Gulf/South Atlantic Grouper

Harvesters approve IFQs in hopes for year-round fishing, higher catch totals

Demand for fresh Gulf of Mexico grouper has historically been durable, and domestic production is — at best — relatively small. Consequently, there is hope the grouper market may weather the storm of the continuing international economic crisis, especially in the tourism-restaurant sector.

Imminent grouper management changes will continue to limit supply. A new lowball federal gag quota, worrisome to fishermen who don't see the need for it, and continuing 6,000-pound trip limits, will likely keep supply in check for the near term and might contribute to steady prices.

But decent prices aren't worth much if you can't go fishing. And that is what many fishermen fear will happen this year.

Under an interim rule that anticipates a new addition (Amendment 30B) to the grouper fishery management plan, if the gag or red grouper quota or the quota for the overall shallow-water grouper complex is reached, the entire shallow-water grouper fishery would close for the remainder of the year. With the new Gulf of Mexico commercial gag quota set at 1.32 million pounds gutted weight (1.56 million pounds whole weight), an abundant early gag harvest could trigger a shutdown this year. That would include the industry's mainstay, red grouper, now officially recognized as fully rebuilt and sustainable.

"That's going to put a big hurting on us," says Madeira Beach, Fla., fisherman Dean Pruitt.

The new gag quota is almost identical to Florida's total gag harvest in 2007 (1.56 million pounds whole weight). But it's substantially less than the 2005 harvest of 2.83 million pounds, the last harvest year before the 6,000-pound grouper trip limit was implemented. The other gulf states typically add substantially less than 100,000 pounds to the total harvest.

Many fishermen, Pruitt among them, are hoping an individual fishing quota program for grouper will render the early closure issue irrelevant.

"Without the IFQ, we're not going to get a year-round fishery," Pruitt says.

The gulf council mailed grouper IFQ referendum ballots to 301 eligible fishermen on Dec. 5, who replied with a resoundingly favorable vote of 220 to 50.

The council is expected to take final action on the grouper IFQ this spring.

Gag production has been slipping, and ex-vessel prices increasing since 2004, when the shallow-water fishery first closed early (Nov. 15), triggered by a low quota for red grouper, which at that time federal regulators considered overfished.

Most of the commercial grouper caught in the Gulf of Mexico is landed at Madeira Beach.

In 2004, Florida gag landings of 3.19 million pounds brought $2.51 per pound on average ex-vessel, according to Florida's Fish and Wildlife Research Institute. In 2005, red grouper triggered an Oct. 10 closure of the entire shallow-water grouper fishery; gag landings dropped to 2.83 million pounds worth $2.65 a pound on average.

In 2006 and 2007 the shallow-water fishery didn't close early, but commercial grouper trip limits decreased from 10,000 pounds to 6,000 pounds — a change many fishermen supported in hopes of fishing year round. Hence, the gag harvest dropped again to 1.55 million pounds worth $2.92 a pound on average ex-vessel.

The harvest stabilized at 1.56 million pounds in 2007 and price increased again to $3.28. Average prices through September 2008 rose again to $3.36 a pound. Analysis of incomplete 2008 information and monthly figures from the previous year suggest landings will hold steady.

As has become common in grouper management conflicts, fishermen say they see plenty of gag and don't believe the small quota is justified.

"I'm just amazed that this agency can come up with rules that [demonstrate they] have no idea of what's going on in the Gulf of Mexico," says Bob Spaeth, owner of Madeira Beach Seafood. "What chance do we have?"

In a tacit recognition of this problem, NMFS addresses the issue in a "frequently asked questions" document available on its Southeast Regional Office Web site.

"If gag fishing rates are too high, then why are fishermen reportedly seeing so many gag in the water?" the document asks.

The answer, it says, is that the gag population has been increasing since the mid-1990s because of "higher than average reproduction rates." However, it continues, the fishery isn't sustainable at current harvest rates unless the high gag reproduction rates continue, which scientists apparently believe isn't likely.

