Written by Jen Finn
Abundance isn't enough: harvesters need to enhance market for product
The season will still last 140 days this winter, with plenty of shrimp. But prices that reached as low as 20 cents per pound last January are spurring efforts to build a better future for the Gulf of Maine shrimp fishery.
"What we saw last year was an abundance of very nice shrimp and very poor market conditions," says Proctor Wells, a fisherman from Phippsburg, Maine. "I know guys who have been shrimping for 30 years, and they didn't go last year because they didn't have a market.
"Because of a couple poor years when they were concerned about the stocks, the processors lost their market," Wells says.
Biologists say this past winter's shrimp showing was the best in 20 years, based on sampling. With the resource so healthy, some say it's time for a new marketing effort to distinguish Maine shrimp from that global avalanche of imported and farmed product.
"They have to build a brand identification, because they're never going to compete on price with shrimp from Vietnam and Thailand," says Russell Libby, executive director of the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, who spoke about marketing ideas at the Maine Fishermen's Forum in March.
The Saco, Maine-based Northwest Atlantic Marine Alliance sees cold-water shrimp as a marketing opportunity that can support fishing communities.
"There is a lot of potential" in an insatiable market for cooked and peeled shrimp, says Jennifer Levin, the alliance's director of operations. In addition to investigating marketing strategies, the group also is exploring the idea of fishermen-owned cooperative processing capacity.
A decade ago northern shrimp earned fishermen $1 a pound. The vital seasonal fishery produced more than 20 million pounds, about 75 percent landed by Maine boats.
Then the stock began to slide. By the 2001-02 season, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission set just a 25-day season.
The 2002-03 season hit 38 days in January and February and stretched to 40 days for 2003-04 when Maine's catch was 2.38 million pounds worth $1.04 million.
Meanwhile, the customers for the sweet and briny northern shrimp — already in many ways a niche and regional market for discerning consumers and chefs — began turning away because buyers saw the already short, seasonal supply as unreliable.
"Last winter we did quite a bit of shrimp, but the prices were low," says Spencer Fuller, shrimp director for Cozy Harbor Seafood in Portland, Maine, the region's biggest shrimp processor. Since then, he says, "the world market hasn't changed that much or gotten much better."
Over the last couple of years, biologists have seen good things happening again in the shrimp stock, which they think is highly influenced by oceanographic conditions, including large-scale oscillations in the North Atlantic. Good year classes from 2001, 2003 and 2004 have boosted the numbers.
"Last year we had very good numbers of shrimp in the Gulf of Maine, really the best we've seen in the 20 years we've been doing the survey," says Margaret Hunter, a scientist with the Maine Division of Marine Resources. Hunter also chairs the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission's northern shrimp technical committee.
That early 2006 data "will be the first year we get a good look at the '05 year class," she says. Early indications are there were lots of baby shrimp seen, Hunter says, adding, "If it shows up in the catch at all, that's usually a good sign."
The season was extended to 70 days in 2004-05, and the commission doubled it to 140 days for a December 2005 to April 2006 winter season. But prices tanked last January. Given high fuel costs, many fishermen didn't bother shrimping.
What northeast shrimp did reach the market was extraordinarily cheap for consumers. New England food writers marveled at superior shrimp available for as little as 89 cents a pound retail — and warned their newspaper and Internet audiences that a treasured local fishery could be disappearing.
Indeed, Mid-Atlantic fishermen still contend with a legacy from summer flounder's long 1990s recovery; longtime customers switched to more dependable imports and haven't come back.
The way back for shrimpers may be to follow the path of small-scale Maine farmers, Libby suggests: linking product to what he calls "place, face and taste."
"The story of who you are and where your food comes from is all we have," he says. "To the extent you can unhook from the commodity world, you can do it by telling that story."
— Kirk Moore
Crabbers expect another big year, but hypoxic zone, pot limits are worrisome
In Oregon, the 2005-06 Dungeness crab harvest was the second best on record despite late molting and rough weather that largely nixed fishing from December to mid-January.
The 27.5 million pounds landed between January and August trails only the 2004-05 season's 33.7 million pounds. And the '05-06 bounty was found all along the Oregon coast.
"I think they were a little more distributed on the coast," says Newport, Ore., fisherman Al Pazar. "There were a couple epicenters [of effort] before."
For most of the year, the dock price stayed between $1.50 and $1.75 a pound after the season opened late because crab were still molting in some areas in December. The season opened coastwide Jan. 1, but a series of winter storms kept many boats from fishing until mid January.
"We missed the holiday season, but we sold all the crab," says Jim Caito, vice president of Fort Bragg, Calif.-based Caito Fisheries. "They mostly all went to sections, but we did have some whole-cook orders."
The industry expects this season to be productive, too. But some fishermen and researchers worry that a recent hypoxic zone off the coast of central and northern Oregon could present problems. Underwater video showed what researchers called a crab graveyard.
In recent years, a "dead zone" has appeared off Oregon during most summers. In 2002, fishermen noticed dead crab in their pots that couldn't escape the low-oxygen area.
