Gulf/South Atlantic Red Snapper

IFQ's first year raises ex-vessel prices, 
but quota cut leaves room for imports

At the end of the first year of a new individual fishing quota program, the outlook for the Gulf of Mexico red snapper fishery is mixed. Ex-vessel prices are rising — as expected — according to federal and Florida state data. But NMFS is proposing to cut the total allowable catch, already down to 6.5 million pounds under an interim management rule, to 5 million pounds.

At issue is whether the 2005 red snapper management plan had a reasonable chance of meeting federal rebuilding targets in the specified time. A federal district court judge agreed with the Coastal Conservation Association — which initiated a lawsuit challenging the plan — that it did not.

NMFS, anticipating final approval of a management plan amendment that will cut the TAC to 5 million pounds, is dropping the 2008 commercial quota from 3.315 million pounds to 2.55 million pounds to avoid having to take back IFQ share allocations later.

The cuts will hurt fishermen, consumers and fish houses alike, at least in the short run. Consequently, imports will once again gain market share.

Already in the first eight months of 2007, the dollar value of snapper imports (all varieties) had increased to $59.7 million from $48.1 million for the same period in 2006.

On the domestic side, ex-vessel red snapper prices in Florida increased from $3.09 per pound, on average, in 2006 to $3.75 into September in 2007, according to preliminary Florida Fish and Wildlife Research Institute data. Gulfwide, preliminary NMFS data indicates the average May-July price was also up to $3.66 in 2007 from $3.58 in 2006.

Panama City, Fla., fisherman Greg Abrams is one stakeholder who doesn't believe the extreme cuts are justified.

"Snapper is not going down," says Abrams, who fishes a small fleet of longline-bandit boats and owns Greg Abrams Seafood. "There's no need to cut the TAC."

Pensacola, Fla., fisherman Donald Waters also says red snapper is rebounding.

"The snapper is coming back quick," he says. "There's a good sign of fish."

In late October, Waters, a Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council IFQ advisory panel member, was still harboring hope that the TAC might not be slashed.

"There is a little bit of talk in Congress of changing that 10-year rebuilding plan, backing off of that so we could have some decent quotas," he says.

If the TAC is cut, it would hobble fishermen just when they feel they have a real chance to make it work under the IFQ.

"They're making progress, yet they turn around and start cutting [the TAC]," Waters says. "I don't think what the IFQ has done [to improve stocks] was counted in the model."

Waters is among the fishermen who continue to question the scientific basis for the cuts.

"I think fish stocks are better off than what science says," he says. "I think we could go to a higher quota and still be rebuilt in 10 years."

Another critical issue for the market's long-term health is the fate of the shoreside infrastructure and marketing apparatus.

The quota cuts are beginning to make it more difficult to pay his bills — like electricity and property taxes — says Abrams, who recently built a new 10,000-square-foot fish house.

"The volume is going down" under the IFQ, he says. "NMFS is not including the fish house in how many fish they are allotting. A lot of people will end up going out of business."

Abrams also voiced a frustration common to fishermen, that NMFS doesn't treat the commercial sector equitably. While the commercial harvest is subject to strict quotas and a highly quantified trip-ticket monitoring system, the recreational harvest, while theoretically subject to a quota, too, (49 percent of the TAC), is still estimated rather than actually counted.

"NMFS will not make the recreational side count their fish," he says. "NMFS will not enforce it because they don't want to know the true number."

But some environmental advocacy groups that have long focused on commercial fisheries are beginning to scrutinize accountability issues for the recreational sector.

Environmental Defense, which made common cause with commercial fishermen to establish the red snapper IFQ, is researching new ideas for managing the recreational harvest, says Pam Baker, a Texas-based regional director for Environmental Defense who has served on the gulf council's IFQ advisory panels.

Among those ideas are harvest tags for recreational red snapper and an IFQ system for the for-hire charter boat segment.

