Gulf/South Atlantic Summer Flounder

'Statutory,' not biological overfishing has their backs to wall, fishermen say

As total allowable catch for Atlantic summer flounder shrink to historic lows and the biomass increases at a healthy rate, industry concern has shifted from market dynamics to the management regimes that artificially restrict the market.

In 2008, it's all about politics.

The 2008 TAC for summer flounder, 15.77 million pounds, is the smallest since management of the fishery began. The commercial catch limit of 9.28 million pounds left North Carolina, the only state south of Virginia with a share of the fishery, an annual quota of 2.53 million pounds after final adjustments for emergency landings in Virginia.

By March 31, the state's spring summer flounder trawl season had closed with roughly 80 percent of the annual quota — or about 2 million pounds — already harvested, according to Don Hesselman, chief of statistics for North Carolina's Division of Marine Fisheries.

Once again, there is hardly anything left for the fall season, even for the pitiful number of vessels that remain in the fishery.

The average overall ex-vessel price for summer flounder in 2007 hit an all-time high of $2.38 a pound. But an increase from $2.12 to $2.38 in one year is next to meaningless when marine diesel prices have doubled in the same time.

Sean McKeon, president of the North Carolina Fisheries Association, says fishermen are in crisis, squeezed between "a regulatory burden based on environmentalist pressure" and "fuel prices going through the roof."

"Both those problems are laid almost entirely at the feet of the environmental groups," he says.

For example, even the 15.77 million pound TAC wasn't good enough for the Pew Charitable Trusts Federal Fisheries Policy Reform Project. It supported the 11.6 million pound harvest limit the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council's monitoring committee proposed.

According to McKeon and many other commercial and recreational fishing industry leaders, anti-fishing interests that dominate the environmental movement have prevailed in most venues in recent years. From fishery management plans to the courts to Magnuson-Stevens Act reauthorization in Congress, they have been able to alter rebuilding parameters to unrealistic — and economically and socially destructive — extremes.

Summer flounder, considered rebuilt in early 2005, is now, by virtue of an ambiguous stock assessment and revised biological reference points, "undergoing overfishing" even as the biomass keeps growing at a healthy rate. By bureaucratic fiat, it is once again at risk.

Summer flounder represents what James A. Donofrio, executive director of the Recreational Fishing Alliance, a sportfishing group, calls "statutory overfishing" as opposed to actual biological overfishing.

Donofrio was in Washington during the third week in June — along with representatives of scores of commercial and recreational organizations — to lobby Congress to pass the Flexibility in Rebuilding American Fisheries Act of 2008, H.R. 5425, sponsored by U.S. Reps. Frank Pallone Jr. (D-N.J.), and co-sponsored by Barney Frank (D-Mass.), and 16 other congressmen. The bill, if passed, would allow extension of rebuilding timetables for some fisheries, such as summer flounder, that meet certain conditions.

Among those conditions is the need for continued economic viability of fishing communities concurrent with existing "positive rebuilding trends" in associated fisheries.

Summer flounder is at the center of the fight for regulatory flexibility because fishermen in both sectors feel they have cooperated and played by the rules for years to ensure a sustainable fishery. Flounder was well on the road to recovery, and then the rules changed.

"None of the commercial or recreational groups are going to support biological overfishing," Donofrio said during a telephone interview. "Everybody's been trying to be a good player."

Summer flounder management has little, if any, relationship to what's happening on the water, McKeon says. And at the same time, fishermen's input is marginalized as unreliable.

"We've got more fish than we ever had," McKeon says. "What purpose does it serve for us folks to lie about fish that are not there?"

As Atlantic summer flounder production is restricted, imports swell and more U.S. jobs are exported.

As the TAC was cut from 28.2 million pounds in 2004 to 17.1 million pounds in 2007, flounder imports increased from $36.2 million to $55.9 million.

And as the summer flounder biomass continues to increase, North Carolina's quota has shrunk from nearly 5 million pounds in 2004 to slightly more than half that for 2008.

Again, McKeon blames the environmental organizations.

