Northeast Groundfish

Likelihood of even fewer days at sea spurs call for management by regions

Even in a fishery where bad news has long been the norm, Maine's surviving groundfish crews and dealers are dreading the outcome of this summer's New England Fishery Management Council deliberations. Some say the potential for still more days-at-sea reductions, up to a one-third loss over the next two years, may push the last boats out of Maine.

"Vessel attrition to Massachusetts increased three- or fourfold from 2004 to 2005," says Hank Soule, the Portland Fish Exchange's general manager. "We've lost most of our big boats. Five years ago, we handled [fish from] around 250 boats. There are a little fewer than 100 today."

The fish exchange backed an unsuccessful campaign to change Maine law so trawl fishermen could land in Pine Tree State ports lobster bycatch taken offshore; Maine only allows landing of trap-caught bugs. That policy, Soule says, is driving many boats to Gloucester, Mass., to earn critical extra dollars. Massachusetts lets draggers land trawl-caught crustaceans.

Long steaming times to more plentiful fishing grounds hobble Maine-ported boats. They must make that trip because "eastern Gulf of Maine stocks have collapsed, and [the fish] come back in the way they have closer to Gloucester," says Robin Alden, executive director of the Penobscot East Resource Center in Stonington, Maine.

The prospect of Maine finally losing its groundfish industry spurred fishermen, scientists and conservation groups to form the Area Management Coalition. They see Maine's fishing industry now teetering on a one-legged stool of lobster landings.

"If lobster go, we're going to lose our fishing communities," Alden says.

In May the coalition supported the Downeast Initiative, a bid to have the New England Fishery Management Council consider community-based ecosystem management in the Gulf of Maine. Further days-at-sea reductions are likely because the New England council must meet court-imposed rebuilding deadlines. The Maine proposal is one of several calling for management by geographic sector.

"The idea is that places are different... There's quite a bit of evidence, not only from the U.S. but from Canada and Europe too, that cod stocks have a local component," says Alden, former commissioner of Maine's Division of Marine Resources. Proponents envision "drawing lines where people fish... where you're committed to the future of that area," she says.

There would be rules to protect habitat for spawning and juvenile cod, "so you're working with the fish to help them do what they need to," Alden says. "There are a lot of issues, we know, that have to be dealt with in terms of accountability." Detailed reporting rules would transfer some of that responsibility from the government to local communities, she says.

Some fishermen have doubts about the area management proposal, according to the Gloucester-based Northeast Seafood Coalition. In a May letter to the council, the group's executive director, Jackie Odell, expressed concern that the area-management option is "rapidly devolving into a race to take advantage of what may be unintended loopholes" in the Magnuson-Stevens Act. That, she added, gave the seafood coalition no choice but to submit its own sector plan.

Prices in late May were good, over $4 for big cod and around $3.50 for markets at the Portland Fish Exchange. Tens of thousands of pounds of resurgent haddock showed up, earning $1.80 for scrod and up to $2.70 for adults, according to federal price reports.

Close behind cod were monkfish, fetching almost $4. Monk prices should rise following NMFS's decision to hold back extra days at sea that captains were expecting to use in the southern monkfish area from lower New England through the Mid-Atlantic.

Northern monkfish boats have 30 days, just three fewer than in 2006. But southern boats may have just 12 days, pending the next stock assessment report due out this summer. The New England council was moving to give the southern fishery 23 workdays this year, but was forestalled by NMFS officials awaiting the July stock assessment.

Southern captains expected to use up 10 carryover days, as they had in the past. But NMFS analysts this spring concluded that it "could effectively turn into almost double the effort," says Mike Pentony, a senior policy analyst with the NMFS Northeast region office.

That move burned fishermen's business plans, says Eric Svelling, a longtime monkfish gillnetter from Barnegat Light, N.J. Svelling says he checked with federal officials before spending $165,000 to add another boat and monkfish permit to his business, only to be surprised by their change of plans.

