Northeast Scallops

Elephant Trunk harvest short, sweet;
season opens with a rush of mollusks

The 2007 sea scallop season began in a rush, as the rich Mid-Atlantic area known as the Elephant Trunk opened March 1 and closed to general category boats just two weeks later.

Federal regulators say the fleet's part-time segment burned through its 865 allocated trips in that time, abetted by relatively mild weather. The Jan. 1 opening was delayed at the conservation-minded industry's insistence. Fishermen argued that it was better to gain two more months' worth of shellfish growth and avoid a derby-like fishery during the worst weather of the year.

"Before the Elephant Trunk opened, we were getting $8 a pound. The day the Elephant Trunk opened, they went to $5.75," says Virginia scalloper John Keller, who quips the season "was a buyers' deal more than anything."

His crewmen expected "to see 10 boats a night," he says, but it was still a lonely ocean. "I don't understand how that [trip limit] came up so quick," Keller adds.

New Jersey scalloper Chris Buttocovla says the opening lived up to expectations for limited-access permit boats.

"A half-hour tow, and the thing's full," Buttocovla says. His end-of-April trip yielded 100 bushels of U/10s and 290 bushels of 10- to 20-count per pound.

After the general category closing, prices for day boat scallops in April rebounded, ranging between $6 and $7.25 per pound, fishermen say. That's still well below the late summer 2005 peaks that hit $10 a pound — and even touched $11 to $12 in some places.

Still, "the market has maintained this year, particularly because the international markets can sustain these prices for 10 to 20 and 20 to 30" scallops per pound, says Ernie Panacek, a manager at the Viking Village dock in Barnegat Light, N.J.

Meanwhile, "there's some freezing [of product] going on because people are anticipating dry spells later this year — September, October, December, because they'll run out of days," he says.

Scientists say the scallop stock within the 1,500-square-mile Elephant Trunk area east of Cape May, N.J., was probably built up from eggs and young swept down by prevailing ocean currents from the south side of the Hudson Canyon, where a big set of scallops helped save the industry in the late 1990s.

Ten years ago, some limited-access boat owners seriously thought they faced the prospect of going out of business, with falling scallop abundance and per-pound counts.

But days at sea and crew size limits, new ring sizes and a system of rotating area closures were imposed. Nature helped out with some good sets, and the resulting scallop boom has been the East Coast's big success story.

Landings from the 2007 Elephant Trunk opening could exceed 70 million pounds and continue at that level, scientist Dvora Hart of the Northeast Fisheries Science Center says in an online article the center published last September. In the long term, annual harvests around 50 million pounds are probably sustainable, she says.

In New Bedford, Mass., the nation's top scallop port, perhaps 70 percent of the spring trips were used in the Elephant Trunk, estimates Rich Canastra at the Whaling City fish auction.

Prices have been holding steady, with March 1 to May 7 prices averaging $6.81 for 10- to 20-count and $6.86 for 20 to 30s, Canastra says.

"The European Union market is very strong," and escalating exchange rates that boosted the euro past the $1.35 mark "is only going to help things" in terms of making American-caught scallops more attractive, he says.

On the other hand, "that means higher domestic prices for our customers because of the draw from Europe," Canastra adds.

"With these closed area [opening] trips, they're catching the product in four or five days, so there's a lot more options in the fresh market," Canastra observes. "It's a win-win situation for everybody. It's good for the resource, good for the fishermen and the economy, and good for the consumer."

The fleet now looks to the June 15 to Oct. 1 opening of areas on Georges Bank. That's when buyers anticipate big scallops entering the marketplace, after seeing a trend of smaller meats as boats picked among thinned Mid-Atlantic beds.

Prospects could be good in those coming openings too, Buttocovla says. On his last trip to an area opening in the Great South Channel, "we were making five-minute tows," he says. "There's a lot of smaller stuff" along with plenty of big scallops. That bodes well for the future, he says.

