Written by Jen Finn
Gulf/South Atlantic Spiny Lobster
Trifecta of catch, demand and price brings high spirits to season opener
As fishermen anticipate an Aug. 6 spiny lobster opening, the market outlook and morale in this Florida fishery are as good as they ever get.
Fishermen are coming off a record season, certainly the best in overall value since 1986 and possibly the best ever. Landings were excellent, and robust, persistent demand supported consistently strong prices.
In late January, veteran Marathon, Fla., fisherman Tim Daniels confirmed a stellar season.
"Last year [2009-10] was about the worst year I've ever experienced," Daniels said. "And this year is one of the best I've experienced in 45 years."
In the 2009-10 season, fishermen landed 4.35 million pounds worth $13.77 million, according to Florida Fish and Wildlife Research Institute data. The average dock price was $3.16 per pound.
But in the 2010-11 season, harvesters notched 5.8 million pounds worth $37.46 million, and the average dock price was $6.44.
It's a combination that comes along "once every 30 years" jokes Tom Hill, co-owner of Key Largo Fisheries. "It was good for the fishermen as well as the commodity."
Even with the strong 2010-11 production, there's not much reserve product, Hill says.
"There is not much inventory in the freezer," he says. "Some sizes are completely sold out."
All this should bode well for the beginning of the 2011-12 season.
"Everyone's looking forward to the season," Hill says. "The market appears it's going to be strong, but we just have to wait and see."
Two factors that contributed to a good season for 2010-11 are likely to be in play again this year.
Despite a snail's-pace recovery from recession, and then the BP oil spill last summer, tourism is strong in the Sunshine State, including the Florida Keys, and a significant amount of lobster is sold at retail and through restaurants.
Also, the increased demand encompasses increasingly strong international demand for live lobster.
Last September, not quite eight weeks after the beginning of the season, the Asian live market was coming on strong, reports Marathon fisherman Pete Worthington.
"Hong Kong is tapping into our live market here," he says. "The market is north of $8."
Of four major factors that could affect the fishery — management, the oil spill's effects, the economy and hurricane season — at least two of them appear not to be threats in the short term.
At a Key West meeting in June, the Gulf of Mexico and South Atlantic fishery management councils delayed a controversial proposal to establish 25 new no-take zones to protect coral reefs. Fishermen felt blindsided by the proposals earlier in the year. They said the zones were not well thought out and amounted to overkill.
The zones will be redrawn with more input from fishermen and Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary officials to better target and protect the coral formations in question, a goal fishermen support. The councils also agreed to catch limits of 7.3 million pounds, a number well within the industry's comfort zone.
As for the oil spill, fishermen feared hydrocarbons from the Deepwater Horizon disaster would harm lobster larvae transiting the Loop Current in the gulf. So far, there is no sign of this in the keys, but scientists and fishermen remain vigilant.
On the economy, it's a wait-and-see situation. June macroeconomic reports on job creation, manufacturing and inflation showed troubling signs of weakness, but for now, in Florida at least, tourism does appear to be rising.
The great perennial unknown each season is whether tropical weather patterns will bring a new hurricane disaster.
Though 2010 was a very active hurricane season, Atlantic and Caribbean tropical weather generally bypassed the United States, with no hurricanes making landfall and many remaining far offshore. For 2011, the National Weather Service is predicting "an above-normal hurricane season" with 12 to 18 named storms and three to six major (category 3-5) hurricanes. — Hoyt Childers
Alaska & Pacific Squid
Cool waters and hot market light the way for an eager loligo fleet
Colder water temperatures and other oceanic factors are setting the tone for a bountiful West Coast squid harvest again this season.
The 2011-12 season began slowly after the fleet began fishing in early May. A strike for better prices accounts for some of the setback. The other distinguishing factor was that fishing was dormant from January through March.
The squid season normally runs from April 1 to March 31 unless the quota is reached early. The fleet had never caught its quota of about 108,000 metric tons since a revised fishery management plan was implemented in the 2005-06 season.
But in the 2010-11 season, with the catch approaching the guideline harvest level, managers closed the fishery early on Dec. 17; landings ultimately totaled nearly 125,000 metric tons.
"It was one of those absolutely spectacular years, where the stars aligned," says Diane Pleschner-Steele, executive director of the California Wetfish Producers Association, in Buellton, Calif. "Even Southern California put in 20,000 tons."
Hydro-acoustic and towing surveys in January of this year indicate another strong season is in the offing, according to Pleschner-Steele.
Among prevalent theories for last year's abundance is that a shift toward colder water temperatures has made the ocean favorable for market squid. There has been some evidence that the ocean's surface water temperatures are at a neutral point between El Niño and La Niña events. But the Pacific Decadal Oscillation, a 20-year cyclical pattern in warming or cooling sea surface temperatures that runs concurrent to El Niños and La Niñas, appears to have swung to the cool side of its cycle.
