Gulf/South Atlantic Stone Crab

Slow economic recovery will dampen U.S. demand for tasty but pricey claws

Florida stone crab claws — at $35 or so a plate and clearly a luxury item — are sold domestically and dependent on tourism dollars. Consequently, the economic troubles of the past year are hitting the fishery hard.

All the market variables went the wrong way in late 2008 and early 2009, and the ex-vessel price for stone crab nose-dived as demand disappeared.

By early summer, optimistic economic forecasters had begun to suggest that the worst of the world recession might be in the past, that recovery had in fact begun. Others, including London's The Economist, were more conservative.

"Recent indicators suggest that the collapse in economic activity is coming to an end but hopes of a rapid recovery are misguided, as it will take time to absorb imbalances built up during the earlier boom," The Economist reported in its June forecast.

Three seasons ago (2006-07), stone crab sold ex-vessel for $9.56 per pound, on average, according to figures from Florida's Fish and Wildlife Research Institute. Preliminary, incomplete numbers for the 2008-09 season indicate an average price of $5.71. Fish houses limited buying days because the market had dried up, and some fishermen simply stopped setting their trap lines.

"There was a lot of fishermen that did not put traps out because of low prices and two-day limits per week," reports Marathon fisherman Pete Worthington. There was "no market to sell the crabs. I never sold one pound of crabs this past season with the price what it was."

You have to go back 15 years, to 1994, when claws sold for $5.57 per pound, to find a lower annual average ex-vessel price. With data for the final two months of the 2008-09 season not yet available, it's not possible to draw meaningful conclusions about landings season-on-season. But the available 2008 numbers may give a clue.

From calendar year 2007 to calendar year 2008, the number of stone crab trips decreased from 24,082 to 17,878, a 26 percent drop in effort. That is the lowest number of trips since the state of Florida began the trip ticket system in 1986, when fishermen made 18,790 trips.

For January-February, the two months of 2009 for which harvest numbers are available, fishermen landed 464,185 pounds of claws worth $2.77 million compared to 728,678 pounds worth $5.01 million during January-February 2008. These numbers represent a 36 percent reduction in pounds harvested and a 45 percent reduction in value.

"It was one of those years," says Marathon-area fisherman Tony Iarocci.

As the Oct. 15 stone crab opening approaches, fishermen who depend on the fishery have hope, their own determination to survive and not much else for comfort.

"The guys are struggling," says Key Largo fisherman Ernie Piton. "We're hoping for a decent year."

Fortunately, fuel prices remain a component of scarce good news in the keys.

"Last I got was $1.70," Piton said in late May. "Right now I hear it's up around $2."

That price is worlds better than the July 2008 Florida Keys marine diesel price of $4.60-$4.72. As of early June, the U.S. Energy Information Administration was predicting on-road diesel would sell for $2.67 a gallon, on average, in the United States during 2010. If this prediction proves accurate, off-road diesel, minus federal and state taxes — about 30 cents a gallon in Florida — should remain somewhere near the current range.

The other good news is there is plenty of stone crab, if only the fishermen could afford to go get them.

It is probably worth noting once again, during times of economic hardship and heightened public environmental awareness, that Florida stone crab is a renewable resource. It's unique in that it is renewable not just on the species level but potentially for the individual animal, as well. Only the claws of the stone crab are taken, and the animal is returned to the ocean to regenerate.

Usually, only the larger of the two claws is removed, though both may be taken in Florida if they are of legal size (2 3/4 inches). Leaving the smaller claw gives the animal a much better chance of surviving than if both claws are taken. Claws are not harvested from egg-bearing females.

For those to whom such advocacy tags are meaningful, the Environmental Defense Fund calls Florida stone crab an "eco-best fish, safe for the environment — enjoy often!"

If only the tourists would come back and take that admonition to heart. — Hoyt Childers


Chesapeake, Delaware watermen put faith in shellfish restoration projects

With this year's decision to finally reject planting Asian oysters in Chesapeake Bay, the industry is wedded, for better or worse, to restoring historic beds and breeding more disease-resistant shellfish.

More than five years of study ended in April when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Virginia and Maryland agreed to go forgo widespread introduction of Crassostrea ariakensis. Some oyster growers and packers hoped the dinner-plate-sized bivalve could be a viable replacement for native oysters.

In the bay's farther corners oyster harvesters hang on, but the depressed national economy isn't helping.

"The past four or five years we've had a real good season right around here in Tangier Sound. In other parts of the bay the water is so polluted the oysters won't spawn," says Bill Clayton of Smith Island. Last winter, he says, "they started out pretty high, but with the economy the prices went down and we were getting $22 a bushel."

Limitations of hatchery seeding and available shell supply mean the states and watermen must look toward enormous changes in the bay's oystering culture, Larry Simns, president of the Maryland Watermen's Association, wrote in the group's July newsletter.

"If you want to stay in the oyster business you need to form co-ops with other watermen, and we need to keep figuring out how to stay involved to get a big part of it, or we'll be left out," Simns warned. The industry needs permits and money to mine shell for restoring beds, he says.

A Calvert County Watermen's Association project to lease 14 acres is getting a lot of attention, says President Tom Zinn. The association is cleaning up beds covered in sediment and reusing the shell resource. Since 2008 Calvert watermen have worked with Morgan State University using a $470,000 grant to try "remote setting" of oyster seed on shell before planting it the beds.

"We'll start harvesting some of that as early as this fall," Zinn says.

"Success is directly dependent on the amount of shell," stresses Eric Powell, a Rutgers University scientist who has worked on restoring Delaware Bay beds with surf clam shells to raise their elevation. "Getting carbonate [calcium shell] into the bay is the number-one thing you can do."