"We're trying to put some ideas on the table," Baker says. "We've had some good luck in talking with some individuals in the recreational sector." — Hoyt Childers

North Pacific Geoduck

Supply may outstrip ability of market
to move clams, with depressing results

Too much of a good thing — landing more product into Asian live markets — could crimp ex-vessel values for Southeast Alaska geoducks throughout the 2007-08 dive season and beyond.

In the past couple of years, the dive industry has enjoyed huge successes in testing the clams for paralytic shellfish poison, aka PSP, before conducting the commercial harvest. That means nearly all product has been making its way to live markets in Asia.

Divers gather geoduck samples before the commercial opening instead of harvesting first then sending lot samples of their catch to the labs to determine toxin levels in the harvest areas. The testing procedure has evolved to coordinating the collection of samples from potential clam beds so they wind up in the labs for PSP testing on Mondays.

Divers and management biologists can have the results back from the lab by Tuesday. The industry designates Wednesday as a travel day, and the fleet dives on Thursdays.

Harvesters' ability to send more of the giant clams to live markets has established a steady supply, which has been the key to higher ex-vessel prices. In years past, divers kept their clams live by lots and sent samples to the test lab. Dead loss in the time it took to determine if PSP concentrations in the lots were safe warranted processing the dead clams and selling them fresh.

Since the testing program refinements were made and more geoducks started being shipped live into Asia, ex-vessel prices climbed from $1.69 per pound in the 2002-03 season to a high of $3.95 per pound in 2004-05. More recently, prices have hovered at around $3.15 per pound, according to Alaska Department of Fish and Game data.

Zac Hoyt, a geoduck research biologist with fish and game in Petersburg, cautions that those prices are gathered from numbers posted on fish tickets at the time of delivery. They don't include bonuses, post-season adjustments or other advances divers might receive later in the year, he says.

The industry has triumphed in establishing the testing protocol and in solving shipping logistics. Some of the geoducks head south for West Coast connections while others are put on northbound jets to Anchorage. But those triumphs have presented the divers with a new set of problems.

"Until this year, we were seeing the market able to handle the volume of product from Alaska," Hoyt says. Alaska production, he adds, pales in comparison to geoduck volumes coming out of Washington and British Columbia dive fisheries.

"We have the smallest of three fisheries along the West Coast," he says.

Given landings upward of 50,000 pounds per week in the Alaska fishery and a plethora of product available from Canada and Washington, ex-vessel prices have plummeted.

"We're looking at around $2.30 per pound right now," Hoyt says. "That's questionable whether it pays to even go out and harvest the clams."

What's worse, Alaska's production volume holds potential for even more growth. Geoduck harvest volumes have fluctuated from year to year, but began an overall climb from around 377,000 pounds in the 2003-04 season to more than 737,000 pounds in 2006-07.

This year's guideline harvest, set by fish and game, is set at 590,500 pounds. The total includes the addition of 73,000 pounds, which would be taken in two new d
ive areas that have been established near Ketchikan and nearby Prince of Wales Island.

Industry funded reconnaissance of future beds has identified yet more of the big clams for harvest. According to Phil Doherty, executive director of the Southeast Alaska Regional Dive Fisheries Association, annual harvest potential could approximate 700,000 pounds.

"I think that you're going to see the quota in Southeast go up as we start to identify the vast amount of commercially viable beds," Doherty says.

Unfortunately for the industry, the additional poundage won't compensate for lower ex-vessel prices. If divers take the entire 2007-08 guideline harvest this season at the early season dock prices of $2.30 per pound, projected revenues of around $1.4 million would pencil out to about 40 percent less than the $2.3 million earned in 2006-07.

As an additional damper to revenues per diver, Doherty adds that effort for geoducks would likely increase with the pending closure of the sea cucumber dive fishery sometime after Thanksgiving. Sea cucumbers at the time were plentiful and netting divers ex-vessel prices of more than $2 per pound — a price that lured away about 20 of the 70 possible geoduck divers. — Charlie Ess

Pacific Petrale Sole

Balancing act needed to maintain pace of profits in a fishery of many factors

The harvest pace of the petrale sole fishery in the early season — often predicated by time and area restrictions inside conservation zones where the sole mix with rockfish species — and the availability of substitute species in the retail chain will drive market conditions for the West Coast trawl fishery in 2008.

