Written by Jen Finn
Gulf/South Atlantic Oysters
Increase in shell size evokes optimism; Louisiana bets on lease restoration plan
As the winter harvest season begins, oyster industry insiders in the Gulf of Mexico's top three oyster-producing states are cautiously optimistic.
Louisiana may well have a decent crop of market-size (3 inches or larger) oysters for the first time since Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
"What we've seen this year is about what we expected," says Patrick Banks, oyster program manager for the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries. "We have a little less seed-size but a rather large increase in market-size oysters. Last year a lot of oystermen were scratching around trying to find market-size oysters. This year they should be able to find enough to sell."
A lot of oystermen spent the 2006-07 season doing what George Barisich, from hard-hit St. Bernard Parish, did.
"There's not enough big oysters," Barisich confirmed in February. Consequently, he was spending his time moving seed oysters to his private leases.
Price had been decent, as well, says Banks, who doubts that the availability of market-size oysters come November will cool the market significantly.
"The dock price is $24 a sack," he says. "I don't think we have so much that it will depress that market too much."
In Texas, torrential summer rains have left many bays and estuaries with record-high levels of fresh water and record-low salinity.
This will likely be bad news for the short term but could be good news for the long haul, says Lance Robinson, a regional director of Coastal Fisheries for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, whose scientific assessment of the freshwater impact was in progress in early August.
"The anecdotal information is that in some of the bay systems the freshwater inflow is unprecedented," Robinson says.
In the short term, salinity levels have dropped so low in some areas that oysters simply can't survive.
"We are going to have some localized mortality," Robinson says. "We hope it remains localized... near the mouths of the rivers."
Long term, the high freshwater levels could well be beneficial, especially in the state's effort to eradicate dermo, a shellfish disease that kills oysters.
"Rains will certainly have a positive impact on the dermo situation," he says. "It will help knock back the dermo... also oyster drills."
The 2007-08 season is likely to be a lean one, however, Robinson says.
"From a fisherman's standpoint, it should be a little worse than it was last year," Robinson says. "For the short term, they're going to have a tough time."
In Florida, the primary oyster grounds in Apalachicola Bay had been open for a decent summer harvest, and the bay's hand tongers were looking forward to the opening of the winter bars, says Lynn Martina, owner of Lynn's Quality Oysters in Eastpoint. "It's pretty good," she says. "It's coming back."
While Apalachicola Bay escaped the worst of the 2005 storms, a high storm surge from Hurricane Dennis covered most of the bars with deep muck and destroyed many of the seafood houses.
Price dockside, while not as good as in Louisiana, was pretty decent for a 60- pound bag of summer oysters.
"They get $15," Martina says.
Martina, who was forced to buy out of state just to stay in business after Dennis, can now meet demand with local oysters.
"I don't handle any more from out of state," she says.
Overall, U.S. oyster production has suffered since Hurricane Katrina largely took top producer Louisiana out of the equation. But with $22 million in federal disaster relief to work with, fishery management and harvesters are working hard to bring production back.
Louisiana officials have allocated $12 million for private leases and $10 million for public grounds. As of early August, hundreds of lease holders had signed up for a reimbursement program that pays them to restore their leases, Banks says.
"We've turned our attention to getting rehabilitation going on private leases," he says. "We've signed up about 700 leaseholders. Oystermen are out working on their own leases."
Leaseholders document their work — such as reef cleaning, planting culture material, transplanting or relaying oysters for grow-out — and submit reimbursement forms to the Wildlife and Fisheries Department.
"That private lease program, we are starting to make payments," Banks says. "We chose to hire fishermen to do the work on their own leases."
Harvesters won't make any profit under the program, but will be reimbursed for at least some of their expenses.
The program is the probably the biggest management challenge the department has ever faced. "It's really a huge administrative undertaking," Banks says. — Hoyt Childers
To a large extent, landings and prices during holidays set stage for season
Less crab and market timing triggered higher ex-vessel prices in the 2006-07 West Coast Dungeness crab season.
The fleet engaged in a two-week strike and started harvesting significant volumes on Dec. 1 instead of Nov. 15. Delaying the season shorted markets that supply whole crab for Thanksgiving and Christmas and sent subsequent volumes to frozen section markets.
"We settled at $1.70 and went fishing, but we got a dime raise even before we unloaded from our first trip last year," says Tom Estes, of Fort Bragg, Calif., a Pacific Coast Dungeness fisherman since 1986.
As it happened, Dungeness ex-vessel prices rose even higher as the 2006-07 season progressed, which helped soften the downturn in landings. According to the Pacific Coast Fisheries Information Network, or PacFIN, average ex-vessel prices in California climbed from a low of $1.75 per pound to a peak of $3.31.
Prices were similar in Washington and Oregon, with high-end offers of $3.22 per pound and $3.51 per pound, respectively. Estes says live markets were short enough near the end of the season that dockside offers went through the roof.
"Right before the end of the season closed, there was a guy who got $4 per pound," Estes says.