— Kirk Moore

Gulf South Atlantic Mullet

12 years after net ban, prices in small
but stable Florida fishery rising slowly

Twelve years after Florida's gillnet ban wreaked havoc on inshore fisheries, the striped mullet fishery remains a small but stable component of the state's commercial fishing economy.

Mullet stocks are healthy, according to continuing research by Behzad Mahmoudi at the Florida Fish and Wildlife Research Institute and others. Prices to fishermen have been rising slowly in recent years, from 62 cents a pound on average in 2002 to 76 cents a pound in 2006, according to Florida Fish and Wildlife Research Institute numbers.

"We had a very typical mullet season," says Lee Deaderick, owner of Northwest Seafood in Gainesville. "They got very abundant before the run season."

The roe mullet run typically begins in late October and continues into January. Most of the red roe goes to the pricey Asian export market, Taiwan being the biggest buyer.

Roe that is not perfect visually — perhaps because of damage during harvest or extraction — but otherwise just as good, goes to local markets, such as Deaderick's business, and sells for a lot less to Florida natives and culinarily adventuresome newcomers with who like them fried.

"We get the second grade — the ones that get nicked — they fry up just fine," Deaderick says. "We sold all we got."

There is also a steady market for the fish, which are popularly fried, split and smoked or blended into another Southern specialty — mullet dip.

Most professional roe mullet fishermen trailer big, fast outboards around the state, beginning in the panhandle or upper Atlantic coast in late fall. They then follow the spawn south on the Gulf Coast into late January or February.

A skilled fisherman, such as Tom Diehl, from Melrose, can net 3,000 head or more a day and make a decent living.

"That's when they all bunch up," Diehl says.

That's important because inshore fishermen are limited to cast nets or tiny seines no larger than 500 square feet. And it takes a lot of knowledge and skill to produce with this gear.

Overall the roe export market fluctuates somewhat with the target economy. Demand usually drops with any Taipei downturn, but overall the market has remained pretty steady over the years.

"They always say it's bad, but they're always here buying the fish," Diehl says. "The price to the fisherman should be more."

During the 2006-07 roe season, Diehl earned between $1 and $1.70 a pound, but he has a dealer's license and wholesales his fish.

"Knock a quarter off that for the fisherman," he says.

You might think 3,000 or 4,000 head a day at $1 or more a pound sounds like big money for an inshore fisherman. But expenses are significant too, despite the relatively low overhead in boat and nets.

These fishermen favor powerful, fuel-sucking two-stroke outboards and shallow-water jet drives, which are expensive to feed. Unleaded regular gas is tipping $3 a gallon.

"[It's] $150 a day just for gas," Diehl says.

In some areas, fishermen favor airboats, which are also thirsty with their big-displacement, modified automobile engines.

Then there's the cost of motels every night, plus payments, upkeep and fuel for a hefty pickup truck to haul it all reliably from one end of the state to the other.

Florida leads the nation in mullet harvest — by far — with 2006 landings of 6.23 million pounds, according to the research institute, though landings have declined a bit in recent years.

Many fishermen believe recent red tides have hurt the inshore fisheries, including mullet. The degree to which surface runoff contributes to the red tides is a hot topic in Florida.

Researchers Chuanmin Hu and Frank E. Muller-Karger at the University of South Florida have published research in Geophysical Research Letters, the journal of
the American Geophysical Union, theorizing that intense hurricanes and submarine groundwater discharge — a new suspect in this debate — may have contributed to conditions favoring red tides in recent years.

Whatever the cause, severe red tides and fish kills plagued Florida's Gulf Coast in 2005 and 2006 and may have hurt the mullet fishery.

Mahmoudi says there is a possibility that red tides contributed to the recent declines in mullet landings, but the state doesn't yet have sufficient data to draw such a conclusion.

"This year may be different," he says. "What I am hearing, they had really good catches. We have to wait until the statistics for the past [2006-07] roe season are complete."

