Alaska & Pacific Whiting

Two strong year classes bump TAC; U.S. fleet maintains bulk of the quota

Demand in domestic and export markets remained strong as the West Coast whiting fleet started fishing in May on its share of the 2013 total allowable catch of 269,745 metric tons. The TAC is up sharply from last year's 186,935 metric tons but shy of 2011's 290,903 metric tons.

Driving the TAC increase is the strong presence of age classes from 2008 and 2010. Estimates tucked within the Pacific Fishery Management Council's voluminous stock assessment peg the number of 4-year-old 2008 fish at around 1.58 billion along with the 2-year-old 2010 fish at 7.5 billion. That's a vast improvement from numbers researchers saw in the 2011 survey, which spurred the lower 2012 TAC.
"The 2010 age class rivals the 1980 year class, which was the largest in 30 years," says John DeVore, a groundfish staff officer with the Pacific council in Portland, Ore. The 2008 fish will be larger and of perfect size for the industry's fillet machines.

"This year," DeVore says, "they'll be targeting the 2008 year class, big time."

Less happy about the higher TAC is Canada's whiting contingent. Larger fish tend to swim farther north, and prevalent theory holds that a lower TAC would enable more plump 4-year-olds to make it into Canadian waters.

According to NMFS, the U.S. fleet harvests around 74 percent of the TAC, with the remainder going to the Canadian industry. In the past two years the TAC-setting process has switched from Pacific council jurisdiction to an international panel of scientists, industry representatives and agency heads of NMFS and Canada's Department of Fisheries and Oceans.

The U.S. commercial fleet's share of the 2013 TAC, minus allotments for tribal catch, bycatch and research, is 204,040 metric tons, up from the 2012 guideline harvest level of 135,481 metric tons.
How will the extra harvest volume affect market demand?

"Time will tell," says Pete Leipzig, executive director of the Fishermen's Marketing Association in McKinleyville, Calif. But the market has been pretty strong in recent years for whiting."

He adds that as ex-vessel prices have crept upward, demand has remained strong. Trawlers saw a dime a pound for their whiting in 2011, and the average price jumped to 14 cents last year.

So far this year the fish have been fetching 11 cents, which is a relatively healthy offering compared to the 7 cents the fleet received in 2010 and the 6 cents of 2009.

"It's still cheap by any other standards," says Leipzig in the context of whitefish fillet markets worldwide. "A lot of it has been going domestically to the southeastern United States, or exported to Africa."

Last year's catch brought in ex-vessel revenues totaling $20.7 million while the 2011 catch came in at $23.7 million, according to Pacific Fisheries Information Network data. The 2010 harvest, meanwhile, generated revenues of around $9.9 million, a sizeable increase from the 2009 total of $6.3 million.

Most of the exported whiting goes out as frozen fillets. This year's season wasn't yet in full swing at the end May, hence only about 4.7 million kilos of all product forms graces the NMFS foreign trade database's export tables.

But the database shows 2012 exports totaled 44.02 million kilos worth $106.91 million. That's down on the volume and value fronts from 2011's 63.81 million kilos valued at $125.67 million, but slightly higher than 2010.

Ukraine, which claimed more than 17 million kilos of frozen product in 2011 and 14.41 million in 2012, has been the top trading partner the past few years. Exports to the Netherlands rose from 1.64 million kilos in 2011 to 6.48 million in 2012. Russia is third, taking 5.2 million kilos in 2012 versus 6.77 million in 2011. — Charlie Ess

Atlantic Summer Flounder

N.C. fleet, fish houses hope dredging of Oregon Inlet ends rough passage

With nearly $9 million in federal funds set aside for Army Corps of Engineers dredging at Oregon Inlet in 2013, there is some hope — after two seasons of near economic disaster for North Carolina's summer flounder fishery — that this important commercial channel will be open when the fishery reopens this fall.

But even if larger fishing vessels can navigate the channel, it will be too late for the 2013 season. Because the blocked channel forced North Carolina vessels to land their fish in Virginia, or even farther north during the first three months of 2013, most of the state's quota has already been transferred to other states.

As of April 29, North Carolina — which at 27 percent receives the largest portion of the state-by-state summer flounder allocation — still retained only 422,360 pounds of its original 3.13 million pound commercial quota.

While these allocation transfers have thrown the North Carolina fishery, historically the most productive, into disarray, they've benefited fishermen, dealers and markets in Rhode Island, New Jersey and especially Virginia. As of April 29, Virginia — with 5.04 million pounds — possessed the largest share of the revised 2013 quotas, more than double its initial allocation.

At the average 2012 North Carolina ex-vessel price of $2.72 a pound, the transfer to Virginia would represent a $7.65 million market loss for North Carolina and a similar increase for Virginia's industry, though prices there tend to run lower.

These quota transfers allow larger, oceangoing vessels that fish out of sound-side Outer Banks North Carolina ports to sell their catch in Virginia or other states when they can't make their home ports. But smaller vessels and those with home ports farther south are out of quota and out of luck.

Further complicating the fishery's logistics, the distribution and migration of summer flounder populations are shifting north, partly because of dramatically higher sea surface temperatures, according to an April 25 Northeast Fisheries Science Center Ecosystem Advisory.

This shift could be benefit Northeast fishermen — as shorter trips should mean reduced fuel and crew costs. But not so for the North Carolina fleet, which must make longer trips now whether they sell in state or in Virginia.

As for the overall Northeastern market, demand is holding or increasing. Spring 2013 prices paid at New England dealer auctions for various fresh flounders generally were up across the board, compared to a similar period in 2012, according to NMFS data.

Tony Frost, president of Homer Smith Seafood, in Beaufort, which is not dependent on Oregon Inlet, was upset about the transfers even before the latest round ensued.

"They've taken everything away and given it to dealers in Virginia," Frost says. "They've taken it all away."

Larger North Carolina fish houses that depend heavily on summer flounder — such as Moon Tillet Fish Co., Wanchese Fish Co., or Willie R. Etheridge Seafood, all with operations in Wanchese on Roanoke Island — are suffering.

"We've had a tough winter because our inlet is so screwed up," says Steve George of Etheridge Seafood. "It's just a disaster. I've only known of one boat to come into here to Wanchese" through Oregon Inlet during the past season.

Some of the larger Wanchese vessels have made the 60-mile trip farther south to Hatteras Inlet to keep the fish houses supplied. But doing so adds a lot of time and expense to the trip.

"[They have] been going down to Pamlico Sound to come in, and we appreciate that," George says. "It takes them an extra day or two to get out."

North Carolina calendar year 2012 summer flounder landings, at 1.08 million pounds, according to preliminary North Carolina Division of Marine Fisheries numbers, were less than half the 2.85 million pounds of 2011. Not surprisingly, ex-vessel price increased sharply, from $2.15 in 2011 to $2.72 in 2012. — Hoyt Childers

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