Written by Jen Finn
ALASKA & PACIFIC SQUID
Fast and furious fishing pace marking bountiful seasons in California fishery
January sampling of the squid population points to another banner year for 2012. Ex-vessel prices started slightly stronger than last year's, and the industry will work to plug a loophole that let smaller boats keep fishing after the directed fishery closed.
The West Coast squid fishery normally runs from April through March the following year unless the fleet reaches its guideline harvest level (118,000 short tons the last two seasons) early. In seasons when squid are less abundant, the fleet usually fishes until the season ends on March 31 in hopes of reaching the catch limit.
But the 2010-11 fishery closed Dec. 17, 2010, after California Department of Fish and Game officials determined the catch limit had been reached. The final tally for landings that season was around 125,000 metric tons.
The bounty continued into the 2011-12 season. Fish and Game closed the fishery even earlier, this time on Nov. 18, 2011.
"We've hit good squid fishing two years in a row now," says Diane Pleschner-Steele, executive director of the California Wetfish Producers Association, in Buellton, Calif. "The landings came in so fast last November that the department couldn't keep track of them."
The harvest limit applies to the directed squid fishery. But a regulatory loophole that permits taking up to a ton of squid per day as incidental catch when boats are fishing for other species morphed into a small-boat fishery later in the season. According to Pleschner-Steele, boats were using brailers and dipping into the dense schools, then delivering their squid to processors.
"The way that it was worded, small boats could actually go out and target the squid," she says.
The average ex-vessel price for squid landed in the Santa Barbara area in December hit around $693 per short ton ($764 per metric ton), and $680 per short ton ($750 per metric ton) in the San Pedro area, according to Fish and Game's Market Squid Monthly Report.
Besides tightening language to close the bycatch loophole, the industry and regulatory agencies will also consider options to slow the fleet's fishing pace should the 2012-13 season's harvest rate repeat last year's intensity.
And para larval surveys in January indicate that the squid population might well be on par with last year. Whether that translates to another season of bountiful landings is anybody's guess, Pleschner-Steele says.
In late June, Rick Mayer, general manager of Marcus Food Co.'s fisheries division, in Camarillo, Calif., noted that squid were coming to the docks at a 14 count per pound. That's higher in comparison to the last two seasons, when squid coming in from around Monterey hit 7 and 8 count, and the Channel Islands produced squid around 10 count.
"It wasn't like babies mixed in," says Mayer of early 2012 landings. "These were fully mature, non-spawning squid."
One theory is that as ocean conditions transition from La Niña to El Niño, the squid might find themselves getting short on nutrition. In either event, markets in China and Japan may soften if the squid count runs much higher.
"If it starts coming in too thin, the Chinese markets might start to balk," Mayer says. He adds that Japan favors squid in the 8-count range while China (destination for the vast majority of West Coast squid) prefers squid 13 count or less.
According to Pacific Fisheries Information Network landing data, last year's ex-vessel prices of around $500 per ton powered the fishery to 2011 calendar year revenues of around $66.6 million, which is down from 2010, when revenues climbed to $71 million.
Ex-vessel prices have remained steady, averaging around $500 per ton since 2010. Early deliveries this year brought fishermen $680 per short ton, according to PacFin, and deliveries were running at $600 per ton in June, according to Mayer. — Charlie Ess
Gulf/South Atlantic Stone Crab
Hurricanes still X-factor, but outlook for Florida harvesters remains robust
Florida's stone crab and spiny lobster fisheries are notoriously unpredictable. Even when landings and prices are good, hurricanes have the potential to ruin an otherwise stellar season.
"A lot of industry is based on the H-word," says Marathon, Fla., fisherman Mitch Gale. "I don't know how the stock is out there. I believe the demand will be there."
In short, the ubiquitous stock market caveat — past performance is no guarantee of future results — applies to these highly volatile fisheries.
That said, collective prospects for Florida's stone crab/lobster fleet are looking remarkably strong. Fishermen have experienced two consecutive good-to-excellent seasons, encompassing both landings and prices.
"It's kind of unprecedented," says Summerland Key fisherman George Niles.
This fortunate convergence has given many fishermen a huge advantage as their openings approach. For the first time in years, they are experiencing a bit of financial leeway, allowing time and resources for long-postponed maintenance and repair.
"A lot of people are working on their boats," says Niles, who is rebuilding the deck on his 53-foot G&D. "It needs a new engine [too], but one thing at a time."
The commercial lobster season runs Aug. 6 to March 31, and stone crab runs Oct. 15 to May 15.
In calendar year 2011, the fleet landed nearly 5.8 million pounds of spiny lobsters worth $38.7 million, according to preliminary Florida Fish and Wildlife Research Institute numbers — a record value for the fishery. The average dock price was $6.67 per pound.
Likewise, approximately 2.8 million pounds of stone crab claws worth $24.7 million were landed in 2011, the fishery's fourth highest value total since 1986. Claws fetched an average dock price of $8.89 per pound.
"Stone crabbing was good; price was up," Niles says. "Same with lobster."
A number of positive factors have been at play, some of which should apply to 2012-13, too. Foremost among these is the continuing development of a robust live market for spiny lobster. Ex-vessel prices hit $9 or more per pound during the 2011-12 season.
"Everybody down here is doing some [live lobster]," Niles says.
Gale also is among those fishing hard for this new Chinese market.
"This is our second year doing it," Gale says. "We sold probably 75 percent of our lobster that way."
Maintaining and growing this market depends on continued Chinese economic growth, which has been showing some signs of softening. But for now live spiny lobster demand is holding. As long as it does, fishermen can expect especially strong sales around the time of the Chinese New Year, which arrives on Feb. 10 in 2013.
Local sales at seafood retailers and restaurants are also important for both fisheries, and this largely tourism-fueled market is finally experiencing some growth after the 2008 economic crash and the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Florida's tourism agency noted modest gains in 2011 and expects growth to continue during 2012. South Florida and the Florida Keys, where most of the stone crab claws and lobster are landed, are normally among the state's top tourist destinations.
Opening price is to some degree dependent on reserves in cold storage. Marathon fisherman Pete Worthington says from what he has seen there isn't much product left.
"I don't think there's much at all in the freezers," he says.
Gales agrees, "I don't believe my fish house has much in storage."
Lower diesel costs should also help fishermen, provided petroleum-market price trends evident in midsummer continue into the fall.
The live lobster boom has brought some new challenges to these fisheries; logistics, especially, were challenging at times during the 2011-12 season.
"Shipping them has been a problem," Niles says. "It's a long way to China."
Spiny lobster shipments were sometimes vying with other industries for shipping capacity, Worthington says.
"We were competing against the Chilean cherry harvest" in particular, he says. — Hoyt Childers
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