picture, we lost most of our market. Now, everyone is playing the domestic market."

Carroll reported that dockside prices were in the neighborhood of 30 cents per pound in Homer and slightly cheaper at Kodiak and ports along the Alaska Peninsula.

Adding to the flooding of domestic outlets, Carroll reports that weather has been unusually calm, and that fishing — and cod deliveries— have been steady.

As this year's season continues, prices could be additionally damped by rising production in the Barents Sea and a resurgence of North Atlantic cod.

According a recent Globefish report, the total allowable catch in the Barents Sea was expected to rise from the 525,000 metric tons in 2009 to 575,000 this year and is projected to increase by another 50,000 metric tons next year.
— Charlie Ess

Northeast Herring

Quota, closing of last processor leave plant workers, lobstermen in the lurch

The cut to New England's 2010 herring quota again showed how changes to federal fisheries law profoundly shifted the balance of power on regional management councils. A warning signal from the region's science and statistical committee led to a loss of 53,800 metric tons to the industry this year.

One victim was the last sardine cannery in America, and its 128 jobs. The century-old Stinson Seafood plant at Prospect Harbor in Gouldsboro, Maine was hit with an April 18 shutdown. That leaves only Canadians canning northwest Atlantic herring, while more Maine lobstermen use pogies and other bait alternatives, a trend that dealers and industry groups say accelerated in 2009.

David Cousens, president of the Maine Lobstermen's Association, warns that bait costs have escalated more than tenfold since the 1990s to 30 percent of a lobsterman's expenses. Bumble Bee Foods, owners of the Prospect Harbor factory, say it cannot operate with the quota reduced from 140,000 metric tons in 2009 to 91,200 metric tons this year.

"Quotas have gone down 50 percent. That doesn't give us enough fish to make the plant viable," says Melody Kimmel, a spokeswoman for Bumble Bee. Many industry observers thought the plant was endangered for years, in the face of declining domestic demand for sardines and Canadian competition.

Bumble Bee acquired the packer in 2004 from Connors Bros. and with it an anti-trust legal settlement that demanded the plant stay open, but only through 2010.

"It's so sad. It's the end of an industry, the end of an era," says Jennie Bichrest of Purse Line Bait in Phippsburg, Maine, a herring adviser to the New England Fishery Management Council. Losing the Prospect Harbor plant could mean problems for the bait supply Down East, she said.

"We don't have another deepwater location like it," Bichrest says. Bait at Gouldsboro, near Prospect Harbor, was around $11 a bushel this winter.

"When I was a kid there were almost 50 [sardine] factories on this coast," says Glenn Hall of Superior Bait and Salt in Tenants Harbor, Maine. Catching and selling bait in 2009 "was difficult because we could only fish for herring two days a week, and then pogies," Hall says.

On shore after a straight six days of fishing in mid-February, Hall said big catches sold in bulk for about 12 cents a pound this winter.

The New England Council's science and statistical committee called for reducing the 2010 quota to 91,200 metric tons from 145,000 metric tons, citing a retrospective analysis that pointed lots of uncertainty. The herring stock is not subject to overfishing. But Gulf of Maine fishermen have wrangled for years over the impact of midwater trawling, and some see this quota as the reckoning.

Pogies (a.k.a. menhaden or bunker) and Canadian herring filled the gap for lobstermen during the last few years of struggle over Gulf of Maine herring. A good supply of Maine pogies helped in 2008 and 2009 along with the pogies shipped from Virginia and New Jersey.

"But we could see those prices go up, when those guys see our situation here" in Maine, Bichrest says. There was little herring early in the year, and some worry that there might be a replay of some years in the 1980s when herring stayed far to the south.

"If we can get some amount of fish off Georges as we did last year it should be no problem to keep bait supplied," Hall says. "But Georges is very unpredictable."

The Maine Lobstermen's Association asked its members to report how they are adapting to the bait crunch. Those voluntary survey results in late 2009 indicated about 20 percent of their members use herring only, while a little more than 50 percent use pogies, either as an addition to herring bait or alone. Another 20 percent reported using redfish as a primary bait along with herring. — Kirk Moore

Gulf/South Atlantic Blue Crab

Stocks are holding up, and better yet, imports declined substantially in 2009

Preliminary reports from state resource officials in Louisiana and North Carolina indicate 2009 blue-crab harvests increased or at least remained steady compared with 2008 in the No. 1 and No. 3 blue crab-producing states in the nation, respectively (Maryland was No. 2 in 2008). This is welcome news in both states, but for somewhat different reasons.

In Louisiana, health of the blue-crab stocks has not been an issue in recent years. While crabbers have had to cope with shoreside infrastructure damage, lost traps and widespread debris from 2008 hurricanes Ike and Gustav, blue-crab stocks do not appear to have suffered.

The recent hurricanes and resulting logistical problems were likely a factor in flat or declining effort. But the primary challenges the Louisiana fishery faces have more to do with the continuing loss of processing facilities and a market in recession than with biology or cyclical unknowns, which is the case in North Carolina.

Final Louisiana numbers for 2009 aren't yet available. However, the harvest through July, at approximately 28 million pounds, was up about 20 percent from 2008, probably without benefit of additional effort, says Vince Guillory, of the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries.

Given the inability of domestic crab to compete effectively in the picked-meat market, the crab industry in both Louisiana and North Carolina is increasingly trying to focus on the live-crab market, product placement and quality — where it has a strong advantage.

In Louisiana, a Department of Wildlife and Fisheries crab task force, in efforts to get Marine Stewardship Council certification for Louisiana blue crab, has identified areas needing improvement for the process to go forward.

Among those issues is the need for a new crab-stock assessment.

A pre-assessment report identified issues with diamondback-terrapin bycatch. "However, full certification is still possible if these issues are addressed," Guillory says. Task-force members hope to fund the full stock assessment through marketing funds designated for the crab industry, he says.

In North Carolina, harvests began to dip below the historic range of 35 million to 65 million pounds in 2004 and then bottomed at 20.1 million pounds in 2007. That sparked alarm that the crab fisheries in Pamlico and Albemarle sounds were following the Chesapeake into near-collapse.

Then the 2008 harvest increased dramatically — to 32.3 million pounds — and partial (January-to-October) 2009 numbers appear to be on track for a similar annual volume, according to preliminary information from the North Carolina Division of Marine Fisheries.

Complete harvest-value statistics for 2009 were not yet available, though an estimate through October based on 2008 price data suggests total value also will come in very close to the previous year's $25.4 million, according to information provided by Alan Bianchi, trip-ticket coordinator with the division.

In Florida, the Southeast's No. 3 blue crab producer behind Louisiana and North Carolina, 2009 numbers were complete only through October. However, the average price appears to have increased marginally, to $1.23 a pound from $1.20 in 2008.

U.S. import numbers for 2009 indicate some rare good news for domestic blue-crab-meat producers. Imports of Portunus pelagicus, sold as "swimming blue crab" in direct competition with the U.S. blue-crab picked-meat market, decreased significantly through November, the latest month for which federal import numbers are available, over the same period in 2008.

Overall value of imports through November 2009 dropped to $2.51 million from $4.1 million for January through November 2008, a decrease of 38.5 percent. Volume fell from 51 million pounds to 37 million pounds, a decrease of 27.3 percent. — Hoyt Childers

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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