"They've got a lot to answer for," he said. "Why are we importing 85 percent of our fish?" — Hoyt Childers

Pacific Squid

All signs pointing to a market much improved in California's No. 2 fishery

If the winter 2007-08 fishery is any indication, the upcoming fall season should be good for squid fishermen.
"The squid fishery is a lot better this year," says Mike Okoniewski, pelagics manager at Portland, Ore.-based Pacific Seafood. "The tubes are thicker than last year."

Already, that means a price boost: As of early June, when only a few fishermen took advantage of nice weather and good markets, they were getting between $600 and $700 a short ton. In years past, it's been around $500 to $600 a ton.

"It's surprising a few people," Okoniewski says.

Spotty catches of Loligo opalescens, a smaller volume, and squid with thin tubes marked the 2007 fishery. Sixteeen-count-per-pound squid were the norm. Yet the market, particularly overseas, prefers counts under 10.

Market squid routinely is one of California's highest-grossing fisheries in volume and value. And even as squid landings have dropped over the last three years — precipitously so in calendar year 2007 — squid remains California's second-highest-grossing fishery. With landings worth $15.1 million, it trailed only Dungeness crab landings, valued at $18.9 million. Squid and Dungeness crab have traded off the top spot for several years.

As for volume, squid came in second in 2007, with 27,000 metric tons. Only sardine landings, at 67,000 metric tons, outstripped the squid volume.

Still, squid landings have fallen from 54,976 metric tons in 2005 and 49,124 metric tons in 2006. Okoniewski says there is some concern about the squid stock, but it's difficult to do a meaningful assessment.

"They have quick life cycle," he says, "270 days. That's it."

Last year, the winter squid season started in early November instead of the usual opening at Thanksgiving. Fishermen were filling their holds with lots of market squid.

The combination of better squid, a limited winter volume after the new year and a low inventory means better market opportunities for California fishermen.

"It's a good grade," Okoniewski says. "It will sell its way out."

Japanese buyers prefer the bigger squid, but those markets reach a saturation point quickly, Okoniewski says. Japan bought early in the winter fishery, then cut out by December.

NMFS reports that through December, Japan's 2007 cold storage inventory of 68,236 metric tons of squid was 35 percent greater than its 2006 inventory. By April of this year, Japan's inventory was holding at 48,198 metric tons of squid. Usually, the inventory is in the mid-30,000-metric-ton range.

Chinese buyers, meanwhile, held off making huge purchases through most of 2007, hoping the huge production of 34,000 pounds in November and December would bring lower prices in the new year. But banking on the law of supply and demand backfired on the Chinese buyers. Continued — albeit slower — production of 6- and 8-count squid kept prices to the California fleet up near $700 a ton.

The problem in December was weather. Storms early in the month and at the end put wrinkles in the overall production.

"December was real strong, then it started to peter out," Okoniewski says, especially around Christmas. "There might have been squid there, but boats couldn't get out."

He said that by this summer, overall markets were holding together, though they weren't red-hot.

"There seems to be some demand," Okoniewski says, noting that a few European buyers have already shown interest — at a time when the Chinese market has slowed.

Meanwhile, Falkland Islands squid catches, the main competitor to California's squid, picked up.

Falkland fishermen caught 25,000 metric tons between Feb. 24 and mid-May. Their catches slowed in mid-April — just as California seiners, who had been targeting sardines, were switching to squid. Diane Pleschner-Steele, executive director of the California Wetfish Producers Association, says when sardines disappeared from some inshore waters, those fishermen switched over to squid — successfully.

One of the market squid fishery's biggest threats is another squid, fishermen say: the bigger, more voracious, 5- to 6-foot-long Humboldt squid.

There is no commercial fishery for Humboldts, though some fishermen do catch them as bycatch or as the majority catch in a trawl tow if the squid school is large enough.

Scientists note the Humboldt's range is increasing, with some seen as far north as Alaska. At the same time, some loligo has been caught in Newport, Ore., in fairly good-sized quantities and also have been found in Southeast Alaska.

