Gulf/South Atlantic Blue Crab

Louisiana crabbers enjoy abundance,
but drought taking toll in N. Carolina

Louisiana is back — although in truth, it never really went away.

Following a relatively modest landings dip in 2005 stemming from the disruptions of Hurricane Katrina, calendar year 2006 produced the most hard crab since 1987.

Final calendar year 2007 harvest and dollar value data won't be available for several months yet, says Vince Guillory, senior biologist and crab specialist with the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries. But landings are likely to be less than 2006's near-record 52.8 million pounds of hard crab harvested.

"2007 production is down," he says.

While the 2007 harvest may not be as good, blue crabs remain abundant, and the fishery is healthy.

"We had two outstanding years [after the 2005 storms]," he says. "The crab resource is in good shape."

Preliminary, partial-year numbers from the NMFS Southeast Regional Office support Guillory's assessment.

Through October, the Louisiana hard crab harvest stood at 32.5 million pounds worth $26.2 million, compared to 39.1 million pounds worth $29.9 million through October 2006, according to NMFS.

Less rainfall and higher salinity possibly hurt Louisiana's 2007 harvest, Guillory says, though conditions there haven't been anything like the drought-parched upper regions of Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina and most of North Carolina.

"There are other factors," Guillory says. "Crabs are very difficult to predict."

The best news in the Louisiana numbers is that overall average price has surged from 61 cents a pound in 2006 to 81 cents in 2007. If the 2007 average price stands, it would be an encouraging sign for an industry in strategic retreat before overwhelming imports.

Production in North Carolina, for several years in the 1990s the top blue crab producing state, continues to slip, according to preliminary North Carolina Division of Marine Fisheries numbers.

Calendar year 2007 hard crab landings fell to a disappointing 20.5 million pounds from 24.4 million in 2006, both far off the 65.7 million pound peak in 1995. North Carolina blue crab has been operating under a state fishery management plan since 2004. But the continued harvest decline prompts concerns regarding the health of stocks and water quality in Albemarle and Pamlico sounds.

The continuing Southeast drought has likely been a factor, too. In fact, North Carolina has been hardest hit, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor, a University of Nebraska service that blends multiple scientific, government and academic information sources to generate an overall picture of regional climatic conditions. The Drought Monitor rates the drought "exceptional" — the worst category — in most of inland North Carolina, where the rivers feeding the coastal sounds rise.

The two major crab producing areas contained by the Outer Banks, the Albemarle Sound and the huge Pamlico Sound, have flip-flopped in crab production in recent years. The majority of blue crab used to come from the Pamlico, but during the past few years the smaller Albemarle, farther to the north, has taken the lead.

Pollutant runoff following serious hurricanes and flooding in 1999 probably affected the Albemarle less, and the current drought is only considered "severe" in this northern coastal area compared with "extreme" conditions in the southern part of the state.

Crab imports have also hit North Carolina particularly hard, as crab-picking houses have closed at an alarming rate and hard crab dock prices continue to slip. As the marketing and processing apparatus disappear, the harvest decrease is likely caused, in part, by reduced effort.

While calendar year 2007 value information was not yet available from the state's marine fisheries division, prices have generally been spiraling down (to 58 cents a pound in 2006) since the last decent peak of 79 cents a pound in 2003.

Most of Florida and coastal Georgia have been spared the extreme drought that has plagued North Carolina. Georgia landings generally have been good compared to five years ago when crabbers and fishery management joined a bitter conflict over stock health and what to do about it.

"We got some [rain] on the coast," says Darien crabber David Karwacki, president of the Professional Crabbers Association of Georgia. "We've done fine this year."