Fortunately, through early May, the dots have been mostly green on the institute's red tide monitoring maps in 2007.

— Hoyt Childers

Pacific Albacore

Health-savvy consumers may hold key
to marketing catch of West Coast fleet

Educating U.S. consumers about the virtues of pole- and troll-caught albacore could help lift ex-vessel prices out of the doldrums, according to Natalie Webster, administrator for the American Albacore Fishing Association, in Bonita, Calif.

Low mercury levels, high concentrations of protein, omega-3 fatty acids and the Marine Stewardship Council's imminent blessing of the fishery's sustainability are but a few merits that stand to increase demand for West Coast product, Webster says.

In the short term, however, ex-vessel prices don't reflect increased interest; they fell from around $1,925 a short ton at the beginning of last year's season to a low of around $1,250 by the time the fleet called it quits last year.

"Last year we just got slammed," Webster says. "The weather was tough. Prices were down, and the cost of fuel was off the charts."

At the same time, unusually high catches off the coast of Spain — a mainstay export market for U.S. West Coast albacore — satisfied demand and prices softened, says Wayne Heikkila, executive director of Western Fishboat Owners Association, in Redding, Calif.

"The year before, Spain needed fish badly, and they kept driving the price up," Heikkila says.

Part of the problem besetting the U.S. West Coast albacore fleet is that its annual landings, which average in the neighborhood of 15,000 short tons, make up only 6 percent of the world's albacore production.

Canned and frozen product caught and processed in the South and Western Pacific, mainly Samoa, makes up the brunt of U.S. albacore volumes destined for domestic and foreign markets.

Unfortunately, ex-vessel prices paid by the large canners becomes the benchmark for other processors in the world, which means that ex-vessel prices paid to the U.S. pole and troll fleet fall to the whims of large canning companies. Heikkila says prices in Samoa slipped by about $400 per ton during last year's season, which was likely the basis for the downturn in dockside offers at ports throughout the Pacific Northwest.

Establishing West Coast product as unique and commanding ex-vessel prices independent of global markets rides on educating consumers. Webster's organization has taken up the charge to dispel bad press that lumps in the West Coast pole and troll fish with larger albacore caught elsewhere in the world and also other tunas and pelagic species containing higher levels of methylmercury.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 2001 warned consumers — particularly pregnant women — to limit consumption of tunas, swordfish, tilefish and sharks to less than 12 ounces per week. In 2004, a joint advisory put out by the FDA and the EPA warned that only 6 ounces of the allowable 12 ounces per week should be made up of canned albacore.

Many in the respective pelagic species fishing industries have said that campaigns associating their products with mercury have been back-door tactics by anti-fishing interests. However, recent research indicates that mercury levels in West Coast albacore fall well below the tolerances the FDA set forth.

A 2004 study, published in the Journal of Aquatic Food Product Technology, found a relationship between mercury levels in parts per million and length, weight and age of albacore. In the sample of 101 West Coast fish, mercury levels in the muscle tissue ran from a low of 0.027 parts per million to 0.26 parts per million, well below the FDA's acceptable threshold of 1 part per million. A subsequent study in 2006 came up with similar results.

A distinguishing factor in the studies has been that the bulk of troll-caught albacore fall between 12 and 20 pounds, which is a much lower average weight than seine and longline fish coming from elsewhere in the world. Smaller fish contain lower levels of mercury; larger longline and seine fish contain higher concentrations.

Among other positive attributes, fat content in the albacore appears to increase in fish caught farther north, in colder waters. While the word fat carries negative connotations among many consumers, Heikkila and Webster point out that the fats found in West Coast albacore are the good guys.

In the guise of marketing the albacore as a product different from what's being cranked out by the large canneries, Webster says several micro-canning operations along the West Coast have begun efforts to promote local product among the growing niche of health-conscious customers. Winning the MSC label for the fishery's sustainability, meanwhile, could boost interest in pole- and troll-caught fish.

Webster says the industry was hoping to receive word on the sustainable label sometime in June.