"They're expanding their territory," Okoniewski says of Humboldts — and smaller squid is one of their favorite prey. — Susan Chambers

North Pacific Pollock

With quota sinking and demand rising, questions about affordability of fillets

Catch reductions for Bering Sea pollock are leaving markets short, worldwide, and supplies coming out of Alaska could remain crimped for the next couple of years.

This year's 26 percent quota slash is a result of previous stock assessments, which showed declining abundance of the fishable biomass. The cut is expected to cause some processors to decrease production of fillets and other products, and switch to surimi in efforts to supply mainstay markets in Japan. Fillet prices, meanwhile, could climb to levels that will test what the market can bear.

"From a marketing standpoint, this couldn't have come at a worse time," says Rick Muir, president of Seattle-based Genuine Alaska Pollock Producers. "Prices have gone up to where they're at historically high levels, and the customers may think that they can't afford pollock."

According to a May 2008 comparison of West Coast hake prices and Alaska pollock prices, prepared by Seattle-based Natural Resources Consultants, pollock surimi prices for product shipped to Japan garnered $1.37 per pound in April of 2007 and reached $2.43 per pound this April.

Meanwhile, prices for Europe-bound fillets (blocks, pinbones out) are projected to climb from $2,950 per metric ton for the 2007 B season to $4,200 per metric ton in the 2008 B season. The projection is based on processors' offers for the same product in this year's A season.

On the plus side for the pollock industry, supplies of substitute species are low. At the same time that the Bering Sea harvest has been cut from last year's 1.35 metric tons to this year's 1 million metric tons, global production of hake and other whitefish species is also waning.

Muir says appreciable volumes of pollock fillet blocks are being funneled to Europe where producers use them to fill gaps created by cod shortages — even as a substitute species in salt cod markets. More pollock is also shipping to South Africa to fill markets short on hake supplies.

The ripples extend to fillet markets in Germany and France, which have become strong consumers of single-frozen Marine Stewardship Council–certified pollock fillets.

Exact ex-vessel values of pollock products vary widely depending on product forms or whether the fish is processed at sea or delivered to shoreside plants. However, the value of U.S. frozen fillets shipped to Europe has been rising.

In 2007, the volume of frozen pollock fillets going to Germany climbed 3 percent from 2006, but their value in dollars per kilo increased 8 percent, according to NMFS foreign trade data. France imported 12 percent fewer frozen pollock fillets in 2007 than in 2006, but the values of those imports rose 8 percent.

Some of the increased value, Muir says, is attributed to changes in customers' preferences for pinbone-free fillets over the cheaper fillet blocks in which the pinbones remain.

As for surimi, Muir says global inventories are at an all-time low. Hake and other species caught and made into surimi at Indonesian ports are lacking.

The reduced volume going to Japan — Alaska's mainstay market for surimi — is tied to the quota reductions, but Japan's exchange rate has kept purchasing power up as supplies go short.

In June, the yen was trading at an average 106 to the dollar, up sharply from the 123 it traded at last June. This year, the Alaska industry exported 18 million kilos of surimi to Japan from January through April, which is a little behind last year's exports to Japan of 20.8 million kilos during the same period.

As summer unfolded, concerns arose as to whether the fish would concentrate in waters far to the northwest of their traditional grounds. Last year, the fleet wound up near Russian waters as they pursued schools of fish that were dense enough to defray the rising fuel costs associated with tows. But they still had to deal with the cost of running hundreds of miles farther from Dutch Harbor.

Jim Ianelli, fisheries scientist with NMFS' Alaska Fisheries Science Center in Seattle, says long-term research indicates pollock have ventured to the edges of U.S. waters before. But last year's fuel prices made it tough to turn a profit, particularly for the shore-based catcher boats delivering to Dutch Harbor.

As of mid-June, however, fish appeared to be concentrating closer to Dutch Harbor.

Quota sizes during the next several years will depend on the abundance and survival rates of young fish recruiting into the fishery. On the upside, Ianelli says, surveys last year indicated a healthy presence of young fish that could enter the fishery by 2010.

