Gulf/South Atlantic Oysters

Hurricanes Ike and Gustav turn off light at the end of oystermen's tunnel

The oyster supply in the Gulf of Mexico, the country's top oyster-producing region, was finally rebounding from the damage Hurricane Katrina inflicted in 2005. But two more hurricanes, Ike and Gustav before that, blew through the region in September, heaping uncertainty on the Texas and Louisiana oyster industry.

Christy Lavergne, biologist supervisor with the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries Marine Fisheries Division, said in mid-September that all public and private oyster harvest areas were closed as of Sept. 17 because of water quality concerns following Hurricane Ike.

"The entire coast is closed," Lavergne said. "Grand Isle was the hardest hit."

Harvesters wanting to know when they could begin harvesting swamped the department with calls. But the decision was in the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals' hands.

Lavergne said some areas might open within a few days. But nothing was certain.

As for the hurricane's longer-term effects on oyster stocks, Lavergne said officials simply didn't know yet.

"We've only gotten data from a few parishes," she said.

Louisiana accounts for about one-third of U.S. oyster production. The supply of harvestable oysters there had become much less of a problem three years after Hurricane Katrina. But even before Ike and Gustav's arrival, officials foresaw potential problems.

Despite a 52 percent increase in Louisiana's marketable oyster stocks, the state's 2008 stock assessment report had forecast a potential market shortage this winter thanks to the surprising distribution of the productive grounds, according to Patrick Banks, biologist program manager with the Marine Fisheries Division of the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries.

"I feel we may see a slow season for marketable oysters... We have so few of them in the traditional fishing areas of Black Bay east of the Mississippi River," Banks said.

Ike's rampage through Texas has Lone Star State oyster producers likewise reeling.

"As with most disasters like this, photos don't begin to tell the whole story," wrote Lance Robinson, upper coast regional director for the Coastal Fisheries Division of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, reporting via e-mail.

Officials in mid-September didn't yet know the extent of Ike's effect on the state's oyster population, Robinson said. "We haven't been able to make an assessment on the status of the oyster resource," he wrote, "though considering the track of the storm, it's inconceivable that there wasn't significant impact."

Robinson sees parallels to the damage Katrina inflicted on neighboring Louisiana's fishing industry.

"As with Katrina in Louisiana, commercial infrastructure has been impacted and many boats were damaged or sunk," he said. "Because the western side of Galveston Bay was so heavily populated there is an incredible amount of debris in the bay (the entire bay is closed to all vessel traffic) and a lot that's moved offshore. Trawlable bottom is certainly affected."

Ike's destruction dulls the good news of volume and value increases seen in Texas, according to the latest preliminary estimates for the 2007 season. Value rose to $19.2 million from $17.3 million the previous year, and volume increased from 4.9 million pounds to 5.6 million pounds, according to figures from Texas and NMFS.

While Florida oystermen were spared the wrath of the recent hurricanes, the gulf's number-three producer is wrestling with a different problem; a 20-year-old dispute with Georgia over water that's crucial to the Florida industry.

Most of Florida's production comes from the Apalachicola Bay estuary system. The Apalachicola River, which feeds the bay, is the focus of a hot dispute over water rights between Florida and Georgia, or more accurately, metropolitan Atlanta. Atlanta gets its water from Lake Lanier, which is drained by the Chattahoochee-Flint-Apalachicola river system.

The long-standing conflict recently acquired a new intensity as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers introduced a plan to reduce minimum freshwater flow even more to allow more water for ever-expanding Atlanta. Florida in turn sued the corps, saying the plan would endanger some protected brackish water species in the Apalachicola estuary system.

Apalachicola oystermen worry that increased salinity levels in the bay could destroy the oyster bars.