— Kirk Moore

North Pacific Blackcod

Reduced quota pushes price upward
despite good overall health of stocks

Ex-vessel prices for North Pacific blackcod started strong and will likely remain that way as markets hustle to get their share of a lower volume than the industry has seen in years past.

"The quota for off the lower coast here" — approximately 10.1 million pounds for Washington, Oregon and California — "is down by 24 percent," says Bob Alverson, manager of the Seattle-based Fishing Vessel Owners' Association.

Meanwhile, Alaska's harvest quota is down from almost 35.8 million pounds in 2005 to 34.5 million pounds last year and 33.5 million pounds this year. The decrease reflects older age year classes dissipating from the blackcod biomass. However, according to a report from the NMFS Alaska Fisheries Science Center, the stock's spawning biomass is estimated to be stable through 2010 and then will begin to increase.

In May, Alverson reported that deliveries to Yakutat, Alaska, were fetching from $4.35 per pound for 5-pound fish and up. Fish in the 3- to 4-pound range were selling for $3.70.

"Those are great prices," Alverson says.

Prices at Homer and Seward show a similar pattern, with fish 7 pounds and up, or 7-ups, fetching $4.40 per pound. And ex-vessel offers for the largest fish landed at Kodiak hit $4.60 per pound — a price that some in the industry say stretches beyond the margins of profitability.

"For some reason, there's a group of buyers who've been offering high blackcod prices," says Jessica Yeoman, marketing agent with the Auction Block, in Homer. "Other buyers are saying that they don't know what's going on."

Yeoman says one processor confided that the ex-vessel prices penciled out to 15 cents per pound over the break-even point. She adds that another processor, who'd entered the price wars late last season couldn't sell a container load of 7-ups at a profit and was forced to hold the shipment as carryover inventory.

As for the delivery pace, the fleet has landed 34.5 percent of the quota in mid-May versus 16.2 percent last year. Yeoman notes that prices dipped slightly below the $4 per pound mark for some fish during an onslaught of deliveries from 29 boats during three days in May. Following that, ex-vessel prices rebounded immediately.

Yeoman and others are quick to point out that a host of variables within the blackcod distribution chain are fickle. But a factor invigorating buyers is that fewer fish are entering the pipeline to markets overseas.

According to foreign trade data from NMFS, U.S. export volumes of 22.6 million pounds to all countries in 2006 fell by more than 5.8 million pounds from 2005, when exports tallied up to around 28.4 million pounds.

According to Alverson, 70 percent of the export downturn stems from the quota reduction, and the remaining 30 reflects increased domestic consumption. Rhonda Hubbard, with J & R Fisheries, in Seward, notes that increasing quantities are finding their way to white tablecloth restaurants and smokeries since the Marine Stewardship Council recently endorsed the fishery's sustainability.

Blackcod, going under its food-form pseudonym sablefish, made its cable TV debut on a recent episode of the Food Network's show "Iron Chef America." Plus, blackcod trails only longtime leader salmon as the favorite fish served at Ray's Boathouse in Seattle.

"It's a very versatile fish to work with," says Peter Birk, the restaurant's executive chef. "The oil content you can't beat, and the large flake."

While more domestic diners are discovering blackcod, gyrations within the export markets themselves may be contributing to the stir among buyers.

Japan, which has historically claimed around 85 percent of Alaska's blackcod harvest, accounted for about 20.5 million pounds of exports in
2005. Those numbers fell by 12 percent to around 17.6 million pounds last year. And as blackcod exports to Japan took a 12 percent hit, ex-vessel prices paid for the fish increased by nearly 12 percent.

Export volumes to China, meanwhile, fell drastically from 2.65 million pounds to 1.1 million pounds during the same period, while the amount headed to Hong Kong fell from 1.7 million pounds to 1.1 million pounds.

Hong Kong appears to have switched preferences in product form, resulting in a nearly tenfold increase in fresh volumes. Granted, the 45,000 pounds shipped there in 2005 equates to little more than a container load. However, last year's acquisition of 420,565 pounds depletes availability among other bidders and suggests the development of new, fresh market niches.

