Written by Jen Finn
Northeast Summer Flounder
Low quotas, high volume squeeze fleet; anglers seek new allocation
Some signs of growing abundance may offer hope of better seasons ahead for summer flounder fishermen.
That would be welcome news, given that 2007's combined commercial and recreational quotas are down 57 percent from just a few years ago. And it's not yet clear which way quotas will change for 2008.
Meanwhile, a catfight among several states over sharing the recreational fluke catch could blow up into demands to reallocate fish away from commercial harvesters, too.
Squeezed between a lower quota and their traditionally high-volume January-February winter season, top flounder states North Carolina and Virginia have much less flatfish potential left for the rest of 2007. North Carolina fishermen took about 90 percent of their state's share in the early months, Virginia about 67 percent. Third-place producer New Jersey still had half its 1.68 million pound commercial allocation left at midyear, but still felt the pain.
"This is the worst year we've had, the lowest quota... That is absolutely ludicrous, when you can go out anywhere in the ocean and put down a net, and catch fish," Joe Branin, general manager of the Belford (N.J.) Seafood Cooperative told Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission officials in July.
The commission is under intense pressure to reallocate recreational shares among the states, mainly because New York and Delaware party and charter boat fleets are in dire straits with their fluke limits. State agencies and their recreational constituents want the commission to adopt a new allocation formula to give them some of the fish now taken by New Jersey anglers.
Advocates for the region's big multi-state recreational groups, whose own members are divided by that fight, now say they will try to reset the 60 percent commercial, 40 percent recreational coastwide allocations to a 50/50 split.
"If we need additional quota, which we believe we do, we support rewriting the recreational-commercial allocation for summer flounder," John DePersenaire, the Recreational Fishing Alliance's policy and science researcher, told the commission.
Advocates for both sectors fault unrealistic goals set out by reforms to the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Management Act on summer flounder.
"All the issues we are dealing with derive from the changes in the stock estimation models and from management decisions that are based on rebuilding the fluke stock to a target biomass of 215 million pounds," wrote Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. (D-N.J.) in a statement to the Atlantic States commission.
Congress' reauthorization Magnuson-Stevens in 2006, was delayed by months over recreational fishermen's dismay at planned summer flounder quota cutbacks. An overall catch limit that was 30.3 million pounds three years ago now stands at 17.2 million pounds — the lowest since quotas began in the 1990s.
Congress managed a last-minute deal in the final weeks of 2006, extending the rebuilding deadline from 2010 to 2013 to prevent this year's quota from going even lower. Despite the extension, the biomass target and timetable remain unrealistic, says Ray Bogan, legal counsel for the party and charter boat group United Boatmen of New York and New Jersey, a key player in last year's fluke maneuvering.
As a midsummer technical committee assessment meeting approached, Bogan said: "I'm hearing there are positive trends in the biomass. They're saying there is a significant increase in males, some good signs. But we still have an unrealistic goal."
When organizing that deal to get Magnuson-Stevens passed, Rep. Jim Saxton (R-N.J.) said this could eventually result in a 19.6 million pound overall quota for 2008, followed by 22.7 million pounds in 2009 and reaching 29 million pounds in 2012, returning the fishery almost to where it was when the sharp cuts began in 2005.
A late-spring abundance of fish dropped dock prices in southern New England, and that pattern held into early July, when even big fluke brought less than $2 a pound in New Bedford while blackbacks and yellowtail fetched $2.20 to $2.30, according to auction quotes reported by NMFS.
"In June all flats went cheap, and fluke went with them... anywhere from large to jumbos in the mid-$3 [range], and they were down as low as $2," says North Kingston, R.I., skipper Phil Ruhle. "That's a matter of Canadian fish coming in, and the quality of the fish goes down. They're spawning fish, and they're runny."
While New Englanders took what prices they could get in June, flounder were expensive in the south with its diminished allocations.
"The cheapest I've heard is $3.25 for people who can still catch them," said Steve George, general manager at Willie R. Etheridge Seafood Co. in Wanchese, N.C., in early July. "No one's seen any inexpensive flounder this summer."