Spaeth doesn't buy the argument and wants independent oversight of the NMFS science.

"Somebody from the science community needs to do a complete, independent review," he says. — Hoyt Childers

Northeast Squid

U.S. consumers finding a real appetite for calamari, to the delight of the fleet

Loligo squid could be one of a few bright spots in the 2009 seafood economy. With an established foothold now in the nation's restaurants as a budget treat, it still brings $1.00 to $1.50 a pound to boats landing good-sized longfin.

"For whatever reason, squid prices right through this summer and fall have been good. There's been so much domestic need and market growth... I have not heard anyone complaining about prices," says Jimmy Ruhle of Wanchese, N.C., whose boat Darana R is a major source for the industry.

Calamari remains a growth item on American restaurant menus. The National Restaurant Association recently ranked it just behind chicken appetizers for casual-dining sales in its 2008 survey. A 2007 "menu census" by trade journal Restaurants and Institutions named squid as the top appetizer increasing sales in fine-dining restaurants and second for hotel restaurants.

The Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council bumped its 2009 specifications for loligo catches up to 19,000 metric tons from 17,000 metric tons, and beyond the 12,342 tons caught in 2007.

A Federal Register notice on squid specifications made some sunny predictions for the fishery.

"No reductions in revenues for the Loligo fishery are expected as a result of this proposed action; in fact, an increase in revenues as a result of the proposed action is possible," NMFS says. Based on average values of $1,883 per metric ton in 2007, the higher 2009 allowable landings could bring the fleet an additional $12.5 million, the agency ventures.

Ruhle says that's plausible, even in the economic downturn. Domestic demand has built squid prices far beyond the 20 to 40 cents per pound when it was an export fishery, but it's a very affordable item for American consumers, he says.

Worldwide, most squid prices remained low at the end of 2008, thanks to lower demand in Asia and discounted selling by Argentina's fishermen, the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization reported in November. But the last of the supply gluts that drove down South Atlantic squid prices will be sold out of freezers this winter, and the spring 2009 season will reset the market and demand could come back, the FAO says.

Butterfish bycatch has been the fleet's persistent threat. In October the Mid-Atlantic council voted for a solution fishermen say they can live with.

Amendment 10 for the rebuilding of butterfish, relying chiefly on a 2 1/8-inch minimum cod end mesh requirement, will take effect in 2010 for the first and third trimesters of the fishing year.

In 2011 a seasonal allocation for butterfish mortality will go into effect. Some 75 percent of the allowable butterfish catch will be allocated to the loligo fishery, which observers will monitor.

Loligo is so valuable on the domestic market that it makes little sense to fishermen and resource managers to save much butterfish for use in a directed fishery. But with low growth in the butterfish stock, bycatch has been a target.

Environmental and recreational fishing advocates say the council should have gone farther. They want the council to enforce a bycatch mortality cap with observer coverage and push research into alternative net designs with larger mesh sizes.

The National Coalition for M
arine Conservation pressed the council to consider butterfish as a forage species, with a key ecological role in feeding pelagic and groundfish species. The council's action postponed implementing a bycatch mortality cap from 2010 to 2011, three years before the Magnuson-Stevens rebuilding deadline of 2014.

But the first warning on butterfish came from NMFS in 2005; hence, the council is risking "an eleventh-hour strategy" in hopes that butterfish can recover on their own, the coalition warns. In the October council vote, six council members joined Patricia Kurkul, NMFS' Northeast regional director in a failed motion to move the bycatch limit up a year to 2010.

The first trimester in January through April 2011 would use 65 percent of the butterfish bycatch allocation, with a little more than 3 percent over late spring and summer and the remainder expended in the fall.

Captains must give NMFS 72 hours' notice before they make a directed loligo trip so the agency has the option of putting an observer on board. If that trip gets canceled, the vessel will top the list for observer coverage its next time out.