If in-season trip limits and areas open to trawling for petrale sole inside of rockfish conservation areas remain liberal for January and February, and the fleet delivers large volumes, it could find itself reliving last year's problems.

The combination of heavy fishing effort and trip limits of 30,000 pounds of petrale sole per trawler per month in early 2007 spurred a product glut that flooded markets and dropped dockside offers from around $1.05 per pound down to 65 cents.

The fleet reacted by tying up their boats and striking for higher prices, according to Rod Moore, executive director of the West Coast Seafood Processors Association.

"The effort level and the amount of petrale coming in at the beginning of the year was way high," Moore says. "In some ways it precipitated the trawl strike that went on [in 2007]."

Moore adds when the fleet tied up back in March, the strike lasted long enough to dry up petrale supplies throughout the market distribution chain.

"The strike lasted so long," Moore says, "that it actually caused the problem of getting flatfish back into the market."

Whitefish sales campaigns were in full swing when retailers began feeling the petrale shortage. Petrale sole's absence left retailers looking for substitute species.

"They went looking," Moore says. "And what did they find? Tilapia."

When fishing effort resumed, and petrale began funneling back into the markets, suppliers at the retail level had to re-establish demand among customers. And that meant reducing prices at the fish counter — a tactic that doesn't typically bode well for the fleet.

"Processors had to drop the price to the boats so that they could get back into the market," Moore says.

Though ex-vessel price gyrations varied among processors and West Coast ports of delivery, the ex-vessel price average of 94 cents per pound for 2007 ended up shy of the 2006 average of $1 per pound, according to Pacific Coast Fisheries Information Network data. The 2006 season average ex-vessel price, however, was up from 2005, when the fleet saw only 91 cents.

In some cases, ex-vessel prices can drop significantly lower than the averages that PacFIN posts, according to Pete Leipzig, executive director of the Fishermen's Marketing Association, in Eureka, Calif.

Leipzig says some trawlers fishing south of Coos Bay, Ore., received in the neighborhood of 65 cents per pound.

"It's the nicest flatfish we have," Leipzig says. "We want to sell it into white tablecloth restaurants. Certainly, tilapia are out there, but I would think that our fish are far superior."

As for the time and area closures, trawlers must contend with rockfish conservation area boundaries to protect a half dozen rockfish species. The relative size of the area closures has varied over the past few years.

And as many in the industry will say, managing petrale as a target species and limiting the bycatch of rockfish is no easy feat.

"We've been struggling with how to balance all of this stuff," Moore says. "How do you keep the guys alive and not go over the limits?"

A recent Pacific Fishery Management Council decision reduced the boundaries to between 75 and 200 fathoms for November and December of '07. Trawlers could fish between 75 to 250 fathoms during the same period in 2006.

Softening the blow somewhat, however, is a trip limit increase for petrale trawlers from 20,000 pounds of petrale in September and October '07 to 40,000 pounds in November and December. Then again, trawlers could catch 70,000 pounds during November and December in '06.

Trips limits help managers both limit the catch of target species like petrale and control bycatch of co-occurring overfished rockfish species. In 2005, a lack of petrale catch limits early in the fishing year resulted in an overzealous petrale harvest pace. Consequently, the season had to be curtailed early, according to Yvonne deReynier, groundfish branch chief for NMFS' northwest office.

The Pacific council was expected to establish time and area restrictions for the petrale fishery for January and February of 2008 during its meeting slated to be held the first week in November '07.

"My hope," deReynier says, "is that the council will look to start 2008 off in a more conservative fashion than 2007 as a precautionary measure against having to react with strong restrictions later in the year." — Charlie Ess

Northeast Lobster

Right whale gear rules, bait prices emphasize need for a strong market

In April 2007 those who could find lobsters scarcely believed their luck, with prices around $10 a pound. By Halloween the price was half that, and some blamed lower consumer demand on those high spring prices.