— Charlie Ess

Gulf/South Atlantic Spiny Lobster

Fishery recovering from hurricanes,
but fishermen fear reduction in traps

Florida's spiny lobster industry is recovering from severe gear losses to the 2005 hurricanes. The fishery's surviving fishermen are hoping prices will remain strong and landings will increase when the 2007-08 season opens in August.

At $5.78 a pound on average to the fisherman, the past season's prices were the best in years.

Overall, preliminary numbers from Florida's Fish and Wildlife Research Institute show the '06-07, Aug. 6-March 31 seasonal harvest of 4.74 million pounds was substantially larger than the hurricane plagued '05-06 total of 2.96 million pounds but less than the '04-05 landings of 5.47 million pounds.

But fishermen worry that management schemes being considered here and fishery practices outside the United States, especially in the Caribbean, could chill their economic prospects just when those who survived the hurricane losses are beginning to see improvement.

"Most of the concern is over the trap reduction," says Scott Zimmerman, executive director of the Florida Keys Commercial Fishermen's Association. The Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council, the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission manage the spiny lobster fishery jointly. They are in the final stages of re-evaluating management options after a three-year moratorium in the trap reduction program.

Many fishermen feel trap reduction — with trap count now down to about 400,000 from about 750,000 or so in the early 1990s — has already squeezed the fishery too much.

With annual harvests already consistently well below historical norms of 6 million to 8 million pounds, no further gear cuts are justified, they say.

"They feel the trap reduction should be eliminated," Zimmerman says. "We're very concerned about bringing the count down to 300,000."

Tony Iarocci, a Marathon, Fla., lobster fisherman and South Atlantic Fishery Management Council member who chairs the council's spiny lobster committee, argues against any additional cuts.

"The industry wants no more reduction," Iarocci says. "The science is just not there."

The rationale for gear reduction has always been that the catch per trip would increase for fishermen remaining in the fishery as the number of traps and pressure on the stocks drop. But Iarocci says it's just not turning out that way.

If it were, Iarocci asks, why wouldn't fishermen support a program that allowed them to make as much or more money with less expense, less gear and less effort overall?

"We would be the stupidest people in the world" not to support such a program, he says.

The number of trap certificates available has been frozen since April 2004, but trap attrition was high during the 2005 hurricane season. According to the research institute's harvest records for the past five seasons, when overall landings decreased from one season to another, so did pounds per trip. When overall landings increased from one season to the next, so did the pounds per trip.

Iarocci says fisherman involvement is the key to the success of spiny lobster management.

"I love industry-driven plans," he says. "I highly recommend these guys need to be involved in the process."

Overall, market prospects for the '07-08 season look good. Demand remains strong, and boat prices have been improving for the past three years. Meaningful harvest predictors are much harder to find. Fishermen are hopeful, based on the '06-07 season, but spiny lobster behavior is notoriously unpredictable from season to season, Iarocci says.

"They hung out in Florida Bay last season" but were hard to find in some traditional deeper water habitats they normally frequent, he says. "If they get a hair up their butt, they haul ass."

Besides the trap-reduction program's fate, other hot issues are the possible development of some kind of limited access privilege program — such as individual fishing quotas — and the use of illegal casitas by divers.

Casitas are artificial lobster habitats. They can be anything from old cars to purpose-built concrete structures that divers sink to congregate populations. Casitas are legal in the Caribbean but not in the Florida Keys. Many commercial fishermen believe the illegal use of casitas in the keys is increasing at the expense of trappers and legal divers.

Zimmerman says he is concerned that overuse of casitas in unregulated Caribbean fisheries may be adversely affecting stocks here.

"When you pick up one of those casitas, they're harvesting anything and everything," he says.

Long-term, the industry's health is likely to hinge on the new management decisions the state's fish and wildlife commission, the South Atlantic council and the Gulf council make collectively in the near future.

