Written by Jen Finn
Gulf/South Atlantic Stone crab
Hurricanes only threat to Florida fleet poised for a good year, state takeover
For the first time in a very long time, fishermen can look to the approaching season with confidence born of a good year in both the stone crab and a sister fishery, spiny lobster, in which many of them also participate during overlapping seasons.
Florida stone crab opens Oct. 15 in the wake of strong demand, strong prices and a decent harvest from the previous season, leaving little but the risk of hurricanes as a perennial worry. As of mid-July, weather threats hadn't materialized.
Typically, however, the intensity and frequency of storms pick up in the fall. Fishermen's memories of four major hurricanes that hit the Florida peninsula in a six-week period in the fall of 2004, and then Hurricane Wilma, which inundated Key West and much of the southwest Florida coastline in a destructive storm surge in October 2005, keep the storms a constant concern.
In the management realm, fishermen anticipate an improvement as NOAA is expected to cede full control over the Florida fishery to the state before the 2011-12 season begins. The vast majority of Gulf of Mexico stone crab claw landings are on Florida's Gulf Coast and in the Florida Keys.
The management change is good news, meaning stone crab won't be subject to artificial Magnuson-Stevens-mandated annual catch limits. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council have approved the change and await federal concurrence.
The commission has had an effective passive trap reduction program in place for years. The fishery is healthy and sustainable. Legal-size claws are snapped off and the crab is returned to the water, where the claws regenerate.
Bill Kelly, executive director of the Florida Keys Commercial Fishermen's Association, said in mid-July that major fish houses in Marathon have little stone crab (or lobster) left in cold storage, and he expects demand to be robust when the season opens.
"They're sold out," he says.
If lobster price opens strong the first week in August and remains strong in the following weeks, that could bode well for the stone crab opening, too.
According to preliminary Fish and Wildlife Research Institute numbers, 2010-11 stone crab volume, at 2.59 million pounds, was slightly less than the average of the previous four seasons.
Bob Gill, owner of Shrimp Landing in Crystal River, said in late April that upper Gulf Coast results were mixed.
"Stone crab is winding down," he said. "It was kind of a funky year; pricing wasn't bad, volume wasn't bad, but overall it dropped off to an average to lower-than-average year."
Statewide ex-vessel price, averaging $9.12 cents a pound, was well above average for the past four seasons and more than made up for the moderate harvest. At $23.62 million, overall value was the best since the 2007-08 season.
Lee Deaderick, owner of Northwest Seafood farther inland in Gainesville, says supply and demand coalesced well.
"We've had a very good stone crab year; it's been very much in balance," Deaderick said near the end of the season. "We've been paying $13.50 for jumbo and $8.50 for mediums."
Standing alone, the stone crab season was solid. But allied with a record spiny lobster season, 2010-11 was an extraordinary success for many recession-weary fishermen and dealers.
The success of the past year has also enabled Florida Keys fishermen to reinvest in the industry — and the community — in a manner uncommon in recent memory, Kelly says.
"With the economic rebound in spiny lobster and stone crab, fishermen have made improvements to their vessels and gear," he says. "It goes back into the community." — Hoyt Childers
Maryland shift toward leasing beds gets cool reception from watermen
Maryland pressed its oyster industry to shift to aquaculture as it began accepting new lease applications Aug. 1, while the Delaware Bay industry managed to procure new funding to continue putting down shell to restore its beds.
Maryland's restoration plan calls for a harvesting ban on 25 percent of its historic reefs, and increasing sanctuary areas. It's unpopular with some watermen who say there won't be enough income for them to make the transition. But increasingly it looks like bottom leases are the industry's future.
"I don't see many of the watermen in this area being interested. You have to plant an acre or more, and it takes $10,000 an acre to get started," says Russell Dize of Tilghman Island, on Maryland's Eastern Shore. "The problem is, it's a gamble, and our guys don't have the money to gamble."
In Virginia, sales of cultured oysters more than tripled over four years, from 4.8 million in 2007 to 16.9 million in 2010, according to a new Virginia Institute of Marine Science survey report. Average prices around 32 cents per oyster achieved peaks of 60 cents, and Virginia growers forecast a 74 percent increase in sales this year to more than 29 million oysters, the institute reports.
"We're seeing diversification with the big clam growers branching out into oysters," says Karen Hudson, an aquaculture specialist at the institute who co-authored the report with marine business specialist Thomas J. Murray.
Seafood suppliers scrambled to find other sources when the Deepwater Horizon oil spill shut down Gulf of Mexico beds, and "people saw that there's a need for oysters and a demand," Hudson says.
With Gulf of Mexico growers facing high freshwater levels from the Mississippi, "it looks like that will help hold prices for Virginia oysters into next year," Hudson says. With the half-shell market for Northeast hard clams saturated, prices there had been coming down.
Virginia growers are ahead because clam companies have the experience and infrastructure in place to take on oysters, Dize says. Maryland must change its rules, like the 3-inch minimum shell size, to compete in the national market, he says.