With little lobster in the market, New Jersey fishermen who set their pots early said they were astonished at spring prices of $9 to $10 a pound when hard-shell bugs were in short supply. In New England prices hit $12 a pound.

By late summer a soft-shell glut dropped prices to around $4 a pound. Some Maine fishermen tied up in early August to protest the low prices.

Two months later, prices weren't much different. In early November the Boston market's high price for hard shells was $4.75 and soft shells were averaging $3.50.

"The frustration people feel is the catch on an area by area basis has been down, and the prices should be going up," says Patrice McCarron, executive director of the Maine Lobstermen's Association. "Expenses are up and productivity is down."

"Those $10, $11, $12 prices just ruined the industry. It was the worst thing that could happen to the industry," adds Peter McAleney of New Meadows Lobster Co. in Portland, Maine, and president of the Maine Lobster Dealers' Association. "It turned the consumer off. Mother's Day is traditionally the start of our lobster season, but Mother didn't want a $10, $12 lobster."

Restaurants kept buying lobsters because of menu commitments, but that spr
ingtime sticker shock reverberated through the year, McAleney says.

"Now even some of the top-end restaurants are converting because they have to print up their new menus," he says. "Some are going to king crab. It's frozen, but it's popular now because of the 'Deadliest Catch' show on television."

Then lobstermen learned Oct. 1 they must re-rig traps with sinking groundline under a new federal rule to reduce entanglements with endangered right whales. It will cost inshore lobstermen an average $12,000 for the initial conversion.

Offshore lobstermen will pay even more. It could cost big boats $45,000 to $95,000 to switch, says Bonnie Spinazzola, executive director of the Atlantic Offshore Lobstermen's Association in Bedford, N.H.

"It's huge. Frankly it's mind-boggling. It doesn't figure into anyone's business plans," Spinazzola says. "We don't disagree that it needs to be done. We do disagree that it needs to be done in one year."

Offshore lobster captains have been experimenting with various kinds of sinking lines. Abrasion and wear has been the biggest problem in tests. Even the most expensive line lobstermen have tried — at twice the usual price — only holds up for two years, whereas conventional gear lasts six years, Spinazzola says. According to the Maine Lobstermen's Association, replacing lost rope and gear could cost Maine lobstermen another $23,000 annually.

Meanwhile, manufacturers and suppliers say they may not be able to provide enough rope to everyone if there's a one-year changeover, Spinazzola adds. The offshore group is trying to organize a "gear summit" to bring all the players together "and talk about reality," which should include some kind of aid from Congress and environmental groups to make conversion feasible, she says.

Bait price and availability was a big uncertainty in 2007, thanks to herring trawl restrictions in inshore Area 1A and a new zero-tolerance rule for taking spawners in purse seine nets.

Bait was more expensive. But the herring shortages that some fishermen and dealers anticipated didn't happen. However, bait dealers like Glenn Hall of Superior Bait and Salt in Tenants Harbor, Maine, say they came close with the spawning closures.

Purse seiners say herring was plentiful inshore, but with the closure lobstermen relied on a combination of frozen and stored herring and Canadian bait.

"Most of my captains had bait in storage," Hall says. "We sold a lot of bait to customers who had coolers and put a lot away, because we had this problem last year." With bait at $100 a barrel in late October, some lobstermen were turning to pogies shipped from Cape May, N.J.

The fall season started slowly but "the new shell is firming up now," McAleney said in early November. But consumers' pullback from lobster still depressed demand going into the holidays, he says.

Maine's lobster stock remains robust; the 2006 catch of 72 million pounds was nearly three times the historic average, McCarron says. Still, planning is needed.

"Prices are flat, productivity is down and costs are going through the roof," she says. "Business as usual is not going to help people moving forward." — Kirk Moore

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