Alaska & Pacific Herring

Quota booms in the bay, sinks in Sitka; new buyer could plump fleet's prices

San Francisco Bay's gillnet herring fleet began fishing on a bigger quota when the 2012-13 season opened on Jan. 2. Moreover, substantial catch level reductions in Alaska's fabled Sitka fishery, plus an Alaska processor's interest in California product could boost ex-vessel prices for San Francisco sac roe harvesters.

The bay's gillnetters this year will enjoy a 2,690-ton quota. That's up sharply from 2011-12 when the fleet fished on 1,845 tons.

Gillnetters landed 1,634 tons of herring last season, down from the 1,727 tons caught in the 2010-11 season. But there's optimism that landings will be larger this year.

Ernie Koepf, a herring fisherman and marketer of fresh herring to local San Francisco restaurants, says he found the fishing excellent last year.

"Last year was the best in 35 years of fishing, in terms of tonnage," Koepf says.

Koepf continues funneling some of his product — 400 to 500 pounds per delivery last year — to a burgeoning local market for fresh herring. The fledgling food fishery, which starts in November but stops when sac roe fishing begins in January, holds promise, Koepf says.

"The processors were paying a buck a pound," he says. "In today's market a buck a pound is cheap for fresh wild-caught product."

In the bay's sac roe fishery, fishermen were optimistic that the opener could bring offers north of $500 per ton with the possibility of $700 per ton.

Fueling that optimism was word of an additional buyer for the fleet's catch. Sitka-based Silver Bay Seafoods has expanded its operations. Its interest in San Francisco product raised fishermen's speculations that this year's ex-vessel offers could hit $500 per ton — or more, according to Koepf.

Prices last season averaged approximately $200 per ton, Koepf says. Pacific Fisheries Information Network data lists an average 2012 ex-vessel price of $160 per ton in California.

The guideline harvest level at Sitka, meanwhile, has tumbled from more than 29,000 tons last year to 11,055 tons for 2013. A much smaller biomass estimate during winter test surveys plus last year's lower harvest prompted the reduction.

"The biomass dropped substantially compared with what we were expecting to return last year and what we actually caught last year," says Bill Davidson, regional management coordinator of commercial fisheries with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in Sitka.

Davidson adds that 2012 landings came in at only 13,308 tons versus the record-setting 19,430 tons worth $5.1 million landed in 2011. While that harvest drop-off and this year's smaller quota may surprise some, Davidson points out that the Sitka biomass had experienced an unusual surge in recent years.

"We had been getting a 15 percent increase in the stock in recent years," he says, "and it grew to an unprecedented level."

When it comes to the market health in Japan, the yen's strength won against the U.S. dollar in 2012. For example, the University of British Columbia's database of monthly average exchange rates lists the yen to the dollar rate in January 2012 as 76.9 versus the 82.6 seen in January 2011.

According to Joe Jacobson, international program director with the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute in Juneau, cheaper, marinated roe products designed to suit changing tastes in Japan have been developed, but strong demand still remains for traditional kazunoko. Last year's lower harvest in Sitka was actually about right in terms of what the market could bear, Jacobson says.

"I think last year's harvest, in terms of volume, was just about right for what the market could absorb," Jacobson says.

Furthermore, ex-vessel prices at Sitka ended up at just under $600 per ton, according to Davidson. In 2011, the Sitka fleet settled for an average $266 per ton, down significantly from the $720 per ton they received in 2010.

"So the prices were definitely on the rebound," Davidson says. — Charlie Ess

Gulf/South Atlantic Shrimp

Burned at both ends: diesel still too high for harvesters enduring oil spill recovery

As the 2013 season approaches, Gulf of Mexico shrimpers are still looking for an unqualified good year to tell them that 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil-spill-related troubles are behind them.

Prices are mediocre or worse in most places, and little in the near term suggests improvement during 2013. The region's overall 2012 shrimp harvest through October decreased slightly from 2011 levels, but price remained flat.

It wouldn't hurt if the cost of marine diesel were a lot closer to $3 than $4, but fishermen were still paying in the $3.50 range in early December.

In Apalachicola, Fla., veteran shrimper and boat owner Owen Golden says he and his skipper, son-in-law Michael Dasher, struggle to make the numbers work for his 51-foot wooden hull Owen & Devin in light of the discouraging fuel/shrimp price ratio.

"The shrimp business is poor, but we're hanging in there," Golden says. "We went out there today and got 250 pounds [of whites], but you spend 100 gallons of fuel."

At $3.59 a gallon for fuel in Apalachicola and $2.30 a pound at the fish house for jumbo 16-20 count heads-on shrimp, a trip is barely worth it, he says.

Golden and Dasher try to sell as much of the catch as possible at retail in the $3 range to make ends meet.

"It's been one of the worst falls we've had in several years," Golden says.

Gulfwide, landings of all shrimp varieties for January through October decreased to 98.7 million pounds (heads-off) from 102.38 million pounds for the same months in 2011, according to the most recent NMFS data. The best year of the past five was 2009, when 114.6 million pounds were landed.

Average ex-vessel prices for January through October in most gulf states for all sizes stayed more or less flat in 2012.

For example, Florida 26-30 count shrimp (headless), on average brought $4.05 ex-vessel in 2012 versus $4.20 in 2011, according to NMFS data. However, in the central gulf (Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama) the average price for 26-30s was $3.70 compared to $3.65 the previous year. But in Texas, the price on 26-30 headless dropped to $3.40 from $3.70 in 2011.

In Louisiana, shrimper and commercial fishing advocate George Barisich says the fleet is still waiting to turn the corner post-spill. Ex-vessel price is still way off the pre-spill level, he says.

"It never went over $1.25 for 40-50s," he says. "We're still down 70 cents a pound from the spill."

Earlier in the year, brown shrimp volume started out well, but price was low.

"The brown shrimp, nobody was hitting them too hard because there was no money," he says. "When things seemed to be getting better, then [Hurricane] Isaac came through."

There was a flurry of good white shrimp catches for the small-boat inshore fleet after a couple of cold fronts bunched the shrimp up in the estuaries, but by the second week in December white shrimp was winding down. With diesel at $3.50 and shrimp at $1.25, the numbers just don't add up, says Barisich, who was expecting to be in the red again at the end of the year.

"You can't make it."

There may be one bit of good news for those hard-core survivors in the American shrimp fishery determined to claw back a bit of market share from that staggering roughly 1 billion pounds a year of imported farm-raised shrimp. Shrimp imports decreased in 2012. Imports of all preparations of shrimp, at 951.1 million pounds for January through October, showed a significant reduction from 1.03 billion pounds for the same months in 2011. Total value of the imported shrimp also dropped, from $4.2 billion in 2011 to $3.6 billion. The volume of shrimp imported January through October 2012 was at the lowest level for those months since 2005. — Hoyt Childers

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