Written by Jen Finn
North Pacific King Crab
Flood of Russian kings negates price gains expected with rationalization
Large volumes of imported king crab from Russia are flooding markets, negating ex-vessel benefits Alaska's king crab industry had hoped to gain under the rationalization process.
While the U.S. crab industry continues efforts to pace the timing of deliveries to firm market demand, volumes of king crab — caught in the Barents Sea and imported from Russia —have skyrocketed from around 21 million pounds in 2004 to 37.5 million pounds in 2005 to more than 56 million pounds last year.
It doesn't help markets that the Barents Sea season, which runs from October to March, coincides closely with the Alaska season in the Bering Sea. This year's import volumes, 32.7 million pounds as of May, indicate that harvest volumes will be on par with last year.
"It's obvious we're going to have about the same amount of Russian crab on the market as last year," says Arni Thomson, executive director of the Alaska Crab Coalition in Seattle.
What's worse for the Alaska industry is that much of the crab is caught illegally, labeled as Alaska king crab and marketed cheap. By some estimates, upward of 30 million pounds may be clogging various distribution chain segments.
The loophole in getting the crab to U.S. markets appears to lie with trans-shipment, which means transferring product to other ships (flagged under a variety of countries) at sea.
"We have experienced huge impacts from the Russian imports," says Thomson. "The volume is so large that it's affecting the Aleutians golden king crab and opilio markets. The Aleutian gold king crab market is in the toilet."
Average ex-vessel prices for the Aleutian gold king crab, as reported by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, have fallen steadily from $3.55 per pound in 2003 to $3.21 in '04, $2.74 in '05 and $2.30 last year.
Average ex-vessel prices for Bristol Bay red king crab, meanwhile, have fallen steadily from $5.15 per pound in 2003 to $4.70 in '04 to $4.52 in '05 and $4.24 last year. Alaska's guideline harvest levels hovered around 18.3 million pounds in 2005 and 2006, just a fraction in domestic markets awash with surplus crab.
For years, the Alaska industry has held fast in its belief that if the Russian fleet continues to exceed its crab catch limits the resource would eventually dry up, restoring equilibrium to the markets. According to the foreign trade data from NMFS, that hasn't yet happened.
However, anecdotal evidence and other reports suggest that this year's king crab production in the Barents Sea may be down by more than half. While the industry waits to see whether overfishing has begun to catch up with the Barents Sea, the disparity between the NMFS import data and reports of ho-hum harvests in the far north leads Thomson and others to theorize that the Russian industry may be liquidating vast amounts of crab that has been squirreled away in warehouses.
"That means that they produced even more last year than we thought, or there was carryover inventory from '05," Thomson says.
While Norway and other countries with ties to cod and crab resources in the Barents Sea are engaging in a unified effort to curb illegal fishing, hope for the Alaska industry lies with incorporating the Lacey Act — which basically outlaws procurement, storage, processing or transportation of illegally harvested, unreported or unregulated fish products — into the reauthorized Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Management and Conservation Act.
"We think that the inclusion of the Lacey Act into the Magnuson Act is a step in the right direction," Thomson says. "We need to trace the product from the water to the plate."
Just when laws will kick in to dampen excess flow of product to the markets isn't yet known.
"I think that historically there's been so much [illegal, unregulated or unreported] crab in the markets that it's going to take a while," says Steve Minor, executive director of the North Pacific Crab Association in Seattle. "It's not going to happen overnight."
In the interim, depressed markets have waylaid the Alaska industry's ambitions to develop long-term marketing strategies, product labeling and other promotional campaigns. The continued prevalence of surplus crab also spells tighter profit margins throughout the distribution chain, which bodes of snags for harvesters and processors in negotiating ex-vessel prices under the rationalized crab fisheries.
"It puts a lot of pressure on both sectors," Minor says. — Charlie Ess
Gulf/South Atlantic Stone Crab
Dock prices, local landings are uneven as fishery attempts financial recovery
Two years after hurricanes left the south Florida heart of stone crab country in shambles, the industry continues a difficult and slow recovery.
Landings of 2.57 million pounds for the season that just ended increased 25 percent over the 2.05 million pounds of the storm-ravaged 2005-06 season. But that year's troubled harvest was down a third from the previous, mediocre 3 million pound 2004-05 season because of the loss of thousands of traps, storm-related attrition and shoreside damage.
Limited supply has generally kept annual average ex-vessel prices high the past two years, according to preliminary 2007 numbers from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Research Institute. That should generally bode well for the opening — at least — of the 2007-08 stone crab season on Oct. 15, assuming crabs appear in normal numbers and hurricanes steer clear.
Even though the 2006-07 landings were still well below average, the ex-vessel average price of $9.62, nearly an all-time high, yielded an overall dockside value of $24.8 million. That total has been surpassed in recent years only by 2004-05's $25.8 million and 2000-01's $26.1 million.
While these official numbers look pretty good, individual fishermen often tell a different story.