The enforcement answer is "you tag everything" coming off an oyster lease, Dize says.
During the summer Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission meetings in Alexandria, Va., Dize says he was in one local seafood restaurant where "they had three kinds of oysters from Washington state, one from Virginia, and a lot of those oysters were less than 3 inches."
As with the traditional oyster fishery, aquaculture is still up against Chesapeake Bay's fundamental problem of nutrient pollution. This year's annual dead zone of low-oxygen water was on track to be the largest on record, and by the end of July the zone extended some 90 miles from Baltimore into northern Virginia waters.
"Most of the dead zone is in the bay's main stem" and should spare most oyster bars in 8 to 20 feet of water, says Steve Allen, senior manager and chief scientist for the Maryland-based Oyster Recovery Partnership.
Dize says watermen are not so sure, and that's another deterrent to leasing.
Shell restoration helped boost the Delaware Bay fishery 2008 harvest to 89,000 bushels. After dropping to 80,000 bushels in 2009, it appears shelling the beds with surf clam shells from the region's seafood processing plants will enable the 2011 harvest to hit 90,000 bushels, the highest since 1998, says Rutgers University professor Eric Powell, who chairs the bay's oyster restoration task force.
The seven-year-old program was threatened by a loss of federal funding, but organizers went to multiple government, industry and nonprofit sources to come up with $200,000 that put down 159,000 bushels of shell this year.
Delaware Bay prices have held at $35 to $40 a bushel amid the fallout from the gulf oil spill, and the 2010 harvest fetched $3.7 million. — Kirk Moore
Alaska & Pacific King crab
Strong yen should bring high prices for fleet filling Japan's yen for crab
Players selling to Japanese markets will set a torrid tone in their bids for this season's red king crab if the yen maintains Herculean strength against the U.S. dollar.
Add to that depleted cold storage holdings, an increasingly successful clampdown on illegally harvested Russian king crab, a smaller Bering Sea harvest quota, and crabbers may not soon forget the ex-vessel prices of the 2011-12 season.
In the Bering Sea season's advent, the yen was holding rock steady at a monthly average of 80 yen to the dollar with daily exchange rates occasionally dipping into the 70s.
"It has a substantial impact," says Ed Poulsen, executive director of Alaska Bering Sea Crabbers, in Shoreline, Wash. "In 2007 the exchange rate was about 120 yen to the dollar. At the time, red crab wholesale prices were in the $10 per pound range or 1,200 yen. Today, the exchange rate is 80 to the dollar. That means the Japanese can pay $15 per pound [in U.S. dollars] but the result to the purchaser is the same 1,200 yen."
Domestic buyers could be showing up to a sword fight with a pocketknife.
"Intense competition between Japan and domestic markets is expected," says Jake Jacobsen, executive director of the Inter-Cooperative Exchange, in Seattle. "The market generally waits for Japan to set the price then enters to compete for share. Most of those remaining in the market will make purchases based on securing product instead of price."
Jacobsen estimates that in previous years 55 to 65 percent of the king crab wound up in Japan. But the percentage going overseas may increase.
"Bottom line," Poulsen says, "is that more crab is going to go to Japan."
As for the resource, last year's total allowable catch for Bering Sea king crab was reduced to around 13.4 million pounds. That was down sharply from the 2009 quota of 20.3 million.
Results from test fisheries the Alaska Department of Fish and Game uses to determine the upcoming season's quota weren't available as of late July. But Poulsen says the general industry consensus is that the TAC will be lower this year.
Another factor that should increase demand in the coming season lies with successful efforts to curb illegal crab coming out of Russia.
According to studies by the McDowell Group, a marketing and economic research agency with offices in Anchorage and Juneau, Russia's exports of king crab approached 52.02 million pounds, in 2010. That's about half of what was exported in 2006, when the McDowell Group estimated 175 million pounds of Russian king crab hit the market.
At the same time the huge volume of exports flooded markets, Russia's official king crab harvest in 2006 was declared at 47.3 million pounds; the harvest in 2009 was pegged at around 33 million pounds. (Official 2010 harvest data was unavailable.)
Though individual data from NMFS, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, the United Nations, the U.N.'s Food and Agriculture Organization and various Asian customs offices doesn't always agree, overall the data paints a fairly accurate picture of the illegal Russian crab affecting global inventories.
"It's pretty irrefutable that they're exporting more king crab than what they claim they've caught," says Andy Wink, McDowell Group's seafood analyst, who worked on the illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing report.
It's difficult to determine an immediate correlation between the ex-vessel prices that Bering Sea crabbers receive to volumes the crackdown reduced. But average dockside prices in Dutch Harbor jumped from $4.98 per pound in 2009 to $6.29 per pound last year, according to fish and game data.
"What you have," Wink says, "is a situation with a much lower supply, and that's driving up demand."
— Charlie Ess
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