Florida hard crab landings for 2007, 9.1 million pounds, according to preliminary Florida Fish and Wildlife Research Institute figures, fall below the 11 million to 12 million pound norm of the past three years. However, they are ahead of the 7.5 million to 9 million pound range of 2001-03. Average Florida prices, historically among the best in the Southeast, appear to be the best ever at $1.01, according to preliminary figures. — Hoyt Childers

Northeast Herring

Aspirin sales and bait prices to soar
 as tough year likely in fractious fishery

Area closures and spot shortages boosted bait prices in 2007 by 30 percent or more for Gulf of Maine lobstermen compared to 2006, and the industry is braced for more of the same as New England continues battling over its contentious herring fishery.

All the competitors foresee a tough year. For 2008, harvesters will see 5,000 metric tons of quota transferred from inshore Area 1A in the Gulf of Maine to Area 3 on Georges Bank, shrinking the Area 1A quota from 50,000 metric tons to 45,000.

"Sounds like they're going to squeeze us again," remarks Glenn Lawrence, who owns the Penobscot Bay–based herring carrier Double Eagle, who along with other captains and federal officials attended a March 1 herring session at the Maine Fishermen's Forum in Rockport, Maine.

"They even admitted it was kind of stupid," Lawrence says, "because they transferred out more quota and all that did was open the market to New Brunswick herring."

Indeed, Canadian fishermen caught 30,000 metric tons last year, says David Ellenton of Cape Seafoods, a Gloucester, Mass., processor of midwater-trawl-caught herring.

"It was a very difficult season for us," Ellenton says. "There wasn't a lot of success on Georges Bank" where midwater boats were forced to fish during summer inshore Area 1A closures, he says.

While more than the 4,444 metric tons harvested in Area 3 on a 50,000-ton quota in 2006, only 11,236 metric tons were landed on a 2007 quota of 55,000 tons. Area 1A landings, meanwhile, dipped from 59,980 metric tons on a quota of 60,000 tons in 2006 to 49,992 metric tons on a quota of 50,000 tons in 2007.

Prices were "13 cents to most boats, so they were up a little bit," Ellenton adds, "but they didn't keep up with the fuel increases, by any means."

Under pressure from critics of the midwater trawl fleet, the New England Fishery Management Council and NMFS pushed those boats out of Area 1A from June through September to leave more herring for tuna, whales and Maine's older purse seine fleet.

Some midwater participants, like the O'Hara boats in Maine, re-rigged to stay in 1A as purse seiners. Then the spawning area closures started. With the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission demanding a zero-tolerance for take of spawn herring, purse seiners were forced out of the usual spots, and weren't happy about it.

The resulting uptick in prices to herring boats was magnified by area shortages at the lobstermen's retail end.

Some ports with access to locally caught herring saw weeks of lobster bait priced at $16 to $18 a bushel. In other coastal areas, it shot to $24 or $26, according to a weekly survey the Maine Lobstermen's Association started last year in response to concerns over the herring situation.

"The supply was pretty good, but the price was through the roof,'' says Patrice McCarron, the association's executive director. "Fuel went up by about 15 percent, but at the same time, b
ait has gone up around 30 percent, according to the reports we get."

The association's reports are only snapshot samples of weekly market conditions. But they clearly show those 2006 days, when bait cost a seemingly expensive $15 a bushel, are a receding memory.

Massachusetts' North Shore reported a high end of $42 a bushel for frozen herring in late August, when spawning closures ended access to fresh supplies. After spiking up around $28 a bushel on the lobster docks, the bait market staked out a new plateau through the rest of 2007 between $18 and $26 a bushel.

Substitutions included pogies, many shipped all the way from Cape May, N.J., where menhaden are called bunker. Those sold for $20 to $26 a bushel in August and September amid uncertainty over the Area 1A closure's effects. Some lobstermen reported scoring fresh herring from contacts in the dragger fleet. Redfish hit $40 a bushel in Stonington, Maine, in late October when few herring were available.

"My price, because I go right to the islands, was $20 a bushel" last summer, Lawrence says. "I have no idea what's going to happen... There's only so much to go around. It's a race for the fish, and it's going to be a race for the dollar now."