The good news is that Florida's 2007 harvest, at 2.9 million pounds worth $6.6 million, was the best year since 1987 according to preliminary data from the state and NMFS. The increase is dramatic compared to the 2005 harvest of 1.5 million pounds. In early July of that year, Hurricane Dennis made landfall west of Apalachicola, producing a strong storm surge that nearly wiped out Eastpoint's waterfront and silted up the Apalachicola Bay oyster beds. — Hoyt Childers

Northeast Shrimp

MSC certification could give shrimpers in Canada advantage in global market

The Gulf of Maine shrimp fishery still needs a marketing push, and in August their competitors to the north moved in that direction.

Atlantic Canada's northern shrimp producers won certification from the Marine Stewardship Council, a global non-profit group that vouches for ecologically sustainable seafood products. The new labeling makes Canadian-caught Pandalus borealis the largest coldwater shrimp fishery in the world — at 177 million pounds annual catch — to receive a prominent sustainability label in the marketplace.

"The markets we sell into, particularly the United Kingdom, are very concerned about sustainability and the environment," says Derek Butler, executive director of the Association of Seafood Producers in St. John's, Newfoundland. The primary benefit is market access because more corporate retailers are asking for MSC-certified seafood, he says.

Packaged mostly as frozen "northern prawn," Canadian shrimp are that nation's first fishery to get MSC certification, after a 22-month process that involved a council team assessing the fishery against 31 criteria, including management safeguards, bycatch issues and environmental impact.

The MSC certified Oregon's shrimp fishery in December 2007, and its approval is valid for five years before another reappraisal. That was the first shrimp fishery the council approved, a fact that has impressed conservation groups that dislike both foreign shrimp fisheries with high bycatch rates and Third World farm operations that destroy coastal habitats like mangrove swamps.

The certifications aroused interest in Maine, where average shrimp prices have fallen by more than half since 2002 in the face of relentless competition from farmed warm-water shrimp.

"We've talked about it, but it's a $1 million process [to obtain certification]. We don't have the money," says Kim Libby, business manager for the Midcoast Fishermen's Association in Port Clyde. "We have a clean fishery."

The Port Clyde draggers have removed chafing gear and lightened their nets, and plan to try a new "topless trawl" this winter, along with excluder grates, she says. The association also anticipates growth in its community supported fishery sales to coastal residents.

Last winter "was our first foray into community supported fisheries" with about 35 subscribers who paid fishermen $1.35 a pound for shrimp straight off the boat in a 14-week program, Libby says. By summer, the number grew to 160 households buying whole fish direct from the association's 10 boats, "so I think I'm going to have more this winter," she adds.

Customers could get 10 pounds a week after paying an up-front price of $189 that was good for the whole season, with pickups on Sunday. A half-share of five pounds a week sold for $94.50.

But "all the money they were making was from CSF and restaurant sales. The auctions still have not improved" for shrimp, Libby says. Her husband Gary saw an average 43 cents per pound and a best price of 60 cents, she says.

The Windham, Maine-based Northwest Atlantic Marine Alliance worked with the Midcoast Fis
hermen's Association and the Maine Council of Churches to start selling shrimp directly to coastal residents, aiming to rebuild regional markets for locally caught seafood.

The pilot community projects help build consumer awareness "of what a great product we have here" with Maine shrimp, says Jennifer G. Plummer, the Northwest Atlantic Marine Alliance's community supported fisheries coordinator. But to reach a larger New England market, "we really need the processing and marketing capability," she says.

Maine's shrimp fishery seemed to have good catches last winter, based on port samplers' reports. But the season ended prematurely because of the price of fuel, says Margaret Hunter, a Maine Division of Marine Resources biologist who chairs the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission's northern shrimp technical committee.

"The shrimp move offshore in April, and a lot of boats couldn't afford to go after them," she says.

Fishermen reported prices "maybe a nickel better" than the 36-cent average in early 2007. A longer season and bigger allowable catches ensured a more dependable supply for buyers, Hunter says.

