Gulf/South Atlantic Spiny Lobster

Fleet hoping for storm-free season 
of good landings, higher dock prices

The 2008-09 Florida spiny lobster season was dismal. While there is always the chance tropical weather patterns may be more conducive to decent landings this year, market and economic indicators for the coming season aren't especially encouraging.

Prices bottomed out at the end of the season, with some lobster still unsold. And that especially bothers Grassy Key fisherman and former South Atlantic Council member Tony Iarocci, who finished his nine-year council run on June 12.

"What worries me is this inventory goes into next year," Iarocci said when the season ended March 31.

The '08-09 season looked good at the beginning, says Key Largo fisherman Ernie Piton.

"Last year, I think we would have had the best season we've had in a while," he says.

But then, between the middle of August and the middle of September, Tropical Storm Fay nailed the Florida Keys, and two more big storms passed close enough to disrupt the fishery.

"With all the storms, all the lobsters migrate out," Piton says. "When you have a blow, they migrate out. You can't do anything about it."

Damage in the keys wasn't as bad as that some hurricanes caused in recent years. Still, the weather was enough to scuttle the season, says Key West fisherman Jason Yarbrough, who, like Piton, is a Florida Keys Commercial Fishermen's Association board member.

"Once the storm came, it was downhill," Yarbrough says.

Then came the fall financial sector meltdown, and ex-vessel prices disappeared along with the lobsters.

"The price down here opened up at $7 and ended up at $3 to $3.50," Yarbrough says.

As the economy sank, tourism slowed, and visitors who did come weren't spending money, Iarocci said.

"People coming down here weren't buying lobster, they were eating fish sandwiches," he said.

Dockside talk is pegging this year's Aug. 6 opening price at not much better than the close, Piton says.

"They are talking about it being $4.50," he says. "That's what the word is. It's about half what we were getting."

But weather conditions are temporary, and economies usually recover. More important to the fishery's long-term health and prosperity is some long-anticipated inter-council cooperation on spiny lobster management.

New amendments to spiny lobster management plans by the Caribbean, Gulf of Mexico and South Atlantic fishery management councils have finally placed minimum size limits on imported spiny lobster. That's a change Iarocci and other Florida fishermen have long advocated. Egg-bearing females and unshelled tail-meat imports are also prohibited.

The new rules took effect Feb. 11, 2009. Dealers in Caribbean nations who want to sell to the United States and importers here will have to play by the same rules that constrain U.S. fishermen.

The new rules are intended to "enhance the conservation of the spiny lobster resource and improve effectiveness of law enforcement related to such conservation," a statement accompanying the final rule indicated.

U.S. advocates of the new regulations hope they will allow juvenile populations in the Caribbean and off the coast of Central America to recover and increase recruitment rates across the spiny lobster's whole Gulf, Caribbean, South Atlantic and Latin American range. Scientific opinion presented during hearings on the spiny lobster amendments suggest this is likely.

Preliminary Fish and Wildlife Research Institute numbers show Florida fishermen landed 3.23 million pounds of spiny lobster worth $19.85 million statewide during the '08-09 season versus 3.78 million pounds worth $27.78 million in the '07-08 season.

Overall, average price dropped from $7.34 to $6.13 per pound from one season to the next.

Florida Keys fishermen desperately need a couple of good lobster and stone crab seasons. Fish houses have been declining in number for years as the industry struggles, and relentless pressure continues to turn working waterfront space to other uses, Yarbrough says.

"We have two major fish houses left in Key West, Fish Busters and Stock Island Lobster," he says.

It has become increasingly difficult to make a decent living, and fishermen are living much closer to the edge.

"In this business, you can put a lot of money out real quick and dig yourself a hole," Yarbrough says. "You can be upside down real quick."

As lobster season opens, it should help that diesel fuel (at about $2 a gallon in Marathon in May) is less than half what it was last summer.

What needs to happen now is pretty simple, Piton says.