Critics say the squid fishery might have to be shut down in 2012 or 2013 because of butterfish bycatch, but fishermen assert that larger mesh sizes would effectively shut them down before then. — Kirk Moore

North Pacific Herring

Big sets at Sitka, coupled with prices, lift hopes for the coming roe season

Last year will be remembered in the archives of Alaska's herring fisheries for its big sets and big money at Sitka. The record harvest and ex-vessel prices like the fleet hasn't seen since the 1990s mark the nexus of strong biological factors and renewed interest in herring roe bound for Japan.

And the combined health of herring stocks, the yen and processing capacity bode well for a good 2009 season, too.

Sitka Sound's healthy biomass set the stage for the big hit of 2008. Strong representations of older fish and recruitment of younger age classes into the fishery warranted a harvest quota of 14,723 tons — nearly double what it was through much of the 1990s.

Given the variables of the weather, processing capacity and the fish's propensity to hit the beach and spawn all at once, getting big tonnages of ripe herring caught and to market presents hair-pulling challenges to Alaska Department of Fish and Game managers.

"The larger the quota, the more difficult it is to stay on top of things and within the limits of the processing capacity," says Dave Gordon, area management biologist with Fish and Game in Sitka .

As it turned out, large concentrations of herring schooled up in the shallows were a crucial ingredient to last year's harvest of 14,386 tons.

"They were in the extreme shallows," Gordon says. "That discouraged a lot of the boats."

Consequently that left the lion's share of the spoils for a handful of seiners whose boats could work in 5 to 10 feet of water.

"There were seven boats that hit it big," Gordon says. One boat caught about 1,500 tons, he adds. Two others caught about 1,000 tons each.

In all, the fleet landed 9,300 tons during its first hour-long opening. And unbeknownst to the industry until the tenders began pumping, was that those seven boats caught much of it during the first 10 minutes.

An opening four days later, after processors caught up, took the remaining 4,000 tons, Gordon says.

When it comes to factors driving last year's ex-vessel prices of $600 per ton for the Sitka herring, the Alaska industry can thank British Columbia for production shortages, which has left markets hungry in Japan.

According to "The 2007 British Columbia Seafood Industry Year in Review," the province's roe herring production has dropped from 31,570 short tons in 2005 to 24,530 tons in 2006 to just 11,550 tons in 2007. Stats for 2008 were unavailable in December, but the Canadian industry was rumored to have landed less than 15,000 tons.

While the reduced volume coming out of British Columbia hasn't translated to an increase in the number of processors that gear up for the Alaska harvest each season, the mainstay field of seven seafood companies operating at Sitka each season has been committed to buying up its large harvests.

Meanwhile, the relative strength of the Japanese yen to the U.S. dollar increased Japan's buying power on the herring grounds in 2008 and could mean healthy prices in 2009. The value of the yen relative to the dollar (for the month of April, when most roe herring are bought in Alaska) appreciated from 120 to the dollar in 2007 to 102 yen to the dollar last year. In December 2008, the yen strengthened to 91 to the dollar.

In April of 1996, the yen traded at 107 to the dollar. Ex-vessel prices that year reached an all-time high of $2,000 per ton at Sitka, putting revenues for the fleet's 51 seiners at more than $13 million. Last year's large quota at $600 per ton produced revenues of $8.8 million, which is an optimistic bump from the ex-vessel prices of $465 per ton and $5.4 million in gross revenues in 2007.

"I think the ex-vessel prices of 2008 are a combination of both — a strong yen and a shortage in fisheries to the south," says one processor, wishing to remain anonymous. The processor wasn't willing to predict ex-vessel offerings in 2009 during the weeks previous to Japan's oseibo holiday season, when the company expected to liquidate much of its roe.

The simultaneous shortage in Canadian production and strength of the yen rippled its way to the Togiak fishery last year. Average ex-vessel prices there climbed slightly to $125 for seiners and $144 per ton for the gillnetters.

Seiners received $112 per ton for their catch in 2007, $103 in 2006. Gillnetters fared slightly better, with average ex-vessel prices of $122 in 2007 and $125 per ton in 2006. — Charlie Ess

Pacific Salmon

West Coast trollers fear another year of poor returns will erode market share

Salmon? What salmon?