— Hoyt Childers

Pacific Whiting

Declining South American production,
lower U.S. quotas lift domestic market

Worldwide whitefish supply shortages and declining production of whiting species continue to drive ex-vessel prices upward for trawlers either processing at sea or delivering to Washington, Oregon and California ports.

In terms of volume, whiting comprise more of the catch than the 90 other species harvested under West Coast groundfish management plans do. Yet ex-vessel values of less than a nickel per pound once discouraged the fleet from taking its shares of annual whiting quotas.

That trend has changed as shore-based processors, catcher processors, catcher vessels and motherships funnel more whiting into headed and gutted product forms to supply domestic and foreign demand.

According to NMFS's Pacific Coast Fishery Management Plan, West Coast exports of headed and gutted whiting have increased steadily from 27.5 million pounds in 2003 to 83.6 million pounds in 2004, 94.5 million pounds in 2005 and 123 million pounds last year. At the same time, ex-vessel prices for the headed and gutted fish have also increased from less than 4 cents per pound in 2004 to last year's offers of 6.2 cents per pound.

Price data from the NMFS report and the Pacific States Marine Fisheries Commission concur with the 6 cents per pound last year and in early 2007. But Pete Leipzig, executive director of the Eureka, Calif.-based Fishermen's Marketing Association, says ex-vessel offerings for whiting have been substantially higher.

"The market is currently hot, relative to what it's been in years past," Leipzig says. "Five years ago, we were seeing prices of 2 1/2 to 3 cents per pound, back when they were grinding it up for surimi. Now, it's 8 to 9 cents per pound."

The surimi market, meanwhile, remains soft. Leipzig says primary interest in surimi in years past has come from Japan, but that those markets have largely dried up. Since 2004, West Coast exports of surimi have declined from 35.9 million pounds to just 7.4 million pounds last year.

Based on scientific models that show declining representatio
n of fish from the age class of 1999 within the biomass, whiting harvest quotas for the U.S. West Coast have slid from 269,000 metric tons during the past few seasons to this year's allotment of 242,591 metric tons.

Last year, the fleet's catcher vessel sector took all of its 76,638 metric ton allocation of the quota. This year, the catcher-processors will tow their gear on a 34 percent allocation of 70,721 metric tons. The shore-based sector of the industry will work on an allocation of 42 percent for a potential harvest of 87,398 metric tons, while the mothership sector allocation of 24 percent could add another 49,942 metric tons to the total production.

With the reduction in this year's quota, fillet markets will likely feel the pinch of less volume — especially in light of waning production from competing countries, such as Argentina and Chile, which produce and export fillets from two closely related subspecies of West Coast whiting.

"That's what's driving the market in the United States," Leipzig says, "...the shortage in South America. There's demand out there for whitefish, and someone's going to fill it."

Unfortunately, whitefish-hungry markets haven't begun to capitalize on the plethora of flatfish species caught off the West Coast, which puzzles Leipzig. Suppliers near the end of the distribution chain have warm interest, he says, but at the processing end, prices generally remain sluggish.

Pacific cod ex-vessel prices have bumped up from 47 cents per pound to 51 cents per pound from 2005 to 2006. But ex-vessel prices for Dover sole, a significant contributor to the groundfish harvest, have been stuck at around 36 cents per pound in recent years. Dockside prices for rex sole have fallen from 43 cents per pound in '03 to this season's offers of 36 cents per pound.

The price for petrale sole, meanwhile, dropped from last year's $1.04 per pound to 87 cents per pound. Sand sole ended up around 95 cents per pound last year, but were only garnering offers of 66 cents per pound during the '07 season.

At the same time that distributors have expressed ho-hum interest in the flatfish, rex sole harvests have declined from around 470,000 pounds landed in '05 and landings of about 329,000 pounds last year. Dover sole harvest volumes have declined from around 5.3 million pounds in '04 to 3.9 million pounds last year.

"Nobody's taking advantage of [the whitefish shortage] with Dover sole, Leipzig says. "We've got a whole slug of good flatfish."

— Charlie Ess

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