Pacific Swordfish

Post full-moon deliveries glut market; longline fleet monitors turtle bycatch

Post full-moon deliveries, inadvertent turtle takes and worldwide import volumes to the eastern United States set the stage for the 2007 swordfish season in the Pacific.

Winter weather hampered swordfish fishing efforts off the U.S. East Coast. So the Pacific fleet fishing above 30 degrees north latitude out of Hawaii scrambled to fill hungry markets with volume, according to Sean Martin, president of Hawaii Longline Association, in Kaneohe, Hawaii.

The predominance of the Pacific catch winds up at markets in Boston or in New York. The problem for fishermen in the Pacific is that swordfish longlining gets hot with the arrival of a full moon. As Martin says, the full moon comes to all quadrants of the world at roughly the same time. The result is heavy fishing — and heavy deliveries.

"We're in the fold with a bunch of other swordfish producers in the world," Martin says. "It's very much a full-moon fishery — the week before through the week after the moon — and because of that, the landings tend to get clumped up."

Martin elaborates that one of the first boats to deliver its catch in Hawaii right after a full moon in early March received "wonderful" prices. Translated, the wonderful offers ran from $5 per pound to $5.60 per pound for the load.

The glory of those ex-vessel highs, however, is often short-lived. Martin surmises that boats delivering to ports in South America and elsewhere in the world would saturate markets with volume, and market demand would soften like the mackerel used for bait.

"In a week from now," he said in early March, "a lot of boats will be coming home to other countries, and prices will fall."

A compounding conundrum for the Hawaii fleet in terms of overstuffing markets with sudden volume rides on the inadvertent take of two species of sea turtles.

Under the Endangered Species Act, loggerhead turtles are considered threatened, and leatherback turtles are listed as endangered. Starting in 2000, the fishery was closed for several years over concerns for the turtles. It reopened in May 2004 under the auspices of a fishery management plan that would protect the turtles.

Currently, the fleet of about 30 boats, which fishes under 100 percent observer coverage, is allowed 17 interactions with loggerheads and 16 interactions with leatherbacks.

By March 17 of last year, they'd taken the 17th loggerhead, Martin says. "The year before, [the season] never closed."

With news of last year's final loggerhead turtle interaction reverberating through the fleet, skippers quit fishing, headed back to ports and delivered their catch — simultaneously.

"All of the fish had to find a seat on the airplane," Martin says. With cargo space aboard jetliners bound for the mainland running short, iced swordfish stacked up. "The price dropped," he says. "And some boats had to sit on fish for ten days or more."

The clogged pipeline didn't help ex-vessel prices: The average for March of last year came in at $1.66 per pound, down from $2.33 the year before and well below the five-year average of $2.05 per pound, according to data from the Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center.

As for the fate of the sea turtles, numerous scientific studies aimed at reducing incidental longline takes was released in December last year. Experiments within the 117-page paper include the possibilities of employing light sticks that flash intermittently near the baited hooks instead of using the steady stream of light put out by chemiluminescent sticks used to attract blue-water fishes to the baits. Other avenues of exploration involve tainting the bait with various chemicals to discourage the turtles.

A selling point in reopening the fishery three years ago was the move to circle hooks and the use of mackerel instead of squid, a natural and tantalizing forage species for the turtles.

Other measures to avoid the turtles may prove less popular for their economic impositions upon the fleet. While swordfish and turtles frequent the same warm band of waters that forage fish inhabit, the fleet can attain some fishing success early in the year by setting its gear farther south, in cooler waters. Martin says recommendations to fish waters north of 30 degrees north, however, have been a hard sell to fishermen.

"It's hard to ask a fisherman to be inefficient," Martin says, "when you know you can move 60 miles and be into the fish."

— Charlie Ess

North Pacific Salmon

Marketing for wild product pays off; managers forecast banner harvests

Strong runs await salmon fishermen plying the waters off Alaska, fishery managers predict, and dock prices should be equally robust.