— Kirk Moore
Foreign production could set the pace for ex-vessel prices paid to seine fleet
With the biomass slow to show offshore of Monterey, Calif., this year, West Coast squid fishermen could only wait and hope that prices remained at $500 per short ton.
"I think [last year] was an OK year," says Rob Zuanich, executive director of the Purse Seine Vessel Owners Association, in Seattle. "The catch wasn't that high, but the price held out at around $500 a ton. That's a workable price."
Zuanich and others agree that the dynamics affecting squid ex-vessel prices conform to the conventional economic theory of supply and demand. Hence, harvest volumes coming in from other countries — mainly the Falkland Islands — could set the pace for ex-vessel prices as West Coast fisheries ramp up for peak production later this year.
"This year is a little dicier because there are a lot of squid in the market," says Diane Pleschner-Steele, executive director of California Wetfish Producers Association in Buellton, Calif. "The Falklands went gangbusters and weakened the market."
The bulk of Falklands squid production, which is funneled as exports through Argentina, shows up as a prominent blip in international trade data. China remains the prime recipient, if not the centerpiece, of worldwide squid trade. In the past two years, China has imported significantly less product from Korea and New Zealand while importing more from the United States, Peru and Argentina.
According to data from Globefish, the statistical conduit of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, North Korea and South Korea exported 34,939 metric tons and 22,948 metric tons, respectively, to China in 2005. But those numbers dropped to 20,622 and 15,428 in 2006. New Zealand exports, meanwhile, decreased from 22,476 metric tons in '05 to roughly half at 11,882 metric tons last year.
By contrast, U.S. exports of frozen squid to China more than doubled from 20,340 metric tons in 2005 to 45,858 metric tons during the reporting period of January through November. Even more significant was Argentina's contribution, which skyrocketed from just 1,435 metric tons to 25,634 metric tons during the same period, largely a result of increased production by Chinese vessels out of Argentina. Peru also weighed in heavy with an increase from 26,142 metric tons in 2005 to last year's 65,655 metric tons.
At the same time that the United States has increased its exports of frozen squid to China, import volumes of the processed squid from China back to the United States have increased.
In 2004, U.S. imports of squid from China came in at 21,300 metric tons, according to an April 2007 report by Globefish. They increased to 25,600 metric tons in 2005 and rose again to 32,900 metric tons last year.
The back-and-forth trade pattern is attributed to higher labor costs associated with processing squid in the United States. Thus, the West Coast fishing industry has increased its profit margins by sending the product overseas.
Though water temperatures and the oceanic factors affecting them were favorable in the months preceding June, when biomass begins to build to appreciable levels and the fleet begins to show up, Pleschner-Steele says reports of squid were scarce.
"Usually northwest winds in spring produce upwelling," Pleschner-Steele says, "and that's really good for the temperate-water fish. Squid just take a hike during El Niño cycles."
The reports by fishermen had the fleet of around 60 seiners, processors and the rest of the industry waiting to see when — and where — the squid would appear.
The 2006 calendar year harvest hit just over 49,000 metric tons, a 12 percent dip from the 2005 total of nearly 56,000 metric tons. The 2002 catch was nearly 73,000 metric tons, but ex-vessel values held revenues to around $20 million.
Last year's catch, meanwhile, was worth $26.9 million, according to Pacific Coast Fisheries Information Network data, down from the 2005 sum of $31.6 million.
While the California Department of Fish and Game, the curator of the Market Squid Fishery Management Plan, has posted target quotas of around 107,000 metric tons for squid in recent years, little is known about the biomass.
That could change as squid fishery managers collaborate with researchers attempting to meld anecdotal evidence, historical harvest rates and sea surface temperature data in what began as a quest to measure population abundance of sardines and anchovies. According to Pleschner-Steele, the cooperative project will grow out of research that began following the sardine population crash during the 1940s.
— Charlie Ess
North Pacific Pollock
Whitefish shortages, labeling changes bode well for pollock, surimi products
The continued worldwide whitefish shortage and positive tweaks to seafood labeling language requirements for surimi-based products is bolstering demand and raising export values for Alaska's pollock industry.