"The North Pacific has indeed been in a cold phase pattern of the PDO," says Nathan Mantua, a research associate professor with the University of Washington. "What it looks like is that market squid do well when the water is on the cold side."
Mantua explains that the colder water off the West Coast produces an upwelling and that water coming up from the ocean floor contains rich fodder for the squid. "There's lots of upwelling of nutrient rich water," he says, "and it boosts the overall production in the cold water food web."
The cold water is making loligo more plentiful — and bigger.
"One of the plants reported a four count," says Pleschner-Steele of last year. So far this year processing plants were reporting squid sizes of 7 to 8 per pound, she adds.
Ex-vessel prices, meanwhile, are holding steady at around $500 per ton, despite a month-long strike at the beginning of the season that yielded no changes from last season's offerings.
"They wanted more money because fuel prices were up," says Sal Tringali, president of Monterey Fish Co., in Salinas. "We had the same problem in the plant."
Tringali adds that it would have been detrimental to ratchet up ex-vessel prices to pay for increased shipping costs to China, where 70 percent of the harvest winds up, and pass those costs on to buyers.
"If we'd have raised the [ex-vessel] prices I think we'd have lost sales over there," he says. NMFS data shows exports to China have risen from 18.73 million pounds worth $11.8 million in 2006 to 154.1 million pounds worth $81.10 million in 2010.
Tringali adds that the remaining 30 percent of the product gets divided among the Japanese, European and domestic markets. Early in the season, Monterey boats were delivering some squid below 10-count, which puts them in favor among European outlets, where they are sliced into rings and grilled. When the count climbs above 10, he says, product goes west, where it's cooked up whole. — Charlie Ess
Northeast Summer Flounder
2009 returns are no fluke; stocks reach 30-year high
The 2010 run of small summer flounder returned bigger this summer in the Northeast, fanning hope that the 2009 year class of young fish might restore the fishery to glory.
"There's no problem catching fluke," says Denis Lovgren, a captain at the Fishermen's Dock Cooperative in Point Pleasant Beach, N.J. "If they let me, I could go out and in three tows come back with 5,000 pounds."
That was in July, with a 500-pound trip limit in place, and prices around $2.30 to $2.40 a pound. In the first months of 2011 during the winter offshore fishery with higher trip limits, prices dipped to $1.40 but "it didn't get much cheaper than that, although I thought it would with the big catches in North Carolina," Lovgren says.
A 29.48 million pound quota for 2011 is the highest since 2005, when NMFS ordered a fallback from 30 million pounds because summer flounder numbers were not increasing fast enough to meet rebuilding schedules required by Congress. But New York fishermen aren't seeing much benefit from the higher quota. Their allocation slipped to 7.6 percent of the coastwide quota, and trip limits are too low for directed fishing.
"They've seen large and jumbo fluke, but they're not going for them. Most of them are squidding," says Bonnie Brady, executive director of the Long Island Commercial Fishermen's Association. "With the trip limits there's not that much incentive to go for them."
The quota was cut to 15.77 million pounds in 2008. A revolt against that trend united recreational and commercial fishermen. They extracted an extension of the summer flounder rebuilding schedule during 2006 negotiations in Congress to reauthorize the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act.
Faced with a potential shutdown in 2009, the recreational sector organized the Save the Summer Flounder Fishery Fund, and hired stock assessment scientist Mark Maunder to submit studies of summer flounder population and recruitment. Meanwhile nature helped out with the 2009 year class, an estimated 82 million fish. It's the best in 30 years, since 73 million and 81 million were estimated in 1981-82, according to a 2010 stock assessment by biologist Mark Terceiro at the Northeast Fisheries Science Center at Woods Hole, Mass.
Bringing new scientific information to the table enabled an 87 percent quota increase since 2009, says Tony Bogan, a flounder fund organizer. Even with higher minimum sizes this year, the recreational sector has fewer complaints because so many fish are around. In mid-June one Point Pleasant party boat had to break off a flounder set after its customers hooked 300, fishermen said.
"Summer flounder has been doing relatively well," says Jessica Coakley, an analyst with the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council, which was discussing the 2012 quota at its August meeting in Wilmington, Del. "I wouldn't expect any big changes."
During 2010 discussions, the council's science and statistical committee took a very conservative stance on the large 2009 year class, to ensure the stock recovery stays on track. Retrospective patterns seen over the previous three years showed analysts may have overestimated recruitment in those years by 54 to 80 percent, the committee said.
"Thus, the halving of the 2009 year class does not represent an overly conservative assumption," the committee said in its 2010 report.
Even at that lower number, the summer flounder stock remains on track to be fully rebuilt at the end of 2012, the committee said.
In the council's impending amendment to establish annual catch limits and accountability measures mandated by Congress, summer flounder catch rates will be monitored in much the same way as they have for years. — Kirk Moore
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