But the following crab season was quite different.
"That winter, following the hypoxia event, there was decent fishing in [those] areas," Pazar says.
He wasn't too concerned this year, either, when he first heard about the dead zone — until he viewed some of the underwater video that Oregon State University has archived on the Web.
"This time I saw mounds of crab," Pazar says. "I'm a lot more concerned this time than last time." However, he's also curious to see what the next season brings. "Who's to say it's not a natural occurrence and [the die-off or molt isn't] a good thing?"
Recreational crabbing in Oregon's bays and estuaries has been good, says Mitch Vance, who heads the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife's shellfish program. It could be good news for ocean crabbing later in the season.
"They're big crab," Vance says of the Dungies in Yaquina Bay, at Newport. "That to me says there are a fair number of big crab in the ocean."
Vance also hesitates to draw conclusions from the underwater videos. Male crabs are molting this time of year. A large number of molted shells could indicate another plentiful season.
"It's hard to tell the difference between a dead crab and a crab molt when the shells wash up on the beach or are seen on underwater video," Vance says.
Meanwhile, Oregon fishermen and some Washington and California crabbers are more concerned about new pot limits awaiting the 2006-07 season.
Unlike Washington, which instituted gear limit tiers of 300 and 500 pots five years ago, Oregon is instituting three tiers of 200, 300 and 500 pots. And that's angering many crabbers.
As of August, one group filed a petition in the Oregon Court of Appeals, challenging the June 9 Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission's ruling, and some fishermen and processors expect more.
The group Fishermen Against Irresponsible Reallocation comprises more than 20 fishermen and industry-related businesses in Washington, Oregon and California.
Some fishermen say the ruling unfairly hurts crabbers who have fished more than 1,000 pots for years and now may be limited to half as many. The commission, they say, didn't take into account how many pots crabbers fished in the past. They instead based restrictions on a vessel's catch history between 1995 and 2001.
However, other fishermen who have both Oregon and California licenses say they'll fish most of their gear in California this year. California has no pot limits, though they've been proposed in the past.
Fishery managers and stakeholders from all three states were to discuss effort shift at the tri-state fishery managers meeting in Sacramento in late August.
"The Brookings [Ore.] and Crescent City [Calif.] guys are going to have 1,000 pots, 500 on each side," Caito says. "There's nothing you can do about that."
— Susan Chambers
Gulf South Atlantic: Oysters
Beds bounce back from Katrina, but expectations for harvest remain low
As the winter oyster harvesting season begins in the Gulf of Mexico, the outlook is surprisingly positive.
Things could be a lot worse in Louisiana, considering the devastation Hurricane Katrina wrought last August in the primary public grounds in the eastern parishes, says Patrick Banks, oyster program manager for the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries.
The loss of market and seed oysters on the public grounds was extreme, Banks says, and he expects market-size (3 inches or larger) oysters to be scarce for the September opening.
"Our public grounds took a hit," Banks says. "We have very few market-size oysters out on the public grounds. Our market-size oyster stocks are down right at 70 percent, the smallest stock in the last 24 years."
But some of the worst fears and predictions — such as oyster beds tainted with storm-runoff toxins and closed for years — haven't materialized.
And thanks to a remarkable spat set in October 2005, right after Katrina, the Louisiana beds could be in excellent shape come the 2007-08 season.
"We did get an incredible spat set following the storm," Banks says. "It shows the resilience of nature. When such an impact occurs, they immediately start to rebuild their stocks. Many times [storms] cause oysters, if they are ready to spawn, to go ahead and spawn. Boom, there was this huge rush of larvae in the water."
The post-Katrina spat set was actually up 18 percent above previous, pre-storm levels.
"What nature had to do was replace those that were killed; it replaced those that were killed plus 18 percent," Banks says.
The best hope for this season is that it will be a good one for rebuilding, barring more hurricane destruction. The initial opening, Sept. 6 to 27, is primarily for oystermen to move seed oysters to their leases. The public grounds open again on Nov. 13 and should remain open — with a bit of luck — right into April.
"It's hard to know how the market will react when the public grounds open," Banks says.
Harvest expectations for 2006-07 remain low, of course.
"Some [seed oysters] may make it to market size by this season," Banks says.
Historically, Louisiana oysters account for between 40 and 70 percent of the U.S. total harvest.
For this season at least, Louisiana's harvest is likely to be well below that, even if the private leases in the parishes between the paths of hurricanes Katrina and Rita make up some of the slack, as they did for 2005-06.
"Bayou La Fourche over to Marsh Island were very productive," Banks says.
In Florida, oyster prices reached a record high, $2.36 a pound of meats on average, according to preliminary 2006 numbers from the Florida Wildlife Research Institute. Annual average ex-vessel dock prices have risen every year since a recent low of $1.53 in 2001.
Apalachicola Bay, Florida's primary oyster source, was benefiting in late summer from a good local harvest coupled with the general short supply of gulf oysters. David Barber, owner of Barber's Seafood, in Eastpoint, says both prices and harvest were good.
