Written by Jen Finn
Alaska & Pacific Sardines & P-Cod
Seiners enjoy big jumps in price, quota;
Alaska winter keeps P-cod boats on ice
More money and more sardines have come amid legal battles to restrict the West Coast fishery, and Alaska weather finally settled down enough to let Pacific cod fishermen begin hauling in the harvest from the icy Gulf of Alaska and Bering Sea waters.
California sardine seiners began fishing on this year's quota of around 94,000 metric tons, which is up substantially from last year's quota of 46,745 tons. Driving the huge increase are the results from various abundance surveys last year, according to Diane Pleschner-Steele, executive director of the California Wetfish Producers Association, in Buellton, Calif.
A critical factor was the abundance of fish that have matured into the fishery.
"This year, thank heavens, the 2009 recruitment is showing up in the fishery," Pleschner-Steele says.
At the same time, questions loom about the methodology that establishes the harvestable biomass. The environmental group Oceana launched a lawsuit against NMFS late last year aiming to reduce the harvest of sardines, anchovies, mackerel (in the eventuality of a season) and squid.
The idea behind the suit is to take increased precautions in protecting the stocks as forage to other species. Though the suit implicates the management framework for all of the wetfish species, the epicenter is the exploitation rates among sardine fisheries on the West Coast, Mexico and Canada.
The wetfish producers group filed to intervene in the suit. The U.S. fishery has kept its exploitation rates well under 10 percent in the last decade, and including catches from Mexico and Canada the total exploitation rate is less than 15 percent during the same period.
"Bottom line," says Pleschner-Steele, "there are far more sardines in the ocean than are measured in stock assessment surveys."
Sardine ex-vessel prices, meanwhile, have jumped from last year's $160 per ton to $200 per ton, according to preliminary Pacific Fisheries Information Network data. And some fishermen are receiving even more at the docks, according to Pleschner-Steele.
"Our guys were getting up to $250 per ton, depending upon the size of their fish and the oil content," she says.
Pacific cod fishermen started their season in February as winter storms and abysmally cold temperatures kept the fleet tied up through much of January.
"In January, they were beating the ice off the rails on every trip," says Glenn Carroll, a cod fisherman who sells to specialty markets out of Homer. "They made some trips when the temperature was 5 below."
The cod fleet has seen quota increases in both the Gulf of Alaska and the Bering Sea. This year's TAC for the Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands stands at 261,000 metric tons, up from last year's approximately 228,000 metric tons. In 2013, the TAC will nudge upward to nearly 263,000 metric tons.
Meanwhile, the Gulf of Alaska fleet will peck away at a TAC of 65,700 metric tons. Last year's TAC was 65,100 metric tons, which was up from the 59,563 metric tons of 2010.
As for ex-vessel prices, Carroll says the 40 cents per pound fishermen received in February mimicked the 2011 offers.
"It's basically the same as last year," he says.
Mike McCune, owner of the Fish Factory, in Homer says this year started out like many others in the 12 years his plant has been custom processing headed and gutted cod. McCune says that as a trend over the past five years, more of the fish that are coming from his processing lines are winding up reprocessed as fillets before they are shipped to domestic markets.
"The East Coast used to be a head and gut market," he says, "But now, a higher percentage is getting filleted before it is shipped."
McCune estimates nearly all of the fish his plant processes for the fleet of 15 pot-fishing boats go to domestic markets. Of that amount, 95 percent goes fresh. — Charlie Ess
Northeast Winter Flounder
Late season quota increase could aid
fleet shackled by lagging cod numbers
Another scientific revision gave Gulf of Maine fishermen more winter flounder, after NMFS announced Feb. 8 that the blackback quota would be doubled to 1.155 million pounds before the season ended April 30, based on optimistic results from a new stock assessment.
The addition of three years' data and a new assessment model made the difference. No longer overfished, those additional flounder might bring $1.2 million more in revenue, NMFS says, and were important to giving fishermen more days in the waning 2011 fishing year. But NMFS officials said they didn't expand the quota too far out of concern they might collapse lease prices.
As with a revised pollock assessment when sector management started, the new winter flounder numbers prevented another choke species scenario, and NMFS issued the increase as an emergency action.
A dire 2011 cod stock assessment had groundfishermen facing the prospect of an 80 percent cut in the Gulf of Maine cod quota. But the industry got a reprieve — a 22 percent reduction. NMFS officials signaled they would likely agree to a 6,700 metric tons quota for the fishing year starting May 1, resisting environmentalists' call for a more cautious 4,000 metric tons.
Northeast Fisheries Science Center scientists say cod is still rebuilding, but more slowly than thought during a 2008 stock assessment. Many fishermen question the science behind the new assessment, which kicked the fishery off track from being declared rebuilt by 2014.
However, industry advocates say the latest close call is really about management being driven by rigid Magnuson-Stevens Act mandated rebuilding deadlines. A coalition of commercial and recreational fishing groups made their call to amend the deadline a centerpiece for their Keep Fishermen Fishing rally March 21 in Washington, D.C.
Lenten demand had flounders fetching around $3 a pound in early March, cod $2 to $2.50, haddock edging past $2 and pollock jumping from $1 to $1.75, according to NMFS market reports for Portland, Maine; Boston; and New Bedford, Mass. Monkfish exceeded $4 for large tails, but the April 6 endangered species listing for Atlantic sturgeon could complicate the spring season for the southern fleet.
New Jersey is a center for monkfish gillnetting, and it's the pathway for Hudson and Delaware rivers sturgeon migrations. Federal officials are preparing incidental take permits for monkfish boats, and "it all comes down to, what's an acceptable take?" New Jersey marine fisheries administrator Tom McCloy says.
Meanwhile, Massachusetts officials have announced they are offering $1 million in low-interest loans to help smaller groundfish operators lease catch shares. And at the Maine Fishermen's Forum in early March, Gov. Paul LePage (R-Maine) and Department of Marine Resources Commissioner Patrick Keliher promised greater industry support.
While the state's lobster industry broke through the 100 million pound landings barrier in 2011, Maine draggers just hung on. The fleet has dwindled from 63 in 2009 to 42 in 2010 as the catch shares regime kicked in. Annual catches of 28 million pounds 20 years ago shriveled to 3 million pounds, threatening Portland's viability as a port.
Former DMR commissioner Norman Olsen resigned in July 2011 after a stormy tenure, charging that LePage didn't support Olsen's plans to help Portland's groundfish fleet. The Le-Page administration sought to recover its footing, and Keliher stresses he wants to get DMR more involved with Maine seafood branding and business development.
Northeast fishermen who challenge catch shares are keeping an eye on a federal court ruling on Pacific whiting quotas. Judge Thelton E. Henderson partially agreed with five California boat owners and processors who contend flawed catch histories are used for calculating shares.
But the judge also decided managers can set control dates for limiting entry — and specifically cited the controversial expulsion of many East Coast sea scallop fishermen from the general category sector a few years ago. — Kirk Moore
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