Northeast Oysters

Gulf scarcity and improving harvest plump up prices in the Mid-Atlantic

Anyone who needs a load of clamshells for their driveway is out of luck. But that could bode well for Delaware Bay watermen, as the shells are being snapped up to plant new shell beds in the bay, which are likely to yield more baby oysters.

The hurricane misfortunes of Southern oyster fishermen generated better prices in the Mid-Atlantic. Very modest improvements in the Chesapeake Bay fishery happened just when the market was hungry for quality product. Demand kept prices around $30 a bushel in the Chesapeake early this year and in the high $30s in Delaware Bay.

Maryland fishermen landed more than 134,000 bushels of oysters in the 2005-06 season. It's a shadow of the fishery's old-time production — but still good news. It's almost double the state's 2004-05 harvest and four times the value at $4 million dockside.

"Everyone was pleasantly surprised, and it couldn't have come at a better time, with the Gulf of Mexico being decimated," says Bill Sieling, executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Seafood Industries Association.

"Going into October [2005], we were scared to death because of the Gulf of Mexico situation," says Karen Harris Oretel, chief executive officer and partner at W.H. Harris Seafood, an oyster packing company at Kent Narrows in Maryland. The local harvest "saved our butts, because without the gulf volume, we'd be in real trouble."

Revival of Delaware Bay's fishery would boost the industry's fortunes in the Chesapeake, too; packing houses there already reach as far as Texas for their shellfish. However, Sieling says, "right now we've all got our fingers crossed" because of torrential early summer rains across Mid-Atlantic watersheds.

As Sieling explains, heavy rainfall is a double-edged sword for oysters. All that freshwater coming downstream in the Chesapeake and Delaware bays lowers salinity and tends to knock back the oyster diseases dermo and MSX.

"On the other hand, freshwater makes it more difficult for the oysters to spawn," Sieling adds. So it's all a matter of timing.

That lower salinity could be a big help in Delaware Bay, where baywide oyster recruitment from spat settlement has been dismal for more than five years. Baywide, the 2005-06 samples from natural beds averaged an estimated 29 baby oysters per bushel of substrate material — just about the worst since dermo's onslaught began in the mid-1990s, scientists say.

"The freshwater is a really good thing this year, from the oyster's perspective," says Danielle Kreeger, science director for Partnership for the Delaware Estuary, a non-profit organization. "Salinity was creeping up, and it was shaping up to be a very bad year."

A 2003 six-acre test bed laid over with shell from the region's sea clam processing plants turned out on average 1,800 young oysters per bushel in '05-06 sampling. Samples from six additional test sites in the '05-06 season yielded an average of 400 oysters per bushel.

If those '05-06 results hold true for three years, there could be a substantial oyster harvest increase, says Eric Powell, a research scientist at the Rutgers University Haskin Shellfish Research Laboratory on New Jersey's side of the bay.

The early results have already "augmented the industry quota by 30 percent this year," says Russ Babb, a marine fisheries biologist with the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection. That translates to about an extra $500,000 in direct sales, he says.

The '05-06 test samples helped Delaware and New Jersey legislators obtain a boost in funding from Congress for new shell stock. The $2 million obtained is a significant increase over the $750,000 spent in 2005 — money that came from the industry, state governments, an economic development program in Cumberland County, N.J., and the Delaware River and Bay Authority.

Like Chesapeake watermen, Delaware Bay harvesters have seen better prices this year, between $38 and $42 a bushel. The industry is helping finance shell plantings via a $2 landing fee on every bushel.

In all, the project laid down about 500,000 bushels of shell this year, mostly from clam processing plants in New Jersey and the Delmarva region that handle surf clams and ocean quahogs. New Jersey is that industry's center, where most of the dredge boats dock.

Now the region is experiencing an unexpected shortage of shells — a traditional paving material for rural driveways in coastal southern New Jersey and Delaware. By late spring 2006, contractors said there was a long wait for private buyers because the government and industry funding was buying up every clamshell in sight.

The proposed commercial introduction of Asian oysters into Chesapeake Bay remains controversial and, for the moment, blocked by politics. Still, packing house owners like Oretel say, "I need something that can grow in the face of disease."

— Kirk Moore

Gulf/South Atlantic Stone Crab

Crabbers, ranks thinned by storms, hope to claw their way to profitability

With October's opening fast approaching, fishermen are wondering whether the stone crabs they didn't catch during the hurricane-disrupted 2005-06 season have hung around for the 2006-07 season.

"It's hard to tell," says stone crabber George Niles, president of the Florida Keys Commercial Fishermen's Association (formerly Monroe County Commercial Fishermen). "We're hoping."

Fishermen are understandably apprehensive about the prospect of another hurricane, even if crab season should open Oct. 16 with abundant stocks, good prices and good fishing.

"One storm could change all that," Niles says.

Last year, one storm did.

Hurricane Wilma swept through the heart of the stone crab country in Collier and Monroe counties eight days after the opening, with most of the fishermen's traps in the water. Wilma delivered a near knockout blow to an industry already crippled by lobster trap loss from hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

To no one's surprise, the 2005-06 stone crab season was one of the worst ever after the hurricanes raked the tip of Florida and its nearshore waters between July and October, scattering and smashing lobster and stone crab traps and causing serious flooding in the lower keys, especially.

January through May 2006 landings were only about 61 percent of those for the same period in 2005, even after fishermen had already spent three months retrieving and repairing lost and damaged traps.

Over in Everglades City on the mainland, Wilma's eyewall came ashore Oct. 24 and took the roof off Kit Johnson's house. He isn't making any predictions for the stone crab opening.

"I'll tell you about Oct. 30," says Johnson, who finally had a roof over his head by July but was still fighting with the insurance company that was supposed to pay for his rebuilt house. "Nobody knows. Everybody's hoping for a good season."

With a shortage of claws, ex-vessel prices ended very high in May, at an average $9.76 a pound for the January-May 2006 portion of the season, according to preliminary numbers from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Research Institute. If final numbers confirm that price, it could stand as an all-time-high ex-vessel average. But high prices don't mean much if you don't have any claws to sell, as many fishermen in south Florida can testify.

The storms also affect tourism, and any weather-related drop in travel could chill demand and the price for claws. If the storms spare stone crab country this year and the harvest remains relatively small because of decreased effort — with fewer fishermen able to fish — then price likely will remain high. If the state should suffer a lot of damage in tourism hot spots — such as the Florida Keys — then decreased demand could trump a limited supply.

In Collier County, as in the keys, some fishermen just haven't been able to rebuild enough to fish this season. Some have left the industry altogether.

"There's been a few people gotten out," Johnson says. "It was a bad year."
Fishermen in Monroe and Miami-Dade counties collectively got about half a million dollars from the state's hurricane relief fund. But that left Johnson, his wife, Brenda, and other Collier County fishermen who suffered losses wondering why they were snubbed by the relief fund.

Meanwhile, plenty of effort is still devoted to cleanup. A Federal Emergency Management Agency–funded cleanup began