Nor should it hurt pricing that this year's harvest quota is lower than last year's. The Bering Sea quota of 1.9 million metric tons last year has been lowered to 1.4 million metric tons for 2007. The 2008 quota is projected to be 1.3 million metric tons.
Dwindling numbers of 3-year-old fish in the biomass are driving the lower quotas, according to the North Pacific Fishery Management Council's 2006 Stock Assessment and Fishery Evaluation report. The Bering Sea spawning stock biomass will decline until 2008, when it's expected to level off, so the quota isn't expected to dip much lower.
Gulf of Alaska harvest quotas also have declined from 84,000 metric tons in 2005 to 78,000 metric tons last year and to slightly less than 63,000 metric tons this year. According to the 2006 SAFE report for the gulf stock, the spawning stock biomass is down for 2007, but it's predicted to increase as a big 2004 year class matures. The bottom line is North Pacific pollock stocks remain in pretty good shape.
Meanwhile, production of hake and hoki — competing substitute species — is down elsewhere around the globe.
"South American hake are down," says Rick Muir, the president of the Genuine Alaska Pollock Producers, in Seattle. "Argentine hoki is up a little bit. New Zealand hoki is down. That makes the position of Alaska pollock stronger in the market."
According to foreign trade data from NMFS, U.S. export values of Alaska pollock fillets to all countries continues to increase. Data translated from kilos to pounds shows a steady climb from 93 cents per pound in 2004 to $1.02 in 2005 and $1.21 last year.
Among the top five export markets, Germany, which has claimed upward of 75 million pounds of pollock fillets in recent years, posted values of $1.30 per pound last year, substantially more than the $1.05 per pound from 2005.
Similarly, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom have seen pollock fillet values jumping from around 92 cents per pound in 2004 to respective values of $1.17 per pound and $1.13 per pound last year.
China, meanwhile, continues to increase its clout as a distributor of Bering Sea pollock. In 2005, exports to China stood at 2.8 million pounds for an export value of 78 cents per pound. Last year that volume climbed to 4.4 million pounds for a value of $1.03 per pound.
Meanwhile, "White Fish Study 2006," a September publication of the European Union Fish Processors' Association, reports increasing dependency on imports from the United States and China to satisfy European consumer demand.
When it comes to Alaska's surimi production, shortages elsewhere should strengthen prices. Muir says that two large catcher-processor vessels plying the waters off the Faeroe Islands will be retiring from the fisheries, leaving surimi markets short, at least temporarily.
"There will be 15,000 to 20,000 tons less of surimi going to the markets from last year," Muir says.
U.S. surimi export volume to all countries, meanwhile, has declined as a result of increased fillet production and lesser Japanese demand: Last year's 180 million kilos is down from more than 206 million kilos in 2005.
Public perception of surimi will likely change, too, thanks to long-awaited changes to the wording the U.S. Food and Drug Administration required on packages of crab- or scallop-flavored products.
For more than a decade, some customers have balked at the word "imitation" added to the labeling on crab- or lobster-flavored products, when in fact those products were made from a species that has been holding its own in taste tests worldwide.
Extensive research studies conducted by the National Fisheries Institute and Genuine Alaska Pollock Producers measured public reactions to the word "imitation." The study results convinced the FDA to revise the statement of identity label for surimi-based seafood by removing the word "imitation" from packaging.
Instead, says Pat Shanahan, program director with the pollock producers group, those products will be identified as lobster-, crab- or scallop-flavored seafood, "made with surimi, a fully cooked fish protein."
"The U.S. was the only country in the world where surimi had to be called imitation crab," Shanahan says. Many consumers, he says, didn't associate the crab-flavored products as ones made from real fish.
According to the National Fisheries Institute, annual U.S. production of some 185 million pounds of surimi-based seafoods reach about 10 percent of households. Those numbers could soon increase.
"This is really positive news to the industry," Shanahan says.
— Charlie Ess
Gulf South Atlantic Summer Flounder
North Carolina's fishermen find themselves high and dry on quota
By now fishermen in North Carolina, the only South Atlantic state to receive a portion of the coastwide summer flounder quota, know that with 91 percent of their disappointing 2.68 million pound quota already caught during the early 2007 subseason, fishing is all but finished for this year.
