Written by Jen Finn
Gulf/South Atlantic blue crab
Mystery illness puts La. fleet in limbo; Florida, Mississippi harvests stay strong
The Gulf of Mexico's blue crab fishery and market prospects for the coming year are mixed almost a year after the BP/Deepwater Horizon oil spill.
In Louisiana, many fishermen have temporarily stopped crabbing.
"We are having problems with black spots showing up on the crabs," says George Barisich, president of the United Commercial Fisherman's Association. "They're not dead, but they are weak."
Jack Jackson, a New Orleans-area crabber who has been one of the most productive in the association, stopped trying to crab a couple of months back because of dying and dead crabs.
"They're dying; we are losing 40 percent of what we are catching," Jackson says. "I quit about two months ago. We'd go one week and they would be OK, and we'd go back the next week and they'd all be dead."
When fishermen do catch crabs, they are difficult to market.
"You can only move so much," he says. "It is hard to get rid of stuff."
Jackson says state officials don't know what's causing the deaths. Fishermen suspect connections to the oil spill.
In Florida, on the other hand, where most of the state was untouched by the oil spill, both the market and harvests were strong in 2010. The hard crab harvest, at 6.80 million pounds, and the overall value, at $7.91 million, were the best since 2007. Trips in 2010, at 27,856, increased from 26,507 in 2009. But price, while still very good, was down a bit, to $1.16 a pound from $1.21 in 2009.
And not all the news in the upper gulf is bad, either.
In Mississippi, the catch was surprisingly good, despite having been closed for 52 days, says Traci Floyd, the Mississippi Department of Marine Resources' Shrimp and Crab Bureau director.
"The abundance we are seeing after the oil spill has been good," Floyd says. "As far as initial catch, we are very pleased."
Landings for September through December, at 140,679 pounds, were in fact a healthy increase over 2009 landings of 129,795 pounds for the same four months, according to Department of Marine Resources data. Floyd adds that tests continue to show the crab is safe to eat.
"Ongoing state seafood safety testing continues to show toxicity levels well below levels of concern throughout [the spill] response," she says.
Because processors in Mississippi move a significantly smaller volume than those in Louisiana, finding markets has not been a problem.
In North Carolina, fishermen and state resource officials are hopeful that the crab fishery is on an upswing again after mysteriously bottoming out in 2007 at 20.6 million pounds of hard crab. In the mid-1990s the huge Pamlico and Albemarle sounds produced the largest harvests in the nation with annual production of 60 million pounds or more.
State harvest numbers won't be available before April. But John Hadley, a socio-economic expert with the North Carolina Division of Marine Fisheries, says it appears to him that both the fishery and the market are improving.
Hadley says he documented increased effort in 2008 and 2009 and that he thinks this trend is continuing.
"In general, the market has been fairly strong; there has been more participation," he says. "I assume it will be the same this year."
"The general take on the 2010 N.C. season was that the blue crab fishing was fair to very good depending on the region," Hadley reports. "The prices stayed high for both the 'picking' and live markets. The live market higher prices were attributed to lower supply coming from the Gulf of Mexico, and the picking market higher prices were attributed to high prices for blue crab meat in Latin America."
Overall, hard crab markets in major urban centers from the Mid-Atlantic north remain an economic bulwark as Asian imports have all wiped out large swaths of the picked meat industry. Soft-shell and peeler crabs maintain viable niche markets in several southern states.
— Hoyt Childers
Pacific Cod & Sardines
Sardine survey efforts prove tricky; influx of young P-cod boosts quota
Alaska's Pacific cod boats saw a bump this year, but West Coast sardiners faced another quota reduction as the respective fleets went fishing in January.
Sardine seiners endured another year of lower harvest quotas in 2010, and the prognosis for this year is more of the same. In the absence of definitive methods to define biomass health, the sardine quotas will remain on the conservative side.
Last year's harvest hit nearly 72,000 metric tons, and fishermen can expect a total quota of 50,526 metric tons for 2011, according to the Coastal Pelagic Species Fishery Management Plan. The reduction marks the latest in a slide from more than 152,000 metric tons in 2007.
In 2009, favorable conditions enabled spotter pilots to photograph fish schools while test boats set on the same schools. Then researchers compared shade densities in the photographs to the tonnages caught in the test sets. But last year's attempts to use the method for determining the West Coast biomass got skunked says Diane Pleschner-Steele, executive director of the California Wetfish Producers Association, in Buellton, Calif.
"The weather was bad for flying," Pleschner-Steele says. "And the other problem is that the fish don't stay up all the time." In some instances, test boats couldn't find fish that spotter pilots had seen just hours before.
Managers may get a better idea of how many fish are out there in years to come by using information from a few sources. Aerial photographic and hydro-acoustic data could be combined with that from light detection and ranging (lidar) surveys. Lidar surveys gather information via a laser scanning system affixed to an aircraft along with a kinematic GPS receiver.
Meanwhile, population estimates based on daily egg production will prevail. Hence, the quotas will stay fairly low.