Ex-vessel prices for cohos, chinooks, pinks and chums last year increased significantly over 2005 prices. Chinooks, for instance, jumped to a statewide average of $2.77 per pound from $2.27 in '05 and the $1.93 fishermen received in '04.

Coho prices nearly doubled from 50 cents per pound in 2003 to last year's offers of 99 cents per pound. Pinks rose to a statewide average of 13 cents versus 9 cents per pound in 2003. Chum prices also climbed from 19 cents in '03 to 31 cents per pound in '06.

Sockeyes, meanwhile, increased from a low of 60 cents in 2004 to a high of 73 cents per pound in 2005 before slipping slightly to an average 67 cents per pound last year.

With potential harvests of 47 million pinks in Southeast Alaska, another 15 million coming from the waters around Kodiak and a catch of 26.3 million sockeyes from Bristol Bay, the 2007 season could be a banner year. Cook Inlet and Copper River sockeye harvests, meanwhile, are projected to come in at around 3.3 million and 1.2 million, respectively.

Projected harvest volumes have always been of substantial interest among fishermen in the advent of fishing seasons. But heightened marketing efforts promoting Alaska salmon as wild-caught have boosted coho, chinook and sockeye ex-vessel prices, according to a new book, "The Great Salmon Run: Competition Between Wild and Farmed Salmon."

Marketing wild-caught salmon in its own right instead of trying to compete with the farmed salmon industry can keep dock prices strong, states the 300-page tome, which Traffic, the wildlife trade monitoring network of World Wildlife Fund, and the International Union for Conservation of Nature recently released.

Authored by Gunnar Knapp, longtime University of Alaska, Anchorage, economics professor, and University of Rhode Island professors Cathy Roheim and James Anderson, the book examines competition between wild-caught and farmed salmon over the last 20 years.

Available year round, farmed salmon has become ubiquitous, and recent studies show a stunning decline in production and transportation costs. U.S. salmon consumption, the book states, has doubled from around 150,000 metric tons in 1989 to more than 300,000 metric tons in 2004.

As for consumption trends among various product forms, frozen salmon accounted for about 21 percent of the U.S. consumption, while canned products made up 16 percent. When it comes to demand for Alaska kings, chums and pinks, the strongest market avenues appear to be home in the United States.

Favored product forms for kings have been fresh or frozen, while the majority of pinks wind up canned or frozen. Chum roe primarily ships to Japan, while the rest of the fish wind up in fresh or frozen forms.

The book attributes most of the total increase in U.S. salmon consumption to the "rapid and sustained growth in consumption of fresh salmon."

The book, replete with graphics, shows that fresh salmon accounts for about 63 percent of U.S. consumption, which would explain why farmed salmon comprise about 67 percent of total U.S. salmon consumption. Most of the farmed salmon is imported from Norway, Chile and a smattering of other countries whose waters and economics favor farming operations.

While wild harvesters rightfully perceive farmed salmon as a threat, others continue to adjust their business plans to fit the times. New marketing angles include tracking fishermen's catches from net to supermarket, labels of sustainability, and media campaigns that show superb handling of wild-caught

An unwitting advantage created by the proliferation of farmed fish is that a large sector of the world population has been exposed to the merits of salmon. That feat would have been nearly impossible given the limited supplies and seasonal availability of wild harvests.

"Put simply, there are now vastly more salmon consumers in the world and vastly more retail establishments and restaurants that handle salmon," says Knapp via e-mail. "As a result, many more consumers are aware of salmon and have eaten salmon. When they hear about wild salmon and its advantages of taste, wildness, etc., they are more likely to try it."

The trick to winning converts to the superior attributes of wild salmon over farmed lies in the handling.

"Alaskans can work to ensure that Alaska salmon that reaches the market is of consistent high quality," Knapp says.

— Charlie Ess

Northeast Squid

The real giant is the market for squid; China, U.S. are driving global demand

Robust demand matched by stronger supplies made 2006 a busy year for squid dealers in China and the United States.