For one thing, ex-vessel prices aren't uniformly good. In the Florida Keys, prices on medium-size claws (up to 3 ounces) were soft, says Bruce Irwin, chairman of the board of directors and former president of the Florida Keys Commercial Fishermen's Association.
"There is no problem with the large and the jumbos, it's just the mediums," he says. Ex-vessel price on mediums was "as low as $5 a pound, toward the end."
By comparison, mediums fetched $7.50 in some south Florida locations three seasons ago. Also, despite the general short supply, mediums left in the freezers could stifle October opening prices.
Nor were landings uniformly better coastwide, despite improvements overall.
Collier County, off the southwest Gulf Coast near the Everglades and generally the keys' second-biggest producer next to Monroe County, had a poor year.
While most crab-producing areas showed improvement both in landings and overall value compared with the 2005-06 season, Collier's slice of the pie dropped to $4.3 million from $4.8 million. Both annual totals were well under the $6.5 million of the last decent season in 2004-05.
The timing was just bad all around, says Brenda Johnson, who keeps the books for the family fishing business in Everglades City while her husband, Kit, fishes.
"It was terrible," she says. "They didn't catch any crabs, and then when they started catching crabs, the fuel went up. It was bad. Right off this area, it was terrible."
Farther north, however, landings were very good.
"I guess they slaughtered them in north Florida," she says.
Crystal River fishermen in Citrus County did well, as did fishermen in Dixie County, which includes the fishing towns of Steinhatchee and Suwannee. Dixie County fishermen more than doubled the previous season's harvest, increasing from 63,000 pounds of claws worth $620,000 to 131,000 pounds worth $1.3 million.
Such spotty landings are common in the stone crab fishery. Hot spots shift up and down the keys and the Gulf Coast with frustrating irregularity. But any price or harvest downturn is especially difficult to absorb now, with so many fishermen carrying maximum debt in a state of chronic financial crises two years after the 2005 storms.
The Johnsons hope the meager 2006-07 harvest off the Everglades is hurricane-related and that conditions will improve, Johnson says.
"You never know what a hurricane's going to do," she says. "Kit's hoping it's just the bottom and that it will recover."
The Johnsons have gone farther out on a financial limb to gain access to the spiny lobster fishery. They hope a good season in an alternate fishery will carry them over until stone crab improves.
Even in the keys, which generally boast landings as stable as anywhere in Florida, the harvest was "not so good," Irwin says.
Monroe County landings did increase over the season of the hurricanes, but at 930,873 pounds worth $9.25 million, were still well below the 1.15 million pounds worth $10.15 million in 2004-05.
Landings are down for many reasons.
The fishery has seen attrition, both intended, from the state's trap-reduction program, and unintended, thanks to the hurricanes. With overall demand holding strong and price generally high, the common challenge for a reduced cadre of survivors is for them to hang on until their personal finances recover enough to carry them through normal, unpredictable harvest cycles. — Hoyt Childers
Shell-planting programs boost stocks as well as hopes for better recruitment
An escalating recovery in Connecticut's oyster fishery has fishermen hoping their still-modest harvest could double by the end of 2007. In Delaware Bay this year, 550,000 bushels of clam shells have been laid down at a cost of $2 million through a shell-planting program that aims to emulate Connecticut's success, and advocates want to bring more on.
Planting more shell and catching cownose rays are the latest prescriptions for helping traditional open-water oyster fisheries in Delaware and Chesapeake bays. While skeptics in the science community raise eyebrows at an idea to market the oyster predator as "Chesapeake ray," researchers say recent shelling projects offer some hope for improved oyster recruitment.
"Our 2006 harvest basically doubled from what it had been in 2004," says David H. Carey, aquaculture bureau director at Connecticut's Department of Agriculture. "We expect in 2007 they may double again."
Connecticut's determined effort in the 1980s to plant empty shells, called cultch, paid off with a 1991 to 1996 boom in the Long Island Sound fishery. But a period of warm water ushered in the oyster-killing disease dermo, which was full-blown by 1998, Carey says.
There were virtually no natural sets of oyster spat through 2004, but the introduction of disease-resistant oysters is starting to show results. It's progress measured in small steps, but Carey says 20 harvesters worked this year to supply oyster companies. That's up from the five men who gathered oysters in 2006.
With prices for name-brand oysters in the shell around 45 cents each in the Northeast, the cycle of incentive and public-private support for habitat restoration is growing. Following Connecticut's example, federal and state agencies spent $4 million in 2006 and 2007 to drop more than 1 million bushels of surf clam shell in Delaware Bay.
In North Carolina, where the housing market creates that demand, state workers are asking oyster packers, restaurants and consumers to recycle shells to rebuild oyster reefs — and asking landscapers to sell alternative material to their customers.
Shell has become too valuable to use on land, shelling advocates say. One New Jersey bed, called Bennies Sand, has doubled its population of market-size oysters since the first shelling experiments in 2003.
"Last year's assessment was actually pretty encouraging, after seven years of low recruitment," says professor Eric Powell of the Rutgers University Haskin Shellfish Research Laboratory. "That uptick in abundance is really quite encouraging."