"Until we can get an accurate measure of the sardines, we're going to be having what the government gives us," Pleschner-Steele says.
Ex-vessel prices have stabilized at around $160 per ton, which is determined by oil content and size, according to Pleschner-Steele.
In Alaska, Pacific cod fishermen began the season on Jan. 1 with a harvest quota of 73,719 metric tons, which is significantly higher than last year's of 59,563 metric ton quota. Strong recruitment of young fish into the biomass supports the increased quota, and fishermen already were seeing more fish in January.
Glenn Carroll, a cod and salmon fisherman from Homer, fishes the lower end of Cook Inlet, where each incoming tide brought a new surge of fish.
"The tide would change, and a new bunch of fish would come in," Carroll says.
But with the quota increase came a redrawing of the 3-mile limit around Alaska's coastline via the Coast Guard Reauthorization Act of 2010.
The fleet readied to fish within state waters during February only to find the revised 3-mile limit farther inside of bays and passes. Carroll says fishermen from Cook Inlet and some areas of Southeast have lost appreciable amounts of fishing area.
"At a time when we're supposedly creating new jobs," Carroll says, "this is just another example of how our federal government is helping us out — out of business!"
Ex-vessel prices for cod delivered in February ranged between 25 cents per pound to more than 37 cents, depending on size. That's up from the annual statewide average ex-vessel prices of 26 cents per pound at the end of last year, down a penny from 2009, but way down from the average 56 cents per pound fishermen received when European markets were stronger in 2008. — Charlie Ess
Tighter quota limits hike prices, create demand for alternative bait sources
Prices for New England lobster bait ticked up in late 2010, reflecting tighter herring quotas based on a 40 percent pullback in biomass estimates.
Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) raised the quota reduction at a March 8 Congressional hearing in Washington, D.C., where senators grilled NOAA fisheries chief Eric Schwaab on stock assessments.
"This is real historical — the last can of sardines in America," Snowe said, picking up a tin from Maine's last cannery at Prospect Harbor that closed in April 2010 with the loss of 130 jobs. "There was a 40 percent reduction in the catch and it wasn't even overfished."
With less herring available, bait barrel prices in Portland, Maine, by November held at $110 for herring, while pogies rose to $140 a barrel, an increase of $30, according to the Maine Lobstermen's Association's weekly fuel and bait price survey.
Bait prices and fuel costs that some feared were heading back toward $4 per gallon could dampen the lobster industry's recovery.
While fuel costs descended in 2010 there was still not enough herring to satisfy everyone. Massachusetts boats went as far as the entrance to New York Harbor to catch pogies to feed the bait market.
Meanwhile, export herring prices look primed for growth, with the world economy in slow recovery and northeast Atlantic fleets limited by the quota reductions.
However, any quota overruns this year will require payback in 2012 and consideration in any herring fisherman's business plans. In a March 1 announcement, NOAA laid out how annual catch limits and accountability measures will work.
The Herring Alliance, a coalition of environmental groups dedicated to preserving Atlantic coast marine ecosystems via management of the herring fishery, suggested one-year d elays in payback could penalize some fishermen for the earlier acts of others — setting up a "balloon payment" of penalty.
In a response, NOAA officials said stability has set into the fishery since the 2007 limited entry measures. They said they think adjustments will not disrupt the fishery.
In January the New England Fishery Management Council pushed ahead on measures to control haddock bycatch based on estimates from observer coverage. The goal is to have new measures ready this fall when haddock interactions peak.
Trawler fishermen say the haddock bycatch limit forced them to avoid fishing on Georges Bank for fear of hitting the limit early, says Eoin Rochford, plant manager for Northern Pelagic Group in New Bedford, Mass. Rochford says. "It divvied up the quota so much that we can't catch them," he says.
Bycatch for blueback and alewife river herring are also on the agenda. The council is contemplating a move toward comprehensive monitoring and charting hot spots where herring species mix.
The river herring bycatch issue is spreading to the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council, where it came up in discussions for more observer coverage and bycatch caps in the squid and mackerel fisheries.
While quotas tightened, prices for frozen export product appeared to hold steady in 2009-10, according to Department of Commerce data. New England herring sold for around $1.28 per kilogram for overseas delivery and for $1.15 to Canada, while Mid-Atlantic product averaged 98 cents per kilogram in 2009 and 83 cents in 2010.
Between the quota reduction, area opening dates and days out of the fishery, "basically it's going to cause all the companies that freeze herring to go out of business," Rochford says. "I'd give it another year or two... The end is inevitable, the way the fishery is set."
Norpel handled 15,347 metric tons of herring in September-December 2009. In 2010 that same period was down to 5,800 metric tons, Rochford says.
In the international market, Norway's industry council said their overall sales were up 19 percent in January 2011 from the year before. Herring were up just 9 percent, but that was a recovery since 2009 and Norwegian exporters have been filling the space with abundant mackerel. — Kirk Moore
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