Both are growth markets linked by a complex global trade that shuttles frozen and reprocessed cephalopods across the waters from which they came.

Squid from the United States, Peru and Argentina all contributed to a 53 percent increase in China's imports in 2006 compared with the year before, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization.

Much of that squid stayed in China — a reflection of the populace's rising prosperity and demand. But Chinese reprocessed squid continued a trend of growth sales to Americans. The United States bought 18.39 million metric tons in the first 11 months of 2006, versus 13.86 metric tons during the same time in 2005, the FAO reports.

Between America's own squid exports, and growing domestic demand way beyond what used to be narrow ethnic markets, the United States has become a major player. A resurgence in Argentina's harvest put lots of squid into Spain and Italy, damping down prices in early 2006. But prices rose again later in the year, a sign of increasing demand.

"There's insatiable demand for squid, and it depends a lot on the illex [short-finned] fishery in Argentina," says Richard J. Seagraves, an analyst with the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council. "They've had big ups and downs, and in the down years our guys can make a lot of money."

Year-to-year harvests can be erratic in Argentina's fishery and the 200-mile economic zone around the British-owned Falkland Islands, where illex has become a mainstay of the local economy since the mid-1980s. About 200,000 metric tons a year comes out of Falkland waters, most caught by licensed foreign vessels; the islands are a substantial factor in the global squid market.

Loligo (long-finned squid) is much more valuable than illex. Long-finned squid commands around $1,700 per metric ton, versus $700 for short-finned in the United States in recent years, according to the Mid-Atlantic council.

Long-finned and short-finned squid allocations remain the same for 2007, with just under 17,000 metric tons for loligo and 24,000 metric tons for illex.

At NMFS' request, the Mid-Atlantic council this year is returning to a trimester system of managing the fishery in four-month sections, as was done prior to 2000-01. Changing the management schedule can keep the fishery open longer and help managers make decisions using more accurate information, NMFS officials say.

"The impacts of that remain to be seen because the squid fishery is so variable from year to year," Seagraves says.

One looming problem is butterfish bycatch. That species was declared overfished in 2005, yet "there's been little directed fishing on butterfish for four or five years," according to Seagraves.

"Most of the mortality at this stage is coming from discards," Seagraves says.

The small-mesh squid fishery is considered the major source. The council is working with the industry on ways to minimize bycatch and the economic impact of those conservation efforts, he says.

Scientists from Rutgers University in New Jersey might be developing a solution. They used a robot submersible this spring to map out distributions of fish over the continental shelf near the Hudson Canyon. Project data could help researchers and fishermen devise ways to reduce butterfish bycatch, says Rutgers professor Eric N. Powell.

Winter studies indicate that loligo and butterfish swim separately — but not at great distances — suggesting there are local environmental differences that each species prefers, Powell says.

"We think this separation is caused by small-scale differences in bottom water temperatures," says Powell, who's presented the concept to the Mid-Atlantic council. "If you know where the fish are ahead of time, there's no question you can catch commercial quantities of squid without a large bycatch of butterfish."

The fleet doesn't have that kind of detailed knowledge. That's where the submersible — one of the university's six Slocum electric gliders — can fill the gaps.

Like a glider in the atmosphere, the 6-foot-long winged undersea vehicle has no main propulsion.

By filling and emptying its ballast tanks, the machine glides through the ocean in an up-and-down pattern, allowing it to gather detailed information on temperature and conditions throughout the water column.

"This glider mission is the first step toward relating fish abundance to temperature gradients," Powell says.

If scientists can establish bottom temperature preferences for squid and butterfish, that could become a tool to help fishermen figure out what species they're seeing on their color sounders, he says.

— Kirk Moore

Gulf/South Atlantic Yellowfin Tuna

Landings, price for top-grade fish help longliners rebound from stormy 2005

Yellowfin tuna were plentiful in the Gulf of Mexico and the South Atlantic this past season. The fleet has at least partially recovered from the disruptions of the 2005 hurricanes, and landings are good.

