National Fisherman

Gulf/South Atlantic Stone Crab

As threat from spill diminishes, storms, economy loom like clouds over fishery

A near-disastrous 2009-10 season, fears about the BP oil spill and other unknowns, have not gotten Florida stone crab fishermen down.

Mostly thanks to a bitterly cold winter, stone crab landings dropped dramatically last season, and prices spiked at season's end in May. This should bode well for fishermen, as few claws remain in cold storage for the Oct. 15 opening.

"There aren't many," says Key West fisherman George Niles. "The price went way up last year. There wasn't many stone crabs."

Jumbo claws brought $15 to $16 a pound ex-vessel, a price not seen in years.

Weather conditions greatly affect stone crab behavior. Rough weather is good — provided it doesn't keep vessels in port — but bitter cold temperatures aren't.

If it's too chilly, landings drop, and the meat tends to stick in the claws that are harvested. That happened last year in some places on Florida's Gulf Coast. Evening temperatures sank into the teens and 20s for weeks.

Marathon fisherman Bruce Erwin says the cold was a major factor in the poor 2009-10 season.

"It was so cold, [the meat] started sticking to the shell up north," Erwin says. "There was a real shortage. Of course, it's warmer down here and we were able to keep fishing, but it was still pretty cold."

Erwin says he thinks October's opening will bring good money.

"I believe we've got good markets," he says. "I look for us to have a good price. They don't have nothing in the freezer."

One big question mark looming over the opening is what — if any — effect the BP oil disaster will have on the fishery.

Unlike spiny lobster, which is caught primarily in southern Florida and the Florida Keys, the stone crab fishery ranges all the way up into the Florida Panhandle. But hardly any stone crab is caught west of Wakulla County, and as of late July, the federal fishing closure that had shut down much of the central Gulf of Mexico terminated 9 nautical miles Southwest of Cape San Blas, leaving the eastern portion of the Florida Panhandle and the remainder of Florida's Gulf Coast open.

For now, fishermen are hoping that, with the well capped, the oil will represent a diminishing threat. The especially good news is that as of late July no oil from the gushing wellhead had reached the keys, Niles says.

"It's beautiful here," he says. "We are hoping the oil stays away — as long as it stays out of that Loop Current."

Meanwhile, a sluggish economic recovery has yet to restore the jobs and disposable income that drive tourism, on which the keys depend. With federal officials finally acknowledging what folks on the working waterfront have been saying for two years — that recovery is "slow" — it remains to be seen how this all plays out.

The final unknown in this notoriously unpredictable fishery is the likelihood of hurricanes that could disrupt fishing, destroy traps and damage shoreside infrastructure, and scientists predict greater-than-normal activity.

For 2010 NOAA is predicting 14 to 23 named storms in the Atlantic basin and eight to 14 hurricanes, with three to seven becoming major hurricanes.

The Department of Atmospheric Science at Colorado State University's Atlantic seasonal hurricane outlook by early June foresaw 18 named storms, 10 hurricanes and five major hurricanes.

In addition, lead scientists William Gray and Philip Klotzback estimated a 51 percent probability that at least one major (category 3 to 5) hurricane would strike the East Coast, including peninsular Florida, and a 50 percent probability that at least one major hurricane would strike the Gulf Coast.

"We anticipate a well-above-average probability of United States and Caribbean major hurricane landfall," Klotzback and Gray wrote in their report. "All factors are lining up for a very active 2010 hurricane season." — Hoyt Childers

Northeast Oysters

BP disaster lifting demand, but will recession pare consumer budgets?

If only the Northeast had 20 times the oysters now in its waters — the way it once was — it could refill the market vacuum from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

"It would have been a good opportunity, if we had the product," says Mark Bryan of Harbor House Seafood in Seaford, Del. "The demand is up, but the quota for us is down this year."

By midsummer the spill's effects were affecting America's revival of oyster food culture, escalating retail raw bar prices to levels that had fishermen worried. It could get worse heading into the prime-time fall and winter season for half-shell enthusiasts.

Louisiana's production is two-thirds of the nation's native eastern oysters. But longtime processors there like New Orleans' 134-year-old P&J Oyster Co. are closing their doors. In public meetings on the Gulf Coast, federal oil spill claims program compensation manager Kenneth Feinberg said they could get financial settlements for permanent loss of their business.

There was no resulting windfall profit for oystermen farther north. In midsummer, prices were up to $45 a bushel on Delaware Bay, just $5 more than fall 2009. Retail prices were escalating, but fishermen saw little of that. They worry the perception of scarcity will run up against consumers' thin wallets in this recession.

"The biggest problem I hear of is in the raw bars. A guy came in here the other day and told me he was in New York and a half-dozen cost $18," says Steve Fleetwood, president of Bivalve Packing Co. in Port Norris, N.J. "Blame it on the gulf, if you have to. But don't gouge people."

On the docks, "the prices have gone up some" with the Louisiana closures, as new buyers show up looking for oysters, Fleetwood says. But it's not much more than the $35 to $40 range the Delaware fleet has been getting for years, he adds.

Top Northeast producers New Jersey, Virginia and Maryland produced 1.18 million pounds in 2008, a fraction of Louisiana's 12 million pounds and the nearly 18 million pounds from the entire eastern gulf.

