Written by Jen Finn
Gulf/South Atlantic spiny lobster
Florida fleet sets traps with its eyes on gushing oil, weather and tourists
Keeping one eye on the BP/Deepwater Horizon oil spill to the west, fishermen in south Florida and the Florida Keys prepared to set their traps Aug. 6. They're hoping the money they made during the last two weeks of March, at the end of last season's spiny lobster harvest, will prove a better indicator of this season's opening price than the dismal $3 a pound that prevailed for much of 2009-10.
Big Pine Key fisherman Mitch Gale, owner-skipper of Galeforce II and a Florida Keys Commercial Fishermen's Association board member, says he is more optimistic about this year's price.
"Toward the middle of last season there was a bigger demand," he says. "I've got to believe there's not much left in the freezer. The last two weeks, it went up to $5."
Last season's average ex-vessel price of $3.12, as calculated by Florida's Fish and Wildlife Research Institute, was the worst in years. It was way off the $6-$7 norm, and some fishermen hauled in their traps before March 31.
The 2009-10 season fell victim to the continuing recession that dampened tourism in the keys and with it demand for pricey restaurant fare.
More recently, tourism had recovered somewhat, just in time for the BP catastrophe, accompanied by early and erroneous reports that oil from the spill had already reached the keys.
Donna VanKirk, a Marathon fishing guide, sometimes spiny lobster fisherman and charter captain for wildlife institute researchers, said in late May that rumors and inaccurate media coverage had scared away tourists.
"We have already felt the effects," she says. "A few of the charter boats have had cancellations."
Keys fishermen are concerned about the spill; they do hope, however, that fear won't destroy their markets should they escape serious harm from the leaking oil well.
Spiny lobster stocks are generally considered healthy in Florida's keys. But when and where they will show up is always a bit of a riddle, contingent on many variables, including weather, temperature and phases of the moon.
"As far as the stock, that's anybody's guess," Gale says.
The spiny lobster fishery's long-term health is a worry, even if the keys escape direct contamination because of the peculiar "larval drift" phase of the spiny lobster's life cycle.
DNA analysis has shown that spiny lobster populations in South and Central America, the Caribbean and in the United States all belong to the same stock. Larvae on which the Florida Keys fishery is dependent ride the ocean currents up from the Yucatan, around the Gulf of Mexico and back down to the keys. As yet, nobody knows what — if any — effect the oil contamination in the gulf and the dispersants used to break it down will have on these larvae.
Mitch Gale's wife, Vicki Gale, owner-skipper of Vicki's Vee, says she is afraid the fishery could suffer for years because of oil and dispersant contamination in the upper gulf.
"The lobster we get here come from the Caribbean, Mexico and gets put in the current," she said. "If it gets killed, we're not going to have a fishery for years."
Mitch Gale believes keys fishermen will eventually see some oil.
"Things that are in the Loop Current generally end up down here," he says.
Doug Gregory, Florida Sea Grant extension agent in Key West, says there aren't many answers yet to "what if" questions about the gushing oil.
"The people that I've talked to... they want to know what nobody can tell them, because it's not here," Gregory says.
Late in June, University of Miami researchers were predicting some oil contamination would reach the keys and beyond. — Hoyt Childers
Quota boost recommended as stock nears Magnuson-mandated goalpost
Summer flounder fishermen could see a substantial quota boost of 22 percent or more for 2011, with the stock on trajectory toward a full recovery. The 2009 year class is calculated at 82 million fish — a total not seen since the bumper years of 1981-82.
The recommended 2011 quota of 27.18 million to 29.48 million pounds — up from 22.13 million pounds in 2010 — would be the highest since 2005.
A June 2008 reassessment is the catalyst for recommendation. The latest reports show the spawning stock biomass was 117.9 million pounds in 2009, within 89 percent of the rebuilding target of 132.4 million pounds that must be reached by Jan. 1, 2013.
"The thing I'm seeing more than in past years is a load of 14-inch fish, just legal [minimum size] for us. That's the big year class," says captain Jim Lovgren of the Fishermen's Dock Cooperative in Point Pleasant Beach, N.J. "The season just reopened [in early July] and guys are getting 500 pounds in one tow... I'd say this is the best run of 14-inch fish in more than 10 years."
"We're seeing all sizes, from the smalls to the jumbos," adds Vincent Carillo, captain of the Montauk dragger Tenacious.
But the economic recession holds the key to future revenue prospects. The first season opening in January has usually been a big week for landings in New Jersey, almost a derby but with modest price ranges. The sluggish economy held prices down; the good winter money of around $2 a pound was not much different than in years past.
Early summer prices from New York's New Fulton Market held around $2 to $2.25. But New York captains had smaller day limits to conserve their small allocations: 210 pounds in June and dropping to 100 pounds for the third quarter.