"It's been a pretty good year," says David Maginnis, vice president of Jensen Tuna in Houma, La. "It's been pretty decent this year. A couple weeks ago we had some of the biggest landings ever — plenty of boats with a hundred and some pieces. One boat had 170. That's like 10 years ago."

North Carolina, which lands most of the South Atlantic harvest, experienced one of its best yellowfin seasons in years in 2006, with landings increasing by 72 percent — from 708,736 to 1.22 million pounds — over 2005 numbers, according to preliminary numbers from the North Carolina Department of Marine Fisheries.

North Carolina value data is incomplete, but an initial estimate by the department based on 2005 prices shows an even greater relative jump in value, as well. Value climbed from $984,157 to $1.90 million, an increase of nearly 93 percent.

Surprisingly, Florida landings and overall value were down a bit in 2006, according to the most recent numbers from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Research Institute. Landings slipped from 466,208 pounds worth $1.57 million in '05 to 390,917 pounds worth $1.23 million in '06.

So far this year, however, west of the peninsula, in the Florida panhandle, fishing was still good during the typically slow month of March, according to veteran longline skipper and owner Buster Niquet of Panama City.

"The tuna boats are still catching tuna," Niquet says. Niquet himself has gotten out of tuna fishing because of the difficulty of getting and keeping crew for the
long trips and the expense of outfitting.

Despite the relative abundance of tuna in the western gulf, prices for No. 1 grade fish have been reasonably good, according to Maginnis.

"Five-fifty to six bucks," he says. "You don't see [No. 1 fish] dipping below five dollars very often."

Maginnis says he's also pleased with the condition of the fish this season.

"The quality of the fish has been very, very good, the best we've seen in a long time," he says.

The problem for the gulf tuna fleet, and especially for buyers such as Jensen Tuna, is an inability to move the No. 2 grade fish.

"The biggest problem we've got is No. 2s; nobody wants them," Maginnis says. "You can't give them away. It's awful."

Tuna are graded on color and fat content. But in his market, the difference between the top grade and No. 2 fish is primarily color, Maginnis says. The popularity of menu items like seared tuna — dishes which demand a rich red color — makes the problem worse.

However, as far as taste goes, "there is no difference at all," he says.

Maginnis says he's been buying No. 2 fish at $2.50 a pound ex-vessel and losing money on them, but he really has no other choice.

"I've got to keep these guys fishing," Maginnis says. "I've got to keep them going. You've got to support your local fishermen."

The problem is a glut of imports.

"Price-wise, it's driven by the imports," Maginnis says.

Fresh yellowfin imports, led by product from Trinidad, Vietnam and the Philippines, were relatively flat for several years. Imports fluctuated between 33.7 million pounds and 35.2 million pounds for four years ending in 2004.

But then the U.S. fleet, already greatly diminished by tightening regulations and closures, was waylaid by the 2005 hurricanes.

Only a couple dozen vessels were left fishing out of Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina, and they frequently couldn't find crew. Imports came on strong, increasing to 39.2 million pounds by the end of 2006. The value of fresh yellowfin imports increased from $85.5 million in 2001 to $126.5 million in 2006.

As for the future, the political pressure on the gulf tuna fleet never diminishes.

"There's a big push here to shut us down in the gulf," Maginnis says.

Late last year, the Blue Ocean Institute and Earthjustice sued the federal government because it refused to close an additional 125,000 square miles of the Gulf of Mexico to longliners, which the groups say is necessary to protect spawning bluefin tuna.

In 2005, gulf vessels landed a total of 95,804 pounds — 43.5 metric tons — as legal incidental catch — versus 32,000 metric tons in the eastern Atlantic and Mediterranean quota set by the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas for that year.

"We're hanging on," Maginnis says.

— Hoyt Childers

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