Written by Jen Finn
Gulf/South Atlantic Oysters
Supply, demand low as region recovers from oil spill and consumer perception
One thing seems certain as the 2011-12 oyster season approaches; there won't be an abundant supply of Gulf of Mexico oysters. Demand also remains below normal.
While Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama fisheries were still recovering from the BP/Deepwater Horizon oil spill, an abundance of fresh water from record Mississippi River spring flooding flushed central gulf oyster grounds and killed a lot more oysters. Then, the Texas summer drought raised Galveston Bay salinity to the danger level, increasing the odds against a normal fall opening. By mid-August, only Florida's fishery had escaped serious setbacks.
At Apalachicola Bay in the Florida Panhandle, where most of the state's oysters are harvested, the summer season has proven decent, says Lynn C. Martina, owner of Lynn's Quality Oysters in Eastpoint.
"It's been going pretty good," Martina said in late July. "The supply is getting a little less. The harvesters are still getting a fair price."
In late July the bay harvesters were getting $18 for a 60-pound sack of oysters, down about $3 from the late summer 2010 price.
On June 27, a severe thunderstorm spawned a water spout that destroyed two utility poles near the oyster bars in the middle of St. George Sound and cut all power to St. George Island, where some of the bay's harvesters beach their oyster skiffs. Progress Energy restored emergency power within two days, but such events remind folks of Hurricane Dennis — which destroyed many of Eastpoint's seafood houses with a powerful storm surge in July 2005 — and the danger they live with in summer and fall.
"We're beginning to get into hurricane season now," Martina says.
In Louisiana, St. Bernard lease-owner George Barisich, president of the United Commercial Fishermen's Association, said in mid-February — before the floods — that he was seeing no new spat and many other private leases and public reefs were experiencing a similar scarcity.
By mid-August, the situation hadn't improved, Barisich says.
"We still don't have any spat," he says. "We hoped the spring would be better."
Official sources say fresh water the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers released from various spillways to mitigate Mississippi River flooding is causing the lack of spat. But Barisich believes the impacts of the oil and dispersants linger.
"A lot of the areas [that aren't growing new spat] weren't impacted by the fresh water," he says. "The combination of oil and dispersants is more deadly to the oyster than just the oil."
Michael Voisin, co-owner of Motivatit Seafoods at Houma in Terrebonne Parish, acknowledges the meager prospects for this year but is optimistic.
"I think oysters will be in low supply this year," he says — about 35 percent of a normal harvest. The market, he adds, is still depressed thanks to the oil spill.
(A Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries representative who handles news media inquiries in the aftermath of the BP oil spill didn't respond to a National Fisherman request for 2010 and 2011 harvest and value data.)
"If there is ever a time to have low oysters it's right now until we get this market rebuilt," says Voisin, who is a member of the Louisiana Oyster Task Force, a public-private group of agency and industry representatives that advises the Wildlife and Fisheries Commission on seasons and other matters.
Voisin anticipates new growth on the oyster reefs in the short term and recovery of the state's oyster fishery in the long term.
"I expect this fall we'll have a good spat set," he says.
Louisiana fishery problems are a result of years of damage from hurricanes Katrina, Gustav and Ike, the 2010 oil spill and finally the 2011 floods.
"It's a culmination of all those events," but Louisiana will eventually thrive again, he said. "We live in it, we love it, and we deal with the consequences of it." — Hoyt Childers
Regulators seek to restrict harvesters in one of the last open-access fisheries
At an average 75 cents per pound, prices for Gulf of Maine shrimp are still 25 percent less than they were a decade ago — not even adjusted for inflation.
Even so, it's still good enough to make it an important winter fishery for lobstermen recovering from their 2008-09 price collapse, and for groundfishermen with few other options when conserving their fishing days and quota for choke species.
"In our harbor, I'd guess 50 or 60 percent of the lobstermen go shrimping in the winter," says lobsterman Arnold Gamage Jr. of South Bristol, Maine, the secretary and treasurer for the Maine Lobstermen's Association.
Gamage says he's been shrimping every winter since 1980. "I can't say we make money," he says. "When the prices got down to 30 cents (in 2008-09) we fished to keep the market going.
"It's a really important fishery to people here, but it's very small," Gamage continues. According to Maine Department of Marine Resources data, the fishery notched revenues totaling $6.66 million in 2010 versus $1.92 million in 2009.
The 2010-11 season was so successful it was closed six weeks early on Feb. 28. Preliminary landings reports showed the harvest would overshoot the recommended 4,000 metric tons limits by 192 tons, prompting the early shutdown.
Had the fishery maintained that pace, technical advisers projected 7,000 metric tons could have been taken by the season's scheduled April 15 end.
The fishery's fortunes depend on big year classes of shrimp and fluctuate widely. With 5-year-old shrimp below average in the stock, last season's fishery relied heavily on 4-year-old animals. That could affect the stock's spawning potential going into 2011-12, said the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission's shrimp technical committee last year.
Consequently, regulators are preparing effort reduction rules, like trap limits and days out of the fishery. Another option is limited entry rules that could limit the fishery to fishermen who had permits before June 7, 2011.