New Jersey still has the third-largest quota share behind North Carolina and Virginia at almost 17 percent. But fishermen say there were fewer opportunities for flounder in early 2010. Many opted to target scup.
A substantial boost in the coastwide quota can only help New York fishermen, who lost 24 percent of their commercial quota from 2006 to 2009.
In a 2004 framework the Mid-Atlantic council laid groundwork for setting total allowable landings up to three years in advance. A longer-term approach was thought to offer more consistency for management and business planning.
But the council's staff recommended setting one more single year flounder limit for 2011 until an allowable catch limit amendment is adopted to the management plan next year, says council analyst Jessica Coakley.
"Back in the early '80s you were getting 70 million to 80 million in recruitment and we were landing much more," Lovgren said of the decade when commercial landings alone were between 21 million and 32 million pounds, before dropping to 9.2 million in 1990.
"It's not fishing," Lovgren says, "it's a huge environmental factor."
It appeared the stock had recovered in 2004 when the population reached 84.9 million pounds, allowing the 2005 quota to reach 30.3 million pounds. But in 2005 NMFS imposed cutbacks when population estimates showed the flounder stock was falling behind the previous rebuilding target of 197 million pounds.
The resulting political uproar in the Northeast gave fishermen's allies in Congress an opening to demand an extension to the rebuilding period for summer flounder, stretching it to the end of 2012. From the 2008 quota low of 15.77 million pounds the numbers crept back up to 18.45 million tons in 2009 and 22.13 million pounds this year.
Meanwhile, foreign fillets are everywhere in the market. China, Argentina and Canada are the top exporters, according to NMFS market statistics.
The first four months of 2010 saw 9.5 million pounds of imported flounder worth $19.1 million. That was down just slightly from the 10.3 million pounds that sold at $20.7 million during the same period in 2009. — Kirk Moore
Alaska & Pacific Squid
Loligo makes a smashing comeback, jump-starting flagging seine fishery
West Coast squid fishermen were treated to harvest volumes in 2009 like they haven't seen since the late 1990s in a season that stretched from last summer to this spring.
The 92,000-plus metric tons the fleet landed last year more than doubled the 38,100 metric tons it caught in 2008, according to harvest information with the Pacific Fisheries Information Network. The season came as a welcome surprise to many and renewed optimism among those who thought the squid population had taken a permanent turn for worse.
"The fear was, 'They're all gone. They've been overfished,'" says Doyle Hanan, a fisheries biologist and consultant with Hanan and Associates, of Rancho Santa Fe, Calif. "But they showed up, and proved once again that oceanic conditions play a big part.
Though Hanan says that boats used in population studies did gather samples that will help predict the strength of this year's harvest, the numbers weren't yet worked up in mid-June. Many variables factor into predicting squid abundance, and a plethora of oceanic factors determine their survival.
However, comparing numbers of rice-sized paralarval shrimp in plankton tows throughout the year provides a clue of potential recruitment into the fishery. After that, it's all up to the ocean. In years of El Niño weather conditions baby squid grow more slowly than in La Niña years.
"They continue to feed longer in the colder water, and they get larger," says Hanan. "In hotter water, they tend to be harder to find."
The harvest in mid-June stood at around 11,500 metric tons. While nobody wanted to predict how this year's season would turn out volume-wise, average ex-vessel prices this year started out around $480 per short ton, according to PacFIN.
That is down from last year's average ex-vessel price of $560 per ton. During the 2009 season, reports among processors indicated prices had reached $700 per ton for some deliveries to buyers with connections to China.
That China established itself as a prime bidder showed up in last year's NMFS export data. China took more than 29 million kilos of loligo squid from the United States. The volume nearly doubled the 15.5 million kilos of 2008.
In 2007, China claimed nearly 17 million kilos, almost double the amount it imported from the United States in 2006. As China has claimed increasing shares of U.S. seafood in recent years, the cost of doing business in California has been prohibitive to compete in global squid markets, according to Diane Pleschner-Steele, executive director of the California Wetfish Producers Association, in Buellton, Calif.
"The world does not trade fairly anymore," she says. "The deck is stacked against domestic producers."
There was little talk about which direction ex-vessel prices might swing this year. However, most recent reports from August 2009 indicate an absence of squid and high fuel costs for fleets in Argentina did their share to hold production volumes in check.
According to s, the arm of the United Nation's Fisheries and Agriculture Organization Fisheries Department responsible for international fish trade data, the 2009 harvest of around 13,000 metric tons of loligo squid declined from the 25,000 metric tons of 2008.
But that was last year, Pleschner-Steele cautions, and production scenarios often change rapidly. "We're not the only loligo fishery in the world, and [production] changes from day to day." — Charlie Ess
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