"As fishermen," he says, "we are hoping for no storms and a decent price so the guys can rebound." — Hoyt Childers

Pacific Squid

Landings belie the run's auspicious start; boats pin hopes on fall fishery

Harvest volumes are down, and ex-vessel prices have climbed to record highs for California squid. Unfortunately for the fleet, the higher prices aren't anywhere near commensurate with the declining harvest.

Fishing began earlier than usual — fishing effort generally ramps up around Thanksgiving — with optimistic deliveries of squid last October. But appreciable amounts of squid didn't materialize as fishing slipped into winter and spring.

"It started off looking promising," says Mike Okoniewski, regional operational manager with Pacific Seafood, in Woodland, Wash. "They actually had a little pop in October, but it wasn't consistent."

An important factor in the annual harvest, which is tallied by calendar year, is the volume coming out of the Monterey summer fishery.

"The previous two years there hasn't been much squid caught there," says Doyle Hanan, a fisheries biologist and consultant with Rancho Santa Fe, Calif.-based Hanan and Associates. "And that's been responsible for the lower numbers."

Lower numbers, indeed. Harvests of Loligo opalescens have declined from 55,708 metric tons in 2005 to 49,475 metric tons in 2007 and 36,595 metric tons in 2008. This year's squid harvest through June is 18,152 metric tons.

At the same time, ex-vessel prices have been climbing. They've risen from $500 per short ton in 2005 to $540 in 2007 and $610 in 2008.

This year fishermen have been receiving $700 per short ton. Even so, this season's gross revenues of around $14 million are less than half of the 2005 total of $30.7 million.

Okoniewski adds that the squid shortage has spiked prices at first wholesale levels, too. Though selling prices have hovered around the $1,100 per ton mark in years past, this year saw isolated sales of up to $1,700 per ton. He cautions that the highest offers were for small allotments of the largest squid with high roe content. The big squid go directly to Chinese buyers.

When it comes to squid demand in the global market, predictions are that high-volume, lower-priced species like squid should fare proportionately better than low-volume, higher-priced seafood products, according to Globefish, an international market and data service of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization. Lagging squid production from other countries (2008 Falkland Island illex and loligo volumes fell to 158,871 metric tons from 203,405 metric tons in 2007) should continue to shore up prices for California product.

But California squid prices also depend on a couple of other factors — particularly the relative economic strength of Japan and China, chief players in years past. Okoniewski says China expressed slightly stronger interest in loligo than Japan did last season.

"The Chinese economy appears to be a little more robust," he says. "They were able to nudge the prices up a little more."

Regarding U.S. export trends among top squid trading partners, Japan has been backing away from the bidding in recent years. Volumes sent there have slumped from nearly 3.5 million kilos in 2007 to 1.3 million kilos in 2008, according to NMFS foreign trade data.

Meanwhile, U.S. exp
orts of market squid to China nearly doubled from around 8.9 million kilos in 2006 to 16.9 million kilos in 2007 before falling slightly to around 15.6 million kilos last year. Exports to the Philippines, which weighed in at around 1.8 million kilos in 2005, have since dwindled to around 460,000 kilos.

Squid's physical characteristics remain factors in the liquidation of product to the various countries.

"Roe content is still important," Okoniewski says.

Size has been an equally important denominator in carving out a niche for squid. So far this year, the squid are running in the 10- to 13-count-per-pound range, which is smaller than last season's 8- and 10-count squid.

"They were quite a bit smaller than the year before" in 2008, Okoniewski says.

Squid size and abundance for a given year ride on the presence of El Niño. Hanan says colder water in a non-El Niño event year spurs the caloric intake needed by the squid. And given their 270-day life cycle, he adds, they can get big quickly.

With all of these variables in mind, the industry's attention will be on oceanic factors as summer makes its transit toward the fall fishery offshore of Southern California.

