Market Reports

Northeast Blue Crab

Survey says! Bay is a teenage dream; True Blue campaign targets restaurants

Chesapeake Bay conservation advocates credit recent protections of the breeding population for a huge 2012 crop of young blue crabs. But that won’t translate into more dollars for watermen until the population matures.

The Maryland-Virginia winter dredge survey results estimated 764 million crabs in the bay, with juvenile crab numbers up almost 300 percent from winter 2010-11.

Despite that optimistic outlook with many juveniles surviving the mild winter, market-size crabs were scarce in spring and early summer. Watermen and consumers alike complained — about prices as low as $50 a bushel to watermen for smaller crabs, yet as high as $120 to $160 a bushel at retail for jumbos going into the July 4th holiday.

Conservation groups say Virginia’s moratorium on winter crab dredging had a lot to do with the sudden balloonin g of juvenile crab numbers. The traditional dredge fishery targeted females bedded down in the bay bottom.

Virginia fishermen say the moratorium’s impact has been exaggerated. The effects are being tested this winter with a new study that teams watermen with the Virginia Institute of Marine Science.

Hurricane Sandy forced the 2012 season to shut down early. But its effects in the Chesapeake were not so severe as the back-to-back arrivals of Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee in 2011 that flushed vast amounts of sediment and nutrients through the watershed.

“Things weren’t going too bad, but Sandy put an early end to it. After the storm went through we cooled off quite a bit,” says Joe Brooks of J.M. Clayton Seafood Co., a Cambridge, Md.-based crab processor. “We never saw the big run… That really never gave us a chance to see what was there.”
Demand was good, and the market was strong for available crabs. There is hope the stock rebound will continue if winter conditions are not too bad. Sandy didn’t do much damage in the Chesapeake region, and its rains didn’t produce the kind of chocolate milkshake-colored runoff that watermen saw swamping the bay in late 2011.

“It’s been a tough year, not because the crabs aren’t out there, but because they haven’t sized up yet,” said Steve Vilnit, who does fisheries marketing for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.

Still, the upbeat report from the winter dredge survey helped the state’s True Blue marketing campaign that aims to bring consumers, restaurants and food service back to using native blue crabs instead of imported product.

Declining water quality and crab catches led big crabmeat purveyors like Baltimore-based Phillips Seafood to go overseas to find new sources. Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley touts four years of better news about blue crabs as evidence the Chesapeake Bay restoration plan is working.

At the campaign’s Memorial Day launch about 20 businesses were signed up for the certification campaign. The number rose to 120 by summer’s end.
“We’ve got restaurants, retailers, even hospitals signed up,” Vilnit said. At the season’s peak the campaign was selling around 10,000 pounds of crabmeat a week, he said.

Vilnit says crab processors tell him 2012 was one of the better years in a long time. The movement among restaurants and consumers toward locally produced food is a big factor that will favor Chesapeake product, and educate more consumers, he says.

“Allowing consumers to see this is going to go a long way,” Vilnit says. “People always see ‘Maryland crab cakes’ on menus, but now we’re using this program to certify restaurants.

“It’s social pressure, too,” he adds. “If people don’t see it’s True Blue [crabmeat]they may go to the restaurant down the street.”

Bigger plans are afoot to get blue crabs recognized as a sustainable fishery by the Marine Stewardship Council, the international group whose blue seal of approval opens the doors of mass retailers. But first, Vilnit says, Maryland must finish that process for striped bass. — Kirk Moore

Alaska & Pacific Shrimp

Trawlers’ second verse same as the first and running just behind landings record

Oregon shrimpers threw cold water on theories that the boom-breaking tows of last year’s pink shrimp season wouldn’t be soon repeated.

As of Nov. 15, preliminary data showed a harvest of 49.6 million pounds in Oregon, slightly ahead of the 48.3 million pounds of 2011, according to Brad Pettinger, executive director of the Oregon Trawl Commission, in Brookings, Ore.

“We’re going to break last year’s amount, and this will be the second best year in history,” Pettinger says. Oregon’s record shrimp harvest of 56 million pounds was set in 1978.

“That’s just Oregon,” Pettinger adds. “Coastwide, shrimp fishing is good.”

It was indeed good all along the West Coast. The preliminary total harvest through mid-November for the three states, according to Pacific Fisheries Information Network data, stood at 63.1 million pounds. That’s just shy of 2011’s 65.3 million pounds and better than 2010’s 44.9 million pounds.

Average ex-vessel prices of 49 cents per pound through Nov. 19 were nearly identical to 2011’s 50 cents. The total harvest value for the three states stood at $31.2 million versus $32.9 million in 2011, and it’s well ahead of 2010’s $15.4 million, when ex-vessel prices averaged 34 cents per pound.

Meanwhile, Oregon’s 64-boat fleet was expected to top $25 million in revenue, surpassing 2011’s $24 million, Pettinger says.

A combination of heavy tows and healthy prices allowed the fleet to prospect and cherry pick areas where catch per unit of effort would be highest. Being able to fill nets with shorter tows resulted in overall fuel savings, making fishermen more apt to look around for hot fishing.

“With the high prices of fuel, people were running over areas where they traditionally fished,” Pettinger says.

CPUE last year exceeded 5,000 pounds per hour. Though final data for the 2012 season wasn’t available in late November, tows were likely to mimic 2011’s, according to Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife Shrimp Project Leader Bob Hannah.

“Guys were loading their boats in a day, day and a half,” Hannah says.

Signs on the grounds this year suggest another big season is in store for 2013. The 2011 boom had Hannah and others skeptical of a repeat performance in 2012, but the industry was pleasantly surprised.

“I feel pretty much like I did last year,” Hannah says, “like it’s going to slide off pretty soon.”

That’s based on increases and decreases seen throughout the fishery’s history, he adds. In the short term, however, Hannah notes that the upcoming season will be spiked with good recruitment.

“Obviously, we’re going to have a good carryover of 1-year-olds, and there will be a healthy representation of 2-year-olds.”

Pettinger agrees. “It’s a great time to be a shrimp fisherman,” he says.

“There were some zeros showing up; so we haven’t seen any year class failures,” Pettinger says. “It’s easily conceivable to see another 40 million-pound season again next year.”

In other developments in 2012, the fleet finished its first year of fishing with three-quarter-inch spacing in the bars of bycatch reduction devices. The spacing reduction in the grids from 1 inch represents increased efforts to avoid catching eulachon, which was listed as a threatened species in 2010.

Though there is no bycatch cap and the eulachon are discarded, data gleaned from observer reports indicates that the bar spacing change has led to a 16 percent bycatch reduction over the previous year when the fleet fished with the 1-inch bar spaces.

It’s unknown yet how the bycatch reduction gear fared in lowering the bycatch in 2012, but Hannah says the fleet has been on board in making the changes.

“The season with the new BRDs went really smoothly,” he says. “Nobody whined, and everybody just fished.” — Charlie Ess

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