Outlines of the 2008 season will be set this spring in meetings to decide days out from the fishing effort, a process that helps determine who gets to catch herring and when in Area 1A over the course of the year. — Kirk Moore

North Pacific P-Cod

Global whitefish shortage is expected
to keep prices, production high in '08

The Pacific cod harvest volumes and ex-vessel prices went for a fantastic ride last year, and given the global shortage of whitefish, the trend should continue through 2008.

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game manages the parallel state and federal fishery in the Gulf of Alaska beyond three miles offshore from Jan. 1 to Jan. 20 and the state's cod fishery, which is conducted inside of three miles during the remainder of the year. According to Fish and Game data, the fleet put in 36 million pounds in 2007. That's a 16.1 percent gain over the 31 million pounds the fleet caught in 2006 and a 28.5 percent gain over the 28 million pounds landed in 2005.

Sparking much of the volume increase is a sharp rise in ex-vessel prices.

The average ex-vessel price for P-cod began ascending from the 26 cents per pound seen in 2004 to 29 cents in 2005, according to Fish and Game data. In 2006, the dockside price jumped to 36 cents, then up to 44 cents per pound last year for a total gain of nearly 52 percent in value since 2005.

The combination of rising ex-vessel prices and higher harvest volumes pushed last year's ex-vessel revenues to $16 million, nearly doubling 2005's revenues of $8.2 million.

That was last year. This year during the 2008 A season, which began on Jan. 1, ex-vessel offers in ports rimming the Gulf of Alaska started out at more than 60 cents per pound. And there were reports of 63 cents for some deliveries by the A season's Jan. 20 closure.

Less than favorable weather during the A season kept harvest volumes down, which didn't hurt prices either.

"The weather was a big factor," says Charlie Trowbridge, a groundfish management biologist with Fish and Game, in Homer. "The fishing was fairly slow during the parallel season."

But even after the weather settles down and the harvest pace picks up, ex-vessel offerings should remain strong in light of quota reductions for Bering Sea pollock, a substitute species for cod in many whitefish markets. The total allowable catch limits for the 2008 and 2009 Bering Sea pollock have been set at 1 million metric tons. That's a 28 percent reduction from last year's 1.39 million metric ton limit.

All of the above spells good news for the industry. But increased demand for the cod has translated to increased emphasis on the management of the fishery. The North Pacific Fishery Management Council is mulling ways to leave less uncaught quota in the Gulf of Alaska.

In the western and central Gulf of Alaska management areas, leftover quotas totaled more than 2.3 million pounds in 2004, jumped to 12.7 million pounds in 2005, then nearly doubled to 23.7 million pounds in 2006, according to a December 2007 discussion paper in which the council outlines options in allocating fish among the various gear sectors.

"There's a lot of uncaught quota in both the federal and the state waters," says Jeannie Heltzel, a fisheries analyst with the North Pacific council, in Anchorage.

Heltzel explains that fishermen plying Gulf of Alaska waters with pots, longline gear and trawls take nearly all of the A season quota, in which 60 percent of the year's total allowable catch is allocated.

The remaining 40 percent of the quota is available to all gear types when the B season opens on Sept 1. Boats working fixed gear can fish until Dec. 31, while the trawl season closes on Nov. 1.

Though the ex-vessel prices are high and the B season stretches over a significant portion of the year, Heltzel says the cod aren't concentrated enough to justify prospecting for dense schools, given high fuel costs.

"They just can't find enough cod," Heltzel says. "I guess if they knew what was going on there, it would be the silver bullet."

In the meantime, the 2008 quota for the Bering Sea will remain unchanged from 2007 at 170,720 metric tons. And it will be the same again in 2009, according to groundfish harvest recommendations from the North Pacific council.

Gulf of Alaska quotas, meanwhile, have declined slightly from the 2007 total allowable catch of 52,264 metric tons to this year's 50,269 metric tons. The gulf quota reduction comes in response to the increased harvest volumes in the state-managed parallel cod fisheries. — Charlie Ess

Pacific Sardines

Harvest limit drops despite evidence of fleet eyes; more research called for

The sardine fishery's northern and southern sectors are finding some common ground. A sort of equilibrium has settled most issues and the sectors are working together to obtain better scientific evidence to better manage the fishery.