Most California, Oregon and Washington fishermen are relying on federal disaster relief checks cut late in 2008, as chinook fishing was, for the most part, completely closed along the West Coast last year. The only bright spot was the limited seasons along the Washington coast, Columbia River and extreme northern corner of Oregon.

And this year?

"Things are looking pretty bleak," says Fort Bragg, Calif., fisherman Ben Platt.

Early California Department of Fish and Game reports show only about 60,000 chinook returned to the Sacramento River in the fall of 2008 — less than half of what scientists say are necessary to keep the stock sustainable and pretty much on target with what they predicted last spring.

The Sacramento is the main driver for fishing along the West Coast. In fall 2007, only about 90,000 fish returned to spawn, below the 122,000 considered minimum for survival. Those numbers, combined with declines in returns to other West Coast rivers, prompted the biggest closure in history for the three western states in 2008.

A similar shutdown happened a couple of decades or so ago, but it wasn't as significant. It also occurred before the big push to keep wild fish on the plate and before the economy turned sour. Now harvesters fear consumers will favor farmed fish over wild-caught salmon.

"Hopefully, we won't lose that market," Platt says. "We're hoping Alaska fish will fill it."

In early 2008, Seattle-area businesses already were looking to Alaska to fill fresh fish orders. Some bought the limited supplies of Columbia River kings gillnetters caught. Many retailers are hesitant to go with farmed fish — some plainl
y won't — but the steady supply and lower prices may prove more appealing to their customers, they say.

When trollers coastwide were allowed to fish a regular season a few years back, they found an uphill battle against farm-raised salmon. Ex-vessel prices for kings ranged between 75 cents and $1.50 a pound as retailers tried to sell wild fish at prices higher than farmed fish. In 2007, ex-vessel prices were better than $5 a pound to fishermen who were allowed to fish after a three-month closure in 2005 and another shutdown in 2006.

The only problem? The fish didn't show.

Congress secured $170 million in disaster relief money for commercial and charter fishermen in 2008. Some of the money went to related businesses that were able to prove the closure hurt them.

Primarily, low chinook returns in California and Oregon and some coho runs in Washington caused the shutdown. The 2008 disaster assistance money followed $60 million granted to Oregon and California trollers in 2007, after low returns to the Klamath River prompted the 2006 closure along much of the coast.

Scientists cited ocean conditions as the primary cause for the low returns to the Sacramento and other rivers. Many California fishermen argued that water supplies were limited along the Sacramento and that pumping water to farm interests prevented more fish from returning.

Now, though, ocean conditions and a lack of rainfall may deliver a double whammy to salmon. Ocean conditions in 2008 were some of the best, says Bill Peterson, an oceanographer with the Northwest Fisheries Science Center in Seattle. Water temperatures were the coldest they've been in the past few decades. Hence, scientists found the highest numbers of juvenile chinook they've seen in 11 years of sampling, Peterson says.

"We usually see cold water conditions for a few months once upwelling begins in late spring and early summer," Peterson says. But since April 2007, a constant state of upwelling has been occurring, he says. Peterson also noted the survey didn't find as many juvenile coho as was hoped.

At the same time, rainfall in the fall and early winter months of 2008 was down by as much as 10 inches in some parts of Oregon and California. In northern California, some of the lowest returning coho levels ever were recorded. Coho simply didn't have enough water to make it up the streams to spawn.

That's going to trigger another disaster, fishermen say. Already, those who made it through 2008 on disaster relief checks are grasping at straws. A few have turned to fishing for slime eels, but there are few other fisheries that aren't fully exploited. Dungeness crabbing also was at a low point. Summer tuna fishing was merely OK, fishermen say.

Hence, Dave Bitts, a Eureka, Calif., troller who is scratch-fishing a dismal crab season, like other trollers, seeks a Plan B. Says Bitts, "We don't know what we're going to do." — Susan Chambers

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