The reshelling program has been meeting its goal of emplacing at least 500,000 bushels of shell a year. Unfortunately, the economic crisis spurred funding cuts that allowed only emplacing 250,000 bushels this year, Powell says. Still, the results are good.

"The 2009 quota is going to be marginally less than 2007, but will still be above the average since dermo got into the bay around 1990."

Waterman Ken Bailey of Heislerville, N.J., says the full effect of bed restoration will take some more time to come through. In the meantime, he says, "the market has been really good the last few years. This year we had around $41 [a bushel] which was down $2, but which is not too bad considering the state of the economy."

Delaware Bay watermen have timed their season to finish before the Chesapeake's starts; that gains them a price advantage, Bailey says. This summer, Delaware Bay harvesters earned $37 to $41 a bushel.

And by late July, the bay wasn't showing signs of vibrio bacteria, a problem that has occurred given warmer water temperatures in recent years.

Declining recruitment since 2000 spurred the shelling experiments. Powell says it is
"almost certainly a climate issue" of warmer average water temperatures, in combination with Delaware Bay's historic eight-year waves of lower abundance.

"We're in the middle of one of those now," he says.

In the Chesapeake, there are at least 1,035 oyster restoration sites. But without a common system of monitoring progress, scientists cannot measure the effect of those restoration efforts baywide, according to a May 2009 report issued through Maryland Sea Grant.

Clayton was one of four Smith Islanders who crossed the bay 25 or 30 miles to help Calvert County watermen work on a Patuxent River project. Watermen put down shell to raise the profile on old beds to get them ready for seed from the state hatchery. Deep dredging also brought up uncharted oysters, so there's hope that renewed beds can get natural set, too, he says.

"It will be a big benefit for the oystermen in the coming season," Clayton says. "The local guys came alongside and shook our hands. That was a good feeling, to be able to help them out like that." — Kirk Moore


Fleet in Bering Sea is on a roll, but survey suggests quota will stay flat

Continued popularity on the Discovery Channel television network, tighter foreign trade laws on Russian imports and the king crab population's relative health bode well for Bering Sea king crabbers.

As the fleet readied pots for the 2008-09 season, film crews polished their lenses for the fifth huge season of capturing the drama of the fishermen who capture the crab.

Since debuting in 2005, the weekly show "Deadliest Catch" has gone global, grabbing the eyes of viewers in 150 countries, and has made king crab immediately familiar among consumers, particularly in the United States.

Even better for film crews and crabbers alike is that the rationalized fishery has spread out the pacing of deliveries between the season's openings on Oct. 15 of each year to their Jan. 15 closures.

"The timing of the deliveries has changed," says Forrest Bowers, Bering Sea/Aleutian Islands area management biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in Dutch Harbor. "Now, we actually have deliveries in December and in some cases, January."

Besides launching peripheral marketing opportunities for T-shirts, hats, books, beer (Captain Sig's Northwestern Ale) and other products tied immediately to the skippers and the boats, the reality TV show has tuned domestic taste buds toward crab. In some cases, restaurants are associating their crab entrées with particular vessels.

"I think it's had a profound influence on consumers," says Laura Fleming, communications director with the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute in Juneau. "People have a much enhanced appreciation of what it takes to bring that seafood to the table. It doesn't just come from the store."

In July, Fleming attended the 2009 Great American Seafood Cook-Off in New Orleans and says the crowd was thrilled to see the event's emcee, "Deadliest Catch" star Sig Hansen, captain of the crabber Northwestern.

Fleming and others say they have yet to find empirical data supporting the theory that the Tuesday night series' popularity has driven ex-vessel prices northward. Regardless, fishermen are indeed receiving more for their catch.

King crab ex-vessel prices have risen from around $3.48 per pound since the 2006-07 season to an average of $4.19 per pound for the 2007-08 season and up to $4.98 per pound during the recent 2008-09 season, according to preliminary Alaska Department of Fish and Game harvest data.

Another distinguishing factor in healthier ex-vessel prices is reduced competition in the market. Last year, volumes of Russian king crab imported to the United States fell by half from the 62 million pounds that crossed the water and entered markets to compete with crab caught in the Bering Sea in 2007.

Russian king crab imports climbed steadily from 37.5 million pounds in 2005 to 56.2 million pounds in 2006. For years, the fleet has sought measures in U.S. trade sanctions that would pinch off supplies coming through the Russian pipeline. Even more irksome for Alaska king crabbers was that much of that volume came by way of illegal, unreported fishing in waters near Russia and beyond.

That problem is quickly disappearing for a couple of reasons.

"Russian authorities have really cracked down on the underlogging of catches, particularly in the Far Eastern king crab fisheries, which have also suffered severe decline," says Arni Thomson, executive director of the Alaska Crab Coalition, in Seattle.

According to ASMI data, king crab volumes sent to Japan — the largest king crab consumer — from all countries has fallen from around 73.7 million pounds in 2006 to 45.7 million pounds last year. Yet from 2007 to 2008, U.S. exports to Japan have increased from 5 million pounds to 8.2 million pounds.

With crabbers in the limelight and the flow of competing imports held in check, about the only dark squall on the marketing horizon for Alaska crabbers would be smaller quotas. King crab quotas have remained steady at 20.3 million pounds for the 2007-08 and 2008-09 seasons. The quota is up by a healthy margin from 13.9 million pounds in the 2006-07 season.

However, most recent king crab survey trawl stock assessments in 2007 and 2008 indicate a declining presence of mature females and smaller males. Survey data that would determine quotas for the 2009-10 season wasn't yet available in July. Early indications are the quota probably won't rise for the coming season.

"Basically, all categories [e.g., mature females], except for large males, have decreased," Bowers says. "Given that, I wouldn't expect the quota to increase." — Charlie Ess

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