His fears of a dermo resurgence don't seem to be playing out, but that won't be clear until the fall surveys, Powell says.
What is clear is "the shell planting program is absolutely critical in improving recruitment and sustaining habitat," Powell says. On New Jersey's side of the bay, this year's quota is almost 80,000 bushels. That's triple that of two years ago, when recruitment hit the lowest level in years.
Massachusetts growers are rebuilding their stock after last year's bouts with MSX and dermo, says Les Hemmila of Barnstable Sea Farms, who grows shellfish on 7 1/4 acres of Cape Cod bottom.
"I could sell 10 times what I've got. I'm a wholesale dealer, and I can't even get any from my friends," Hemmila says. "A lot of people lost two years' crop.''
Hemmila figures he'll have more oysters ready for market by summer's end, but full recovery probably isn't possible until fall 2008, he estimates. In the meantime, "prices went up a little bit," he says. "But the Canadians can send oysters to us for 25 or 30 cents apiece. I don't know how you can do that without subsidies, but something's going on there."
Virginia spring prices were stable around the $30 to $35 per bushel level of 2006, even as Gulf of Mexico producers recovering from hurricane Katrina ramped up their production again.
"They had a pretty good reproductive cycle after the storm," says Lake Cowart Jr. of Cowart Seafood Corp. in Lottsburg, Va. "Texas has had a tremendous amount of rainfall, so we don't know how that will affect their resource this fall."
With the Chesapeake region experiencing a dry spring and summer, oystermen have been monitoring rising salinities.
"You'd rather have the wetness because it keeps the disease at bay," explains Jim Wesson, who oversees aquaculture for the Virginia Marine Resources Commission. — Kirk Moore
As U.S. sushi appetite grows, divers hungry to add summer fishing days
Although Japanese markets remain soft for California's urchin roe, domestic market appetites have increased — particularly during tourist season in summer. However, the dive fishery's fishing days schedule, set decades ago, is designed to capitalize on fall and winter demand in Japan.
Changing the seasons to allow more summer fishing days is proving difficult, says Dave Rudie, president of San Diego–based Catalina Offshore Products and vice chairman of the California Sea Urchin Commission.
Last year, dive industry representatives submitted a proposal to the California Department of Fish and Game. So far, the proposal, which calls for adding a couple of fishing days a week in July and August, is stalled in regulatory red tape.
"They don't like the industry coming before them, changing this rule and changing that rule," says Robert S. Juntz Jr., president of the Sea Urchin Processor's Association and president of Ocean Fresh Seafood Products in Fort Bragg, Calif. "It creates a lot of legwork for them."
An implicit ingredient in rearranging the dive fisheries' regulatory structure is providing sufficient scientific analysis to support more summer fishing days. That could be difficult, given the urchin industry, which monetarily supports the scientific research.
"We're sort of stuck in limbo with that whole situation," Juntz says. "That's what we have to live with."
Years ago, summer diving days were established at two a week during July, three days a week in August. The dive days total ratcheted up toward seven days a week from November to March in an attempt to keep supplies in check with the strongest demand in Japanese markets.
"Now, it's a complete reverse situation," Rudie says. "Our strongest market is during summer here in the U.S., and we can't get enough product to supply our customers because we're fishing two days a week."
Juntz estimates that half of California's annual production of around 10 million pounds has gone to West Coast sushi bars in recent years.
"Right now, there's effort to saturate the domestic market and look for new markets, wherever those may be," he says.
In extreme cases, some U.S. suppliers have turned to importing product from Japan, hoping to keep a steady flow of product to their customers.
While the proposal lies fallow, processors are now adhering to old laws that require them to fill in ex-vessel prices on fish tickets at the time of delivery.
In the past, tickets have been left open from time of delivery until the urchin roe (uni) is graded and sold so processors could determine quality. Rudie says in some instances ex-vessel prices would be penned in three days later.
Now, some processors are posting ex-vessel prices as low as 30 cents per pound as a talisman offering until roe quality — and the subsequent ex-vessel price — is calculated. Rudie says his initial offers on fish tickets, however, have been running at 60 cents per pound.
California Fish and Game Department statistics, meanwhile, show dive fishery production and revenues declining, with statewide ex-vessel average prices well below the 1994 record of $1.07 per pound.
In 2004, the harvest topped 12 million pounds worth $7.3 million, yielding an average price of nearly 60 cents per pound. In 2005, production dropped to around 11.2 million pounds worth $6.1 million, with average ex-vessel price of 54 cents per pound. The 2006 harvest of 10.5 million pounds was worth $5.1 million with an average ex-vessel price of little more than 48 cents per pound.
Those average prices don't reflect post-delivery price adjustments to the divers. Even so, California production has been falling. And it will likely continue sliding unless the fishery's economics turn around enough to warrant recruitment of young divers into a fishery where many participants are approaching retirement.
"We've lost so many harvesters, and there's no way to replace them right now," Juntz says. — Charlie Ess
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