"It's in the adaptive management strategy" of Amendment 2 to the shrimp plan that the Atlantic commission could adopt this fall, says Michael Waine, the commission's plan coordinator.
Imposing limited entry would be another lengthy process for the commission, and could not happen until the 2012-13 fishing year, Waine says. With some herring and groundfish boats joining the bandwagon, Gamage says he expects the commission will support the limited entry option.
"The Northern shrimp fishery is one of the last open access fisheries in the region and thus, as other fisheries are restricted, may be regarded as a fishery of last resort," the commission's Amendment 2 document acknowledges. A 2009 survey found 62 percent of trap fishermen who responded said they would oppose limited entry, as did 43 percent of trawl fishermen surveyed.
The trap fishery became a much more important part of Maine lobstermen's business in the last few years. One study estimated it accounted for 25 percent of their income when lobster prices collapsed in 2009. Nearly half of the Maine vessels in the fishery now use traps and account for 23 percent of landings. "For the 32- to 34-foot boats, it makes a pretty good fishery for them," Gamage says. "In 15 or 20 minutes we're down on our traps and hauling them."
Prices in western Maine ranged from 60 to 80 cents for premium product delivered very fresh for processing. "You've got only so many hours to cook the shrimp so the tails curl tight," says Gamage, who supplies that market.
In what could be a good sign for the industry's prospects, Newfoundland fishermen and processors argued vigorously over who gets 3,000 metric tons of shrimp allocations for their coming season. Canada is a much bigger supplier to the world market, and the weaker Canadian and U.S. dollars make North American shrimp more competitive in the European market. — Kirk Moore
Alaska and Pacific Groundfish
Alaska fleet gets lucky with increased TAC, steady prices despite competition
While higher harvest quotas and increased supplies of substitute species are signs of dampened demand in pollock markets, Alaska trawlers appear to have dodged the bullet when it comes to prices — so far.
Fisheries scientists have been seeing signs of optimism in their assessments of pollock abundance for the past two years. However, 2011 marks the first year that harvest quotas began to climb from the 815,000 metric tons of 2009 and 813,000 metric tons of last year. This year's total allowable catch in the Bering Sea was set at 1.252 million metric tons. A preliminary TAC of 1.253 million metric tons is on tap for 2012.
Each year's TAC is based on trawl surveys conducted during the previous two-year period. The 2010 surveys found fish that had been missing the year before, hence the larger TAC.
"The 2009 survey didn't see as many of the 2006 and 2008 year-class fish," says Jim Ianelli, scientist with the Alaska Fisheries Science Center in Seattle. "But they did show up in 2010. That's making the outlook a bit brighter."
The 54 percent increase in this year's harvest volume increase promises to set up market repercussions as whitefish supplies from other sources have been lining up to compete in the market. For starters, volumes of Barents Sea cod are expected to increase in reaction to recovering stocks, according to Globefish, the reporting and information service of the United Nation's Food and Agriculture Organization.
Then there's whitefish from Russia and reprocessed goods from China, both of which had been banned from Europe because they lacked permits to prove the fish were caught legally. Recent Globefish reports indicate shippers have their paperwork in order and product has resumed flowing to Europe.
The production of pangasius, a catfish farmed in freshwater Vietnamese ponds has climbed from around 10,000 metric tons in 1995 to more than 1.1 million metric tons in '08, according to Globefish. The expansion of pangasius into new markets continued, while trading of other whitefish species flattened out.
With distribution to 130 countries, and a goodly portion of that sent to Europe, pangasius has aligned itself to become a direct competitor to pollock fillets coming out of the Bering Sea.
"It has really taken hold in Europe," says Marc Wells, president of Genuine Alaska Pollock Producers, in Seattle. Fortunately for the pollock fillet industry, Vietnamese fish farmers have decreased production for '11 by about 40 percent in hopes of driving up demand.
"In the past six to eight months, production has really imploded," Wells says.
During the first half of '11, the average price for Alaska pollock fillets exported to all countries held at around $1.39 per pound, according to NMFS data. That's down slightly from the overall average of $1.45 last year.
Meanwhile, surimi exports saw a positive blip last year.
U.S. surimi exports to all countries in 2007 tallied up to more than 125.8 million kilos then declined steadily to a low of 72.5 million kilos in '09 before rebounding somewhat to 93.4 million in '10. Among top surimi trading partners, surimi exports to Japan increased from 33.8 million kilos in '09 to 45.4 million kilos last year while the volume of surimi sent to Russia jumped from 671,000 kilos in '09 to nearly 1.7 million.
Average export revenues among all surimi trading countries have increased from 83 cents per pound in '08 to $1.27 last year, according to NMFS data. In the first half of this year, surimi averaged $1.13 cents per pound.
According to Wells, the tsunami in Japan wiped out much of the surimi inventories in cold storage holdings, making customers eager to replace lost product throughout this year.
"More surimi is being placed to order rather than produced on speculation," says Wells. "The market is good now." — Charlie Ess
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