Written by Jen Finn
September 27, 2012
Gulf/South Atlantic Oysters
Resource expected to 'bounce back,' but the question is, will the industry?
Following the worst oil spill in U.S. history, roughly half of Louisiana's oyster grounds were not under oil-related closure in mid-August, while the other major Gulf of Mexico oyster-producing regions were anticipating more or less normal seasons.
There has been significant damage to oysters in Louisiana, which typically accounts for about 40 percent of U.S. oysters. But the more serious impact has been on the industry — as distinct from the resource — says Patrick Banks, oyster program manager with the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries.
"I think the oysters will bounce back," he says. "But the industry is a different story. To see people closing their doors after being in business for generations, it is just heartbreaking. I am way more worried about the industry than I am the animal."
Banks says that after unprecedented levels of oyster testing by the wildlife department, the Louisiana Department of Health, the federal Food and Drug Administration and NOAA, large harvest areas have been declared safe.
"We've just done exhaustive testing," he says. "It's way more testing than we've ever done, by two state agencies plus the federal government."
The market, however, has in large measure collapsed, primarily because of fear and perceptions.
"People just don't want Louisiana seafood," he says. "An area may be open to fish, but nobody is buying product."
The safety-testing program is ongoing and multilevel, he says.
"We've tested tens of thousands of animals; to my knowledge not one of those animals have come back with hydrocarbons at or above the level of concern," he says.
Public oyster grounds in Louisiana will open in November this year.
In Texas, the oil spill hasn't directly affected oyster beds. But harvesters are anxious about how the fall market will shape up, says Lance Robinson, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department's regional director of the Upper Coast Fisheries Division.
"There is a lot of anxiety among fishermen," says Robinson, who works in the department's Dickinson, Texas, lab.
Harvesters really don't know what to expect. Will they have a decent price in the oil spill's aftermath?
"It started affecting markets pretty quickly," Robinson says. "They were telling me prices began to go up, then dealers started having a hard time."
With the oil spill reducing Louisiana production, will Texas harvesters run out of oysters before they run out of season?
"In anticipation of increased pressure, the season may be truncated," Robinson says. "They want us to cut the sack limit. It is currently 90 sacks a day. Some want us to cut it down to 40 sacks a day."
"We're cautiously optimistic on the season," Robinson says.
If demand threatens to outstrip supply, he expects some dealers will put licenses on smaller vessels that can get into areas that usually aren't heavily harvested.
In Florida, the oil didn't affect Apalachicola Bay, which produces about 90 percent of the state's oysters. However, in anticipation of that possibility, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission officials opened the summer oyster harvest more than a week early on May 20 and allowed Saturday harvesting.
They also opened up some beds normally closed during summer months, says David Barber, owner of Barber's Seafood in Eastpoint. "They opened up all the winter beds," he says.
In August, price was decent, $21 for a 60-pound sack, Barber says, up about $3 from the previous season.
In Mississippi, Joe Jewell, the state Department of Marine Resources assistant director of marine fisheries, says officials were still in "assessment mode" but were expecting a normal season when the public beds open in the fall.
"We are proceeding like a normal open-oyster season," he says. "There is nothing perceived on the horizon that would delay the opening of the oyster season. We are convinced as a state that the seafood is safe, and we have a lot of data that support that." — Hoyt Childers
Alaska & Pacific Pollock
Strict controls earn ecolabel renewal; higher quota seen as possible for 2011
Steady whitefish demand, slightly lower Bering Sea production and recertification as a sustainable fishery by the Marine Stewardship Council bode well for the pollock industry this year.
Alaska's pollock fishery (Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska) earned initial certification in 2005. It was recommended for recertification this year.
"It scored very well," says Jim Humphreys, fisheries director for the Americas with the MSC office in Seattle.
Humphreys says scrutiny of the fishery in terms of stock health, attention to the ecosystem and effective fishery management — especially staying within the total allowable catch — led to scores above 90 out of 100 in each area.
"The score in each of those principles has to be above 80; so it did very, very well," Humphreys says.
The 2010 season TAC, meanwhile, is set at 813,000 metric tons, down slightly from 815,000 metric tons in 2009. The quota, set at 1.35 million metric tons in 2007, fell to around 1 million for 2008.
Based on anecdotal information and 2007 and 2008 trawl surveys, the industry was hoping a strong representation of harvestable 4-year-old fish would boost total biomass and warrant quota increases already by this year. But information gleaned from a stock assessment model last November revealed fewer 4-year-olds in the population than scientists and the industry had previously thought.
However, overall pollock stock health is up. That could mean a higher quota next year.
"Based on the 2009 assessment, the outlook for 2011 was for an increase to about average historical catch levels, 1.1 million metric tons," says Jim Ianelli, fisheries scientist with NOAA's Alaska Fisheries Science Center in Seattle. "We are obtaining new survey data this month [August] and will be analyzing it in the coming months for the next round."