"It's a little better on price, and a lot better on demand," says Scott Bailey of Bailey's Oysters and Crabs, who chairs New Jersey's Delaware Bay Shellfish Council. Oyster allocations have been lowered for 2010, and that's a big constraint.

"We're down about 25 percent from last year so that's going to hurt us a little bit," Bailey says. "It's going to be tight."

It's the same on the Delaware state side. "The customers that we have are taking what product we have," says Bryan of Harbor House, which gets its oysters from both the Delaware and New Jersey sides of Delaware Bay.

The company demonstrated confidence in the fishery when it refurbished a Port Norris, N.J., shucking house. Allocations are down by 200 to 300 bushels for each permit, but consolidating permits on the best boats is now allowed, "which has helped us tremendously," Bryan says.

More than 2 million bushels of surf clam shells have been put down to rebuild Delaware Bay oyster beds since 2005, at a cost of $5 million in federal and state support. That helped overcome a deficit of shell stock on the bottom from dermo, the oyster disease that in some years destroys 23 percent of maturing oysters.

The investment in shell stock moved New Jersey ahead of Virginia in oyster production. But thanks to the recession, shrinking government spending is the new reality that puts Northeast oyster restoration at risk.

Oyster projects aimed at research and ecological restoration could be casualties. New Jersey pulled the plug on the NY/NJ Baykeeper oyster garden in Raritan Bay off Keyport, N.J., just a few days after a U.S. Food and Drug Administration report in early June noted that New Jersey's shellfish patrols have been lagging for years behind national standards. — Kirk Moore

Alaska & Pacific King Crab

Bering Sea producers poised to reap benefits of healthy stock, rising price

Several factors indicate Alaska king crabbers can look forward to another profitable year on the Bering Sea.

The resource looks strong. Global harvest volumes are poised to drop with restrictions imposed on Norwegian crabbers as well as buyers' concerns, thanks to the Deepwater Horizon disaster, about stone crab availability in the Gulf of Mexico. Further crimps on illegally caught crab in Asian markets should bolster ex-vessel prices when fishermen begin splashing pots in October.

In July, population abundance survey results weren't complete enough to document the size of this year's quota. However, industry consensus is that the catch limit will mimic the 2007-08 and '08-09 guideline harvest levels of around 20 million pounds.

Not only is the king crab population healthy, but Alaska Department of Fish and Game data reveals ex-vessel prices have been rising. In the '06-07 season, crabbers fished for $3.48 per pound. In '07-08, ex-vessel prices rose to $4.16, and last season brought offers of $4.98.

The '09-10 king crab harvest gross revenues totaled more than $100 million, up from the $84 million the fleet garnered during the '08-09 season. It's even more significant when compared with the $48 million the fleet posted for the '07-08 season.

The main price driver, says Eric Donaldson, a partner and sales representative of the Crab Broker, in Sarasota, Fla., is a market starving for product.

"The pricing right now is through the ceiling," Donaldson says. "There's no product around. There's no crab."

Not only are red king crab inventories depleted, but the Gulf of Mexico oil spill has stirred concern of shortages among stone crab distributors. And according to Donaldson, the contingency plan is to secure Bering Sea king crab as a substitute.

What hasn't yet been determined is whether the oil, should it reach the stone crab grounds, will affect the stone crab's porous carapaces or the crab will instead shed the toxic oil during molting cycles. Donaldson says his customers speculate that it could take five years before the stone crab recover from the spill's effects.

Another factor playing into this season's ex-vessel prices is changes in Norway's regulated inshore king crab fishery that Donaldson says could cut Norwegian harvests by 80 percent. The drop will bear heavily on king crab supplies for the upcoming season, Donaldson says.

The Norwegian Ministry of Fisheries and Coastal Affairs says Norway's king crab fishery is lucrative, with revenues reaching $21.1 million in 2009.

But Norway also considers king crab an invasive species.

"It is a management target to keep the king crab stock at a minimum level outside the regulated area, since the crab is an introduced stock that could have an impact on the marine ecosystem," the fisheries ministry's Web site notes. "It is therefore a free fishery of king crab outside the regulated area."

But fishery management changes have pushed the boundary separating Norway's strictly regulated inshore king crab zone and its quota-free offshore king crab zone so far out, fishermen say, that the quota-free zone now lies beyond the king crab grounds.

And harvests in the regulated inshore crab zone are limited to approximately 1,200 crabs for the '09-10 fishery, according to the fisheries ministry.

In addition to less Norwegian product, Korea has imposed stiffer sanctions against taking deliveries of illegal, unreported king crab. Russia continues to receive blame for selling illegally caught king crab through Asian ports where product ultimately winds up in Japan to compete with U.S. product.

"The crackdown in the Russian Far East is real," says Arni Thomson, executive director of the Alaska Crab Coalition and president of United Fishermen of Alaska, in Anchorage. "It's reducing the amount of illegal crab in the market."

Some of that product makes its way back to the United States directly. Import volumes of Russian king crab — once the bane of the U.S. industry — have stabilized around the 32 million pound mark, about half of the volume imported in 2006. — Charlie Ess

Inside the Industry

The Northeast Fisheries Science Center has announced that Dr. Jon Hare has been selected to serve as the permanent science and research director effective Oct. 31.

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