Though isolated sales into niche markets often exceed the price averages, the 2006-07 crimp in West Coast production shouldn't hurt market dynamics for the fleet. As of Aug. 31, PacFIN's preliminary 2006-07 coastwide catch tally of 48.5 million pounds worth $107.3 million is down sharply from last season's apex of more than 77 million pounds worth $127.1 million.
Though departmental data with the management agencies in the three states might show slight discrepancies, according to PacFIN harvest statistics, production in California fell from a peak of around 25 million pounds in '05-06 to a cumulative harvest of around 14.4 million pounds in the '06-07 season. In Oregon, the slip has been from a record harvest of 33.7 million pounds during the '04-05 season to around 27.6 million pounds last season to a preliminary harvest total of about 14.3 million pounds this year. Washington's landings fell from 24.3 million in '05-06 to 19 million pounds in '06-07 thus far.
The landings drop-off is normal in this cyclical fishery, says Hugh Link, interim administrator with the Oregon Dungeness Crab Commission in Coos Bay. According to Link and California Department of Fish and Game managers, the downtick is attributed to variability in the crab abundance. The management plan relies on the three S's — size, sex and season — to ensure conservation of the resource. Through the years, harvests have varied depending on weather, fishing effort and market conditions.
In a textbook example of conventional economics, less crab translates to higher dockside offers along the Oregon Coast.
"If there's not as much crab available, and we're coming off record years of harvest, it can bring prices up," Link says.
The sometimes astronomically high prices processors pay early in the season are dictated by marketing campaigns to put whole crab into the holiday markets.
"They've already sold crab in promotions," Estes says. "It's a vicious cycle, this crab thing. About half of the year's crab is caught during the first two weeks of the season."
According to Oregon Dungeness Crab Commission data, three-quarters of Oregon's harvest is taken during the first eight weeks of a season that runs from Dec. 1 to Aug. 15. Link says that, as in California, the early crab tends to funnel into a Christmas market with subsequent product going to section markets. According to Estes, sections are served at restaurants in Las Vegas and Reno.
Surveys determining high concentrations of soft-shell crab in the biomass and fishermen-processor price negotiations can sometimes delay the beginning of the season, he adds.
For the sixth straight year, hypoxia (a condition seen when dissolved oxygen falls below 1.4 milliliters per liter) continues to threaten crab along the Oregon coast. Northerly winds in June pushed a large mass of hypoxic water — some of it measuring 1.5 milliliters of dissolved oxygen — near shore once again. Oregon State University researchers predict its effects could mirror last year's in terms of threatening bottom-dwelling organisms.
Oregon crabbers also got their first taste of a pot limit program this year. The respective splits among the fleet were 200, 300 and 500 pots, depending on harvest histories.
"It went fairly well," Link says. "It seems that the big producers are still the big producers. The goal is to keep 150,000 or less pots in the ocean." Among other tweaks to the pot limit program, the industry will consider pot stacking and marking tags, Link says. — Charlie Ess
Lack of demand cools harvesting effort; fishermen urge local marketing strategy
Under market conditions of just a few years ago, a 151-day season and a restored resource would have made northern shrimp an attractive alternative for beleaguered Gulf of Maine fishermen. But they don't expect much improvement in prices and market demand that make it hard to justify fuel costs.
"It was usually in the 40s. We might have seen 35 cents, and 45 a couple of times. Five years ago I got $1.75," says shrimper Kelo Pinkham of Boothbay, Maine. "There's no place to sell them. People like me, we always specialized in low-count, high-quality shrimp. But that doesn't work as a strategy anymore."
At the end of September 2007 scientific monitors were still compiling data, "but things are still looking good" for the shrimp resource, says Margaret Hunter, a scientist with the Maine Department of Marine Resources who heads the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission's Northern Shrimp Technical Committee.
"We'll be looking to see whether the 2004 year class continues to be as strong as it has been," Hunter says. "The 2005 year class wasn't so good last year, so we're looking to see how that develops."
That 2004 crop of shrimp is driving the stock rejuvenation. Last year Gulf of Maine biologists said the stock was at its best in 20 years. That was saying a lot, just a few years after the 140-day season had been cut by half.
The estimated total stock biomass is the highest ever calculated for northern shrimp, at 71,500 metric tons for the 2007 season, up from 31,200 metric tons the year before. It's an impressive rise from 2001 when the biomass estimate was 4,400, a low point in the series going back to 1984.
Very high survey catches and continued decline in commercial landings account for the last two years' estimates, according to the Atlantic states commission report. Both summer and fall indices have been rising since 2002, even as the fishery continued its descent that began in the mid-1990s.
The very strong 2003 year class was contributing most to the 2007 season, with the 2004 year class of male and juvenile shrimp showing up, too. The 2005 year class, in contrast, made a "mediocre" first appearance, the report says.
In the meantime, the market wandered off, finding so many cheap choices in a globalized shrimp bazaar. Even with the northern shrimp season restored to 151 days, Maine prices of 30 to 40 cents a pound to the boats last winter were only marginally higher than 2005-06.
"We've got such a good product, there's no reason for this," insists Proctor Wells, a Phippsburg, Maine, fisherman who advocates a state marketing campaign and economic incentives to build processing infrastructure. "I have to compete with [imported] product that's raised in scum ponds, and here we deliver a high-quality, free-range product.