Fillet prices dropped from a high of $4,500 per metric ton to around $3,850 during this year's A season, which runs from January to April. They've stayed at around $3,850 during the B season, which runs from July to October, according to Marc Wells, president of Seattle-based Genuine Alaska Pollock Producers.
Last year, prices began at $4,400 during the A season before settling at $4,000. The 2009 B season prices ranged from $3,800 to $3,850 per metric ton.
As for where the pollock goes, U.S. exports of frozen Alaska pollock fillets to China nearly tripled from 5.3 million kilos in 2008 to more than 15.4 million kilos last year.
According to Wells, most Alaska product goes to China. There, the fillets are reprocessed and sent on to Europe. Russian product arrives in China for reprocessing then gets shipped to the United States.
In 2008, China sent 31.7 million kilos of frozen fillets to the United States, and in 2009 the volume increased to around 36.8 million kilos. In addition to frozen fillets, China is increasing its shipments of reprocessed frozen fillet (4.5-kilogram) blocks back to the United States. It exported respective volumes of 26.9 million kilos and 31.7 million kilos in 2008 and 2009.
"I think there's some concern that there is more pollock coming out of China than is going in," Wells says. Substantial volumes of headed and gutted fish from the United States and Russia, he adds, become fillets when they leave China.
Late last year the U.S. Department of Agriculture added pollock to its school lunch commodities. It joins canned salmon, frozen catfish and canned tuna and is the fourth fish species appearing on school lunch menus.
"When they added pollock to the USDA program they specified that it was a really high quality product," says Pat Shanahan, program director at Genuine Alaska Pollock Producers. Shanahan adds that single frozen fillets earned high marks at a recent school food service trade show. "The demand is very high," he says. — Charlie Ess
Fishery amid renaissance may appeal to discouraged groundfish producers
The 2010 season was the first truly successful northern shrimp season in years — so successful managers could pull back on the 180-day season for 2011.
Catches over 11 million pounds surpassed the quota by late April, causing the six-month season to end three weeks early. Reported prices were a dime higher than in previous years at 45 to 50 cents a pound.
But the sheer volume surprised Gulf of Maine fishermen. They struggled for years with the worldwide glut in shrimp and then economic meltdown.
"Last season things were stronger, too, because the freezers were empty... but the economy is still down worldwide," says Rye, N.H., fisherman Peter Kendall, an Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission northern shrimp advisory group member.
"It's going to be an interesting  season because water is warmer this year, and that has more effect than any regulation we do," Kendall says. Given all the new groundfish regulations, he adds, "you're going to see a lot of guys who want to go shrimping."
Brad Spears, the commission's shrimp fishery management plan coordinator, says "the markets really started to open up and fishermen were able to sell a lot more."
As for how the 2011 season will lay out this fall, Spears says, "it's a tough question to answer at this point."
Some strong year classes of shrimp enabled longer seasons after 2006, keeping the fishery alive, even as it was off its peak prices of $1 from a decade ago. Price pressure from global shrimp supplies drove some Maine fishermen to explore direct marketing opportunities, notably with community-based sales and deliveries to local consumers.
Just two months after the September 2008 financial crisis, the shrimp season opened to dismal prospects. By spring the number of participating vessels had dropped by nearly 100 to 149 boats. Trips were down by more than half and prices dropped to as low as 35 cents a pound from an average 49 cents in early 2008, commission documents reveal.
Fuel prices had dropped swiftly from the 2008 peaks around $4 a gallon, but the rotten economy and bad weather ensured a poor 2009 season. This past season's rebound didn't shine pricewise but was the best for landings since 1997.
In April 2010, Maine port samplers reported "draggers were able to go every day of the week instead of being limited by the buyers to just a few days," according to a summary by the commission's northern shrimp technical committee.
Boats were "able to fish all day instead of just a tow or two before coming in," the report notes. "Prices were steady at 45 to 50 cents a pound, and the weather in February was unusually good."
Maine's 11 million pound fishery is just a drop in the worldwide bucket of 1 billion pounds of cold-water shrimp harvested annually. Northern shrimpers are unlikely to see more demand because of Gulf of Mexico oil-spill-related shortages. Warm-water shrimp feed into an entirely different market where importers easily sell more than 1 billion pounds in the United States alone annually.
Biologists say each strong year class of northern shrimp typically supports the fishery for three years, starting three years after that year class matures. The Gulf of Maine stock's worst year class was 2002, and a strong 2004 year class followed by a moderately good 2005 class has been supporting the recovery.
Harvesters were getting larger shrimp in the low- to mid-30s count per pound. The draggers' high-30s to mid-40s count swung toward 55 per pound near the end of the season as more smaller and male shrimp showed up.
That's another concern with a long 2011 season — that the latter weeks of "mixy" product will lose the opportunity to conserve smaller shrimp, Spears says. — Kirk Moore
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