Caught up in politics, the courts, stock-assessment ambiguity (otherwise known as the best available science) and the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Reauthorization Act, summer flounder quotas have been on a roller-coaster ride since early 2005, when the news appeared to be all good with stocks officially listed as "recovered" by North Carolina fishery managers.
But a new federal stock assessment suggests stocks aren't increasing as fast as previously believed toward a spawning stock biomass target of 197 million pounds. The new numbers indicate that given current harvest levels, stocks won't have sufficient chance of achieving the target level by the end of a court-ordered 10-year period on Jan. 1, 2010.
Consequently, managers drastically reduced the fishery's total allowable landings, initially by 45 percent, at the beginning of 2007. And that caused North Carolina's 27 percent share of coastwide total allowable landings to plunge from a high of 4.69 million pounds in 2005 to low of 2.1 million pounds at the beginning of this year.
But things aren't quite as bad as they might have been. Thanks to the Jan. 12 Magnuson-Stevens reauthorization, NMFS exercised an option to extend the rebuilding target date from Jan. 1, 2010, to no later than Jan. 1, 2013. Doing so increased the coastwide total allowable landings from 12.983 million pounds to 17.112 million pounds. North Carolina's share likewise rose under the emergency action, from 2.1 million pounds to 2.68 million pounds for 2007 after interstate adjustments (North Carolina vessels occasionally land fish in other states because of weather or inlet conditions on the Outer Banks).
If there's other good news in this scenario, it's that summer flounder prices in North Carolina are at all-time highs, averaging $2.12 a pound in 2006. But high prices don't mean much if there's hardly any quota left, and that's the position in which Tar Heel fishermen will find themselves come fall.
North Carolina's Division of Marine Fisheries, at fishermen's urging, had already split the annual quota 80 percent-20 percent between spring and fall subseasons to give fishermen more capacity during the more favorably priced Lenten season. But with only about 241,228 pounds of quota left, the fall season will be short indeed.
The Division of Marine Fisheries strives to apportion the catch limit around the 80-20 ratio, closing the spring subseason when landings approach the 80 percent mark. However, this year, landings exceeded the 80 percent level faster than anticipated.
Hence, this year's split is more along the lines of 91-9 percent, leaving very little for trawl fishermen to catch this fall. Steve George, general manager for Willie R. Etheridge Seafood Co., in Wanchese, says he doesn't know what the trawl boats will do.
"The boats are going to have to struggle really hard," George says. "I do feel sorry for these trawl boats."
Given the meager fall subseason quota to fish on, Christmas money appears to be seriously in doubt for the trawl crews this year.
George says fishermen are hoping for a good fall shrimp season. If that comes to pass, that might keep the trawlers busy and make up, at least in part, for the truncated flounder season.
"It's been real dry," George says, "that's a good sign we might have a shrimp season."
The meager quota left for the fall season is a devastating decrease from just two years ago. Back then, the 80-20 percent split left North Carolina fishermen with nearly a million pounds of the 4.69 million pound annual quota for the fall subseason.
Flounder prices remained high for most of the winter season just past, George says.
"For the most part it was good," he says. "The boats did get a better price than usual," from a low of about $1.25 up to $2 or $2.25, George says. That's consistent with the official state Division of Marine Fisheries average price of $2.12 per pound for 2006.
The quota flip-flops of the past two years have baffled fishermen. They continue to say there are plenty of flounder to be caught.
"I wish I could figure out how they count them," George says. "The science is just not correct."
Extending the stock rebuilding target date from 2010 to 2013 helps fishermen a little bit regarding annual quotas. But just how much of a market will be left for domestic flounder — or whether imported seafood will have completely taken over by that time — remains a legitimate concern.
George says he watched what happened to the market for shark, which was once an easy-to-move item that many seafood retailers and supermarkets carried.
However, with strict quotas limiting supply, the market shifted. Now it's difficult to move shark even when there is a supply.
"They've kind of ruined the market for shark," he says.
— Hoyt Childers
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