"You make a 20-minute tow, and you have 1,000 to 1,500 pounds of shrimp, but with the price, you're barely staying alive."
With Maine's groundfish fleet in a near-death spiral, shrimp should be one alternative because "diversity has always been the backbone of these communities," says Wells, who's seen groundfish permits in his community go from 38 to just two. But since the shrimp demand collapsed, prices lag now by 40 years.
"Fuel is around $2.50 [per gallon] and shrimp were around 30 cents last season. I was talking to one of the fellows here, Charlie Saunders, who told me in 1968 they were getting 30 cents for shrimp, when fuel was 18 cents."
In their report to the Atlantic states commission, shrimp technical advisors note that "port samplers report that shrimp trawlers sometimes came in after one good tow, because of poor market demand."
"A few years ago, if we could catch 500 pounds, I could pay my crew $100 so it was worth going out," Pinkham recalls. At this point, only two major processors in Portland handle shrimp, along with "a few hand-pickers," Pinkham says. And last season Cozy Harbor Seafood of Portland had its own needs often filled by its own boats, "so they aren't always buying," he says.
In 2006 advocates for Maine fishing and agriculture identified northern shrimp as a species that state government and commerce agencies could promote and market. But fishermen say nothing has happened yet. — Kirk Moore
North Pacific Groundfish
Yelloweye rockfish demand could rise on heels of Southeast longline closure
The closure of a fishery directed for longline harvests of yelloweye in Southeast Alaska could leave markets short, firming up demand, while a new pilot program in areas open to trawling in the Gulf of Alaska could bolster ex-vessel offers for Pacific ocean perch and northern and dusky rockfish.
Overall, rockfish ex-vessel prices are trending upward. According to Alaska Department of Fish and Game data, the average statewide ex-vessel prices for all species of commercially caught rockfish have climbed from 91 cents per pound in 2005 to $1.34 per pound last year.
In years past, a portion of the Southeast Alaska yelloweye harvest had been taken during directed fisheries, which went a long way to encourage proper handling and put product into market pipelines during winter. Ex-vessel and wholesale prices for yelloweye during those fisheries, which were conducted primarily throughout the winter months, came in substantially higher than when the fish were delivered as bycatch during the halibut season, which in 2007 runs from March 10 to Nov. 15.
As of last year, however, poundage allocations of yelloweye, which had typically been reserved for the directed fisheries in federal waters, were re-allocated as bycatch within the halibut fishery. Though the timing of deliveries has changed to run concurrent with the halibut season, it apparently hasn't hurt demand in West Coast domestic markets that cater to the Asian communities.
"There's a good fresh market for those, the whole, round fish," says Dan Stockel, owner and operator of Alaska Hook & Line Seafoods, in Sitka. "Those guys love these longline-caught fish up here, as long as they're taken care of properly."
According to Fish and Game data, however, strong demand doesn't necessarily translate to stronger ex-vessel prices. Average ex-vessel prices for the Southeast rockfish species, of which yelloweye comprises the vast majority, have fallen from $1.23 per pound in 2004 to 89 cents per pound last year.
While fishermen have made inroads in taking better care of their rockfish under the new harvest regime, transportation bottlenecks associated with getting fresh fish out of Southeast will continue to crimp product availability. In times when cargo space is at a premium aboard southbound Alaska Airlines jets, processors have found that it's more lucrative to stuff planes with halibut rather than yelloweye.
"At times if you have only room for 10,000 pounds of fish, you're going to ship your halibut and leave your rockfish," Stockel says.
In that scenario, rockfish end up heading south frozen in container vans instead of fresh, which supports one of several theories as to why the average rockfish ex-vessel prices have declined. Among other plausible causes, the amount of the higher priced yelloweye averaged into the mix of other species comprising the Southeast demersal shelf rockfish harvest has fallen from around 312 metric tons in 2004 to around 242 metric tons in 2005.
Farther to the north in the Gulf of Alaska, all eyes are on the inaugural year of fishing under a new pilot program that allocated shares of the various groundfish species to trawlers based on their catch histories. Trawlers began towing their nets under the new regime this year, but it could take awhile to realize an increase in ex-vessel prices.
"At this point they started at a base price similar to last year," says Julie Bonney, executive director of the Alaska Groundfish Data Bank, in Kodiak. "We won't know until after the end of the season about post-season adjustments."
A more immediate change, however, has been that some processors in the industry have shifted their production of Pacific ocean perch and northern and dusky rockfish — the dominant three species taken from the Gulf of Alaska trawling areas — from surimi to fillets.
"Most of the processors are doing virtually all fillets this year," Bonney says. "They're already making the conversion to the higher-valued products. It's just that it's going to take awhile for the market to respond to the new products."
Bonney adds that, like the economic evolution of the halibut IFQ system, the absolute values of stronger market demand may take a few years to trickle down to better prices when fishermen deliver their catch at the docks.
"We might see some of these changes once we get into the third or fourth year of the program," she says. — Charlie Ess
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