In their October 2007 stock assessment report, science advisers pegged the shrimp biomass at 32,000 metric tons, down from a 34,100 metric ton peak. They cautioned that most of the catch has been 4-year-old female shrimp from a big 2003 year class.

With weak recruitment of 2005 shrimp and an apparent failure of the 2006 year class, there's no assurance fishermen can get another 152-day season for winter 2008-09, the committee warned.

"It depends on whether we see a new year class coming across," Hunter said a week after summer sea sampling concluded in mid-August. "We did get a few small ones in the [winter] catches, which was encouraging." — Kirk Moore

North Pacific Groundfish

Pilot program slows fishing pace, adds marketing flexibility to Alaska product

The second season under a pilot program to manage rockfish in the central Gulf of Alaska has produced a few optimistic twists for trawlers targeting Pacific Ocean perch and dusky and northern rockfish.

The rockfish management program was put into effect for 2007 and 2008, and then extended by five years to end in 2011. The pilot program awarded rockfish allocations to cooperatives based on the catch histories of the trawlers comprising the cooperatives.

The hope behind implementing the plan was to slow the pace of the fishery and give fishermen and processors added flexibility in marketing the catch. At the end of last year's season, some processors had configured their operations to produce more fillets. But ex-vessel prices for the three species ran around 15 cents per pound, which is roughly where they stood the year before the pilot program.

This year, ex-vessel prices started out slightly higher, especially for Pacific Ocean perch. Reports in August noted that northern and dusky rockfish were fetching 16 cents per pound at the docks, while the perch had jumped to 18 cents.

Though the processors continue to market fillets and other value-added product forms from pilot program fish, carving out a steady stream of customers for those products may take a while. Whether the new management program will raise ex-vessel prices substantially has been obfuscated by a gradual increase in rockfish prices over the years anyway.

"In the years leading up to the program there were some bumps in ex-vessel prices," says Mark Fina, senior economist with the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, in Anchorage. "But not much has happened since."

In May, Fina published a review of the 2007 pilot program in which processors reported higher quality in rockfish products. Rockfish were delivered throughout a seven-month period instead of an onslaught in July, when fish plants are already inundated with salmon.

Among other discoveries in Fina's report, the mortality of non-target discarded species dropped drastically as a result of fishing through cooperatives rather than in derby-style openings.

In the past, trawlers discarded anywhere from 100 to 250 metric tons of blackcod during the rockfish fishery. That number dropped to near zero after the trawlers organized into co-ops.

At the same time, halibut mortality that ran between 25 and 50 pounds per ton of rockfish under the old management regime dropped to 6.4 pounds per ton in 2007.

"There's a huge drop in the amount of halibut," Fina says.

Fishermen also have begun using the co-op marketing component to maximize their catches on trips.

"This year, they've done a better job of catching all of the allocations of the species than last year," says Julie Bonney, executive director of the Alaska Groundfish Data Bank, in Kodiak. "They're beginning to understand the tools of the cooperatives."

In years past, fishermen who were in competition with each other often left uncaught quota on the table as NMFS, which manages the fishery, monitored in-season deliveries and shut down trawling when the fleet approached the total allowable catch for a particular species. Under the new plan, quota shares of the various species are allocated to the cooperatives. Hence, if one boat exceeds its catch limit, its overage can be transferred to another co-op member boat that hasn't yet hit its catch limit, keeping the co-op as a whole within its overall quota.

Not all boats were required to join a cooperative. Of the total fleet of 15 catcher processors and 47 catcher vessels working the Gulf of Alaska for rockfish, 11 catcher-processor vessels formed two cooperatives, and 44 catcher vessels formed five cooperatives. The remaining vessels opted out of the plan. They prefer fishing their shares under the previous management regime, which was a license limitation program.

In addition to maximizing the harvest allocated to individual cooperatives, Fina's report also found that the catcher vessel cooperatives formed an inter-cooperative association, which communicated among the individual cooperatives to gain even more efficiency at mopping up uncaught quota.