"Actually, we had a pretty good summer season," Barber says. "I had a record amount of bags come in the first day. I had 1,023 bushels come in the first day."
Hurricane Dennis sideswiped the bay with an unexpected, damaging storm surge in July 2005, destroying seafood houses and covering oyster bars with muck.
But a year after Dennis, recovery has been good, and harvesters are finally making some money again.
"Price is high... Price is good, $15 a bushel," Barber says. "They've made good money this year."
All things considered, there is hope for the gulf oyster business after last year, but hurricanes aren't the only perennial worry.
Banks says he has been concerned that very warm temperatures and high salinity could lead to outbreaks of dermo, a microscopic parasite that kills oysters.
"We've had extremely high salinity," Banks says. However, the disease hasn't yet become a problem.
In Texas, a long drought has raised similar worries, but recent rains seem to be helping to quell small, localized summer outbreaks of dermo, says Lance Robinson, a regional director with Texas Parks and Wildlife's Coastal Fisheries Division.
"Our dermo levels look within the normal ranges," he says. "So far, we've been dodging the bullet."
"We had good spat sets... especially in Galveston Bay, where most of our production is," he says.
— Hoyt Childers
North Pacific: Groundfish
Management plan may open pipelines for product and elevate dock prices
Alaska's rockfish harvesters have been anxiously awaiting a new fishery management plan that could raise the quality — and the ex-vessel prices — of trawl-caught Pacific Ocean perch and a variety of species comprising the northern rockfish and pelagic shelf rockfish groups.
"It's still on its way," says Mark Fina, senior economist with the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, in Anchorage.
Headwork for the new management plan actually began in 2003. But the fleet is expected to begin towing nets under the revamped, longer rockfish season when it opens on May 1, 2007.
According to Fina, the plan was to be published as final rule in the federal register in September. The fleet's applications for allocations (quota shares under the new season) should be completed by December.
Allocations will be awarded to fishermen based on catch histories for each species.
After the allocation process is completed, qualified applicants will meet with processors and write contracts establishing themselves as cooperatives. The new plan applies to both the industry's at-sea processing and catcher vessel sectors. About 20 vessels make up the catcher-processor fleet, and there are 49 catcher boats.
When the 2007 season begins, the respective fleets will have from May 1 to Nov. 15 to fish their quotas. In the past, trawlers targeted the total allowable catch of Pacific Ocean perch (also known as POP) before quickly mopping up the northern rockfish and pelagic shelf rockfish TACs. In just days, the entire catch would be in, and shoreside processors would be swamped with product.
"This year it opened on July first, and it was five days of fishing for POP," says Julie Bonney, executive director and owner of the Kodiak-based Alaska Groundfish Data Bank. "Then we moved into the northern and pelagic shelf species; so everything was done by about the 20th of July."
It didn't help that the brunt of the rockfish deliveries arrived at Kodiak — a major Gulf of Alaska processing port — when the fish plants were inundated with a record pink salmon harvest.
In the past, time and volume constraints have hampered processors' efforts to develop stronger markets for the white-fleshed rockfish fillets.
Despite the large salmon harvest, however, processors have begun devoting their efforts toward new product forms.
"We're trying to get into more of a finished market," says Al Burch, executive director of the Kodiak-based Alaska Draggers Association. "When we first started, it was bulk frozen product that was frozen whole and shipped overseas."
Marketing efforts among various processors are guarded as proprietary secrets. However, Burch confides that fillets have been leaving Kodiak frozen in shatter packs, blocks and even flown out fresh.
"We're starting to get into pipelines that have been emptied," he says.
Bonney and Burch report that this year's ex-vessel prices for the catcher boats have climbed sharply to between 15 and 20 cents per pound. Though the confidentiality among processors also keeps solid ex-vessel pricing data in the shadows, Bonney says catcher boats received roughly 8 to 12 cents per pound last year. Historically, Burch says, they received in the neighborhood of a nickel per pound for their catch.
Substantiating Burch's assessment is data from an independent study by Fina, who penned a paper instrumental to the North Pacific council's actions toward the new management program. In his study, ex-vessel prices that catcher vessels received for the various rockfish species held an average of around 6 cents per pound from 1996 to 2002.
Despite the relative luxury of avoiding the glut of salmon at the docks and the ability to process their rockfish into product forms aimed at specific markets, catcher-processor vessels didn't fare much better.
During the period of 1996 to 2002, average product prices (sometimes considered the first wholesale level) for eastern cut Pacific Ocean perch ranged from around 36 cents per pound to about 50 cents per pound. Eastern cut northern rockfish and pelagic shelf rockfish species averaged 33 cents per pound and 47 cents per pound, respectively.
The values for both sectors of the industry should begin to climb next year.
"If we can slow down and handle the fish, the price will continue to go up," Burch says. "The maneuvering that we have been able to do within the management scheme we have now has enabled us to affect the quality of the product somewhat, but we're really jazzed about what could happen next year."
— Charlie Ess
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