— Charlie Ess

North Pacific Halibut

Storms, icebound start slows supply,
sending '07 opening prices sky high

Weather-caused volume shortages and competition among buyers spiked ex-vessel prices off the charts for North Pacific halibut in the early part of the season.

In the initial days after the season opened on March 1, deliveries fetched dockside offers of up to $5.50 per pound for the largest fish, 40 pounds and up, in Homer. At the time, the Homer harbor was icebound, which is common in January or February but unprecedented in March. Storms ravaged prime fishing areas throughout the Gulf of Alaska and hampered fishing from ports elsewhere along the Alaska coast during the season's first week.

"The weather has just been snot," says Bob Alverson, manager of the Seattle-based Fishing Vessel Owners Association, a longline vessel operators trade group. "This is probably the latest spring we've seen in 20 or 30 years."

On top of the ice and worrisome weather, the fleet of Russian boats tied up in observance of Easter, says Jessica Yeoman, marketing agent with the Auction Block in Homer.

"Right before Easter, we lost the Russian fleet, and it seemed like every other boat tied up for a while," Yeoman says.

Eventually, boats went fishing, and prices subsided as harvest volumes began coming in, she says. Offers for the largest fish dipped to $4.80 per pound in the coming week, then to around $4.40, but not much lower.

"The lowest this year has been $3.70," Yeoman says. "It's crazy."

Last year, prices started at highs of around $4.50 then slipped steadily as the season progressed. Yeoman said on April 23 that prices of a year ago hovered at around $3 per pound for fish 20 pounds or less, $3.30 for 20- to 40-pounders, and fish 40 pounds and up garnered $3.60.

"May is typically where we see the lowest prices for the season," Yeoman says. "They climb up at the end of June and increase steadily toward the end of the season. The next year it starts close to where it ended in the previous year."

If last year's ending price of $4.50 per pound for the largest fish is an omen, ex-vessel markets could wind up on the rosy end of the spectrum by the time longliners put their boats away
in November.

Yeoman notes that a sale around April 12 brought prices of $4.25 to $4.40. Both Yeoman and Alverson report strong competition among major buyers.

It also doesn't hurt the demand side of the equation that this year's harvest quota of 50.2 million pounds for all areas of the North Pacific is lower than in years past. In 2006, the quota for all areas was 53.3 million pounds, and in '05 it was nearly 57 million pounds.

In the short-term, volume is quite low compared to recent years. As of April 27, the 2007 cumulative harvest stood at 14 percent of the harvest quota, while the fleet had put in 19.4 percent during the same period in 2006. During the same time period — from the March 1 opener to April 30 — in 2005, fishermen had delivered 20.9 percent of the annual quota.

Combined with this year's lower quota, a lower percentage of that quota crossing the docks as of April 27 means significantly less fish was available to the market than in previous years. In other words, fresh markets in 2005 had absorbed 11.9 million pounds of product at the end of April, while 2006 volumes over the same time period totaled 10.3 million pounds. This year's season made only 7 million pounds available to hungry consumers.

One compounding concern about the overall quota available to longliners each year is whether the charter boat industry will stay within its guideline harvest level of 1.4 million pounds. While the longline industry has seen quota cuts, preliminary data indicates that the charter fleet exceeded the soft quota by 46 percent last year.

Earlier this year, the International Pacific Halibut Commission prescribed a one-fish bag limit for some parts of Alaska during summer. However, that didn't fly under the scrutiny of the U.S. secretaries of commerce or state.

The halibut commission has since imposed a two-fish limit, and one of those two fish cannot exceed 32 inches long. Furthermore, skippers, charter boat owners or deckhands cannot include their bag limits at the time of charter service.

Meanwhile, the North Pacific Fishery Management Council began the process that would include a moratorium limiting the number of boats into the fishery. Later this year the council will discuss charter boat allocations and options that enable charter skippers to buy IFQ shares from longliners.

— Charlie Ess

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