The absence of competition among boats has also produced fuel savings.

"One guy was burning 1,800 gallons of fuel to make his trip," Bonney says. "On the next trip to the same area, his consumption was 1,200 gallons."

Under the new management program, "nobody's going to take it away from you," Bonney adds. "So you can just slow down." — Charlie Ess

Pacific Dungeness

Salmon catchers look to crabs to bail them out, if demand is up to challenge

A firm market and solid demand should continue to make West Coast Dungeness crab an economic bright spot in an otherwise dreary economy.

Absent the salmon fishery this summer, says Nick Furman, executive director of the Oregon Dungeness Crab Commission, there's a premium on the crab fishery and crab production in terms of whether fishermen and processors will make money.

Many salmon trollers unable to catch chinook this year will count on crab season to carry them through, he says. But it's up to processors whether the price will benefit crabbers.

"We think there will be strong demand for the crab from the buying segment," Furman says. "They'll want product to run through their plants."

Scott Adams, production manager for Charleston, Ore.-based Hallmark Fisheries, agrees. "The market's pretty firm," he says, "and we're not having to find places to go with our excess, because there is no excess."

Fishermen still are reeling from the bumper crab years of 30-plus million pounds in the 2004-05 season in Oregon and the 27.5 million pound season in 2005-06.

Furman says the 2007-08 Oregon season should shake out to somewhere around 12 million pounds — less than half of the huge seasons.

"Twelve million might look anemic," Furman says, "but we have to remember it's still 2 million pounds above average."

The better news is price: Last season started Dec. 1 with an opening price of more than $2 a pound — unheard of in the past. Some cash buyers were paying upward of $5 a pound by the end of the season, during the summer. Hallmark paid close to $4 a pound as the season progressed.

"All in all, I think it would be a good value," Furman says, probably more than $30 million for Oregon alone.

As of the beginning of September, the industry already was looking ahead to state-monitored price negotiations in November, in advance of the Dec. 1 opening for the northern California, Oregon and Washington seasons.

That could put a damper on central California fishermen, who start their seasons in mid-November. California crabbers have had it tough over the past few years.

Often, many of the processors, especially those headquartered in Oregon, wait until the Oregon price negotiations are set before making offers to central California fishermen. But if price negotiations don't take place until mid-November or stall for any reason, California crabbers could see their season start delayed.

Weather always is a factor, too.

Last year, a huge Dec. 2-3 storm packing hurricane-force winds closed most West Coast ports and forced fishermen to either bring in their gear after the first pull or move it deeper. Several crabbers lost a lot of gear. It forced a delay in the processing sector.

"It took a month to recover from," Furman says, "until they got their gear sorted out."

Last year, central California crabbers faced their own problems with sales.

The oil spill from the ship Cosco Busan in San Francisco Bay in early November, just days prior to the opener, generated a public relations nightmare and delayed the start of the season. Some retail buyers were hesitant to buy California crab for months after the spill, even though the crab and coastal waters had been tested and found clean.

But the industry isn't kidding itself when it comes to the market this year.

"In reality, we deal with a luxury commodity," Furman says, and the economy is not strong.

That could lead to changes in wholesale sales efforts and product forms. Fortunately, the crab industry can often rebound.

In an unstable economy, the food service sector may shrink. In turn, that could lead to more opportunities in the retail sector, Furman says.

The huge unknown is quantity: Will there be enough crab to fill orders? Will there be too much?

By the summertime, most of the crab, even those purchased from Canada or Southeast Alaska, was going to brine-frozen sections or whole crab and meat, Adams says. Fresh whole-cooked crabs usually are the big draw to stores and seafood counters at the beginning of the season.

Still, inventories are low, Adams says, and he's positive about the start of the season.

"People love their crab," he says. "No matter how bad the economy is, people love their crab." — Susan Chambers

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