And it comes at a time that could make a huge difference to many northern processors. The 2008 harvest guideline is one of the lowest recorded: 80,083 metric tons coastwide. It's roughly half that set for years past. In 2007, the guideline was 152,564 metric tons.

However, the guideline is more in line with historical catches. The coastwide total harvest was highest in 2002 when 96,897 metric tons were landed. Last year, though, excellent California fishing boosted the coastwide catch to more than 127,735 metric tons, according to Pacific States Marine Fisheries Commission data.

Southern sector fishermen are accustomed to catching the smaller 80- to 125-gram sardines that primarily go to Australia tuna ranch operations and canneries. That hasn't changed much over the years. Bigger sardines are few and far between in California.

But in the north, fishermen and processors have seen what was once a dominant 175- to 200-gram-per-fish fishery give way to the smaller fish that is the southern fleet's staple. Finding new markets means testing new waters and using new strategies.

"At the same time, there are markets in the world looking for a few more sardines," says Mike Okoniewski, the squid and sardines category manager for Pacific Seafood in Woodland, Wash. "About 2004, they basically started moving away and we had to find other places to take sardines."

Diane Pleschner-Steele, executive director of the California Wetfish Producers Association, says southern processors see sim
ilar market trends.

"Some of the areas of the world are finding less sardine," she says, noting Morocco and Africa are areas where fewer fish have shown up.

Instead of targeting different markets, both fleets now face nearly identical market issues.

"The Pacific Northwest [fishermen] have found our canning fish," Pleschner-Steele says. "We're working in pretty much the same markets."

More sardines are heading for tuna pen aquaculture markets, primarily in Australia. There was a 42 percent rise in exports to Australia tuna pen operations in 2006, while exports to Japan featuring the bigger fish (mostly for bait, some for human consumption) dropped by 32 percent that same year. California fishermen still have the corner on the live bait market — a hugely valuable market to the fleet.

Pacific Northwest fishermen again found catches spotty in the 2007 season. As happened in 2006, last year's fish didn't show up very well, Okoniewski says.

In 2006, for the first time in the previous five years, northern fishermen caught fewer fish than did California harvesters: 35,665 metric tons versus California's record 51,029 metric ton catch. The trend continued in 2007. California fishermen's take of more than 80,000 metric tons almost doubled the 46,000 metric tons Pacific Northwest fishermen caught.

San Pedro–area fishermen found 120-gram fish that went into 10-kilogram packs headed for Japan. Typically, fishing slows down in the summer in Monterey, but it didn't last year. There was lots of fish — and bigger fish, she adds.

"Our fishing was really good last year," Pleschner-Steele says. "It was a very unusual year."

California fishermen received about $80 to $100 a ton for their fish in 2007, Pleschner-Steele says, as price varied according to fish size. Sardine ex-vessel prices have been stable through the years, averaging 5 cents a pound coastwide for the last four or five years.

Coastwide, fleets are concerned about the huge drop in this year's harvest guideline. Will it keep dropping? Is this year just an anomaly?

Scientists reported in the latest sardine stock assessment that egg deposition is down. That played a part in the drastic 2008 harvest guideline reduction.

But the cut, Pleschner-Steele says, runs contrary to what fishermen see in the ocean — an abundance of fish.

Both Pacific Northwest and California fleets are working with the NMFS northwest and southwest science centers to strengthen the science. They're trying to incorporate aerial surveys into the stock assessment.

"We think if the research base is expanded," Okoniewski says, "there may be five times as much or more [abundance] as using the egg proxy."

So far, nobody really knows, he says.

Northern processors anticipate a good season nonetheless. So does the California fleet.

"There is a rise in demand from aquaculture and the canning industry," Okoniewski says. "In general, the market is up. We're seeing a little bit more of an increase in demand." — Susan Chambers

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