"Last year, we saw lots of 1-year-olds in the surveys," he says. "That's a positive sign." — Charlie Ess

Northeast Summer Flounder

Commercial and recreational fleets see
stock assessment as key to the future

Northeast states took extreme measures to conserve their tightening shares of summer flounder, from compressing the January winter season into a single day to imposing early summer trip limits as low as 30 pounds.

Scarcity pushed prices over $3 and as high as $5 a pound for top-grade fish. But fishermen's bottom lines are being ground down between trip limits and escalating fuel costs.

Commercial and recreational groups teamed up to fund summer flounder research, hoping to inject second opinions into a stock assessment that figures into the August calculations for a 2009 quota. As New York's fishing community reeled under a new round of cutbacks, the state's Department of Environmental Conservation sued the U.S. Department of Commerce and NMFS, seeking to overturn state-by-state limits in favor of simplified coastwide measures.

"There's no season for that species. We have a 30-pound trip limit now [in June]. New York state doesn't have any quota," says George Miller, who fishes on his 43-foot Sahara Dust out of Montauk. "You think New Jersey's got fluke? We've got fluke so thick... but you can't catch them."

New Jersey has twice as much quota as New York's 7.6 percent
share. And it was determined not to blow it on the January opening, when the East Coast markets flood with 7,500-pound trip limits and the lowest prices of the year.

By mutual assent with fishermen, the state opened its winter offshore season for one day on Jan. 6, aiming for prices around $2 to the boats. The remaining quota was saved for spring.

Long Island fishermen's specialization in high-quality flounder helps maximize the value of small catches; along with the general 30-pound trip limit, there was a 60-pound limit for commercial hook and line. Miller says the specialized small boat fleet can get around $4 a pound to the sushi and live-fish markets.

"You might get 50 cents; you might get $1" over usual Fulton prices, Miller says. "The live market is something that keeps us going. If I had to ship everything to Fulton, I wouldn't be here. Fuel is the hammer now."

Montauk captains saw their prices at the new Fulton Fish Market in the Hunts Point section of the Bronx range from $2.50 through $4 a pound with occasional pops to $5. At the end of June, New England auction prices ranged from $1.80 to $2.87, according to NMFS market reports.

"That's when the other states are closed," says Long Island captain Andy Mason. Consequently, New York fishermen get a few extra dollars for their smaller share.

But even that window was closing fast. By midyear, 535,000 pounds out of New York's 697,484-pound commercial quota had been caught, according to the state Department of Environmental Conservation.

Meanwhile, efforts by fishing groups to have flounder abundance reassessed began having an impact on the management process. In June the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council's science advisors listed the apparent northward shift of the fluke biomass as one priority research topic they would like in 2009.

"We catch fish in 30 fathoms where 10, 15 years ago we caught yellowtail [flounder]," Mason says. "I used to catch live fish out in 50 fathoms, when the quota was higher. They had to stay alive five days for the dealers, and it was no problem. They were hardy fish. I think mortality was overestimated."

A June 16 stock assessment workshop at Woods Hole included a presentation by Mark Maunder, a West Coast scientist who was hired by the Save the Summer Flounder Fishery Fund, a New Jersey–based group that has support across sectors of that state's fishing community.

Fund organizers say Maunder, an expert on population modeling, raised a number of issues that could make a real difference in the stock assessment, such as switching to gender-specific mortality rates.

"The great irony is, of all the species in the Atlantic, summer flounder is the one we know the most about... This is the best species," says Bruce Freeman, a retired New Jersey state fisheries scientist who's been watching the stock assessment process.

Seemingly modest data changes can have an impressive effect on the outcome of modeling, Freeman says. But fishermen should not expect to see big changes in the annual quota for 2009, cautions Tony Bogan of the Save the Summer Flounder Fishery Fund.

More importantly, Bogan says, fishermen may have injected new scientific thinking into the summer flounder saga.

"This is going to be a long-term research effort," Bogan says. "Some work will go on for years." — Kirk Moore

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