"That late fall fishery can make the year for the squid fleet," Hanan says. — Charlie Ess

Northeast Summer Flounder

New Yorkers turn to courts, Congress for a solution to 7 percent allocation

It's been a year since a revised stock assessment arrested the downward spiral in summer flounder quotas. Hence, fishermen this summer hoped to see continued relief for 2010 when the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council met in August to outline catch specifications.

But Empire State fishermen say of all the states, New York is trapped in circumstances that continue to drive down their share of flatfish that were bringing them $1.70 to nearly $2.50 per pound in early summer. Although it's down along with the economy, harvesters say upscale restaurant demand for fluke remains decent.

Not that New Yorkers have been able to take advantage of it. In 2004 they landed 1.59 million pounds of fluke. By 2007, the last year for which full catch data is available, landings had slipped to 940,000 pounds.

In 2008, New York's commercial allocation dropped to 720,000 pounds. It's risen slightly to 783,000 pounds for 2009.

Some fishing advocates say New York's problem is a statistical anomaly. But many on Long Island think it has more to do with state-by-state allocations based on, they say, inaccurate reporting.

"Fluke used to be a huge fishery for New York," but its share has been pushed down to just 7 percent of the quota versus what once may have been 20 percent of East Coast landings, says Bonnie Brady, executive director of the Long Island Commercial Fishing Association.

The state sued in 2008 over its reduced quota share, and the Long Island fishing community's complaints over 2009 measures led Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), in June to introduce another "flexibility" amendment to the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, the first move of its kind in the Senate.

The original legislation to ease the 1996 law's 10-year stock rebuilding deadlines, introduced by Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. (D-N.J.), has 17 co-sponsors in scattered coastal districts from Maine to Texas. Environmental groups expressed confidence they could contain the revolt. Schumer's move into the fray heartened fishing advocates, who said other senators' staffs are inquiring about the bill.

"This is a big deal. We've worked this very hard. We spent a lot of time with the grass roots in New York," says Jim Donofrio, executive director of the Recreational Fishing Alliance, who worked with commercial counterparts to get Schumer on board.

"The fluke stocks are at the highest level ever observed," says Phil Curcio, who represents the alliance's New York chapter. "There was no scientific justification for that 10-year period. It was just a matter of legislative convenience."

At summer's start, the Mid-Atlantic council's scup, black sea bass and summer flounder committee was getting the first assessment updates from NMFS, said Jessica Coakley, a council analyst.

In April, Patricia Kurkul, NMFS Northeast regional director, told the council the Northeast science group that reviews data-poor stocks helped the agency conclude that scup and black sea bass aren't overfished. But there remain indications that black sea bass could be subject to overfishing pressure. Kurkul advised the council to be conservative on both species.

That go-slow approach is being used on summer flounder, too. Five years ago negative stock assessments struck down moves to set a 30 million pound quota on fluke. Pressure to meet rebuilding deadlines slashed the annual quota nearly in half.

It turned around in 2008, when catch specifications increased from 15.77 million pounds to 18.45 million pounds for 2009 after fishing groups got other scientists involved in the stock assessment. In Massachusetts, fishermen and state officials want to do likewise with winter flounder.

"The only caution I would give them is, if it's not integrated with the science that NMFS is using, it won't get used," says Ray Bogan, who helped the New Jersey–based Save the Summer Flounder Fishery Fund as it persuaded NMFS to hear outside advice.

New York's commercial fleet has lost 24 percent of its summer flounder quota since 2006, and 31 percent of its scup and 72 percent of the black sea bass quota, according to Schumer's office.

Long Island fishermen assert their fluke quota loss stems from poor reporting in the 1980s. "New York never had weigh-out data. They had boxed-at-sea" with some port sampling, says Brady of the Long Island Commercial Fishing Association. Now groundfish reductions this year are wiping out their winter flounder catch, too, she says.

"No one's talking about going backward" to increase the catch under Schumer's legislation, Brady says. "If anything, we're coasting... Why would you want to close down an industry that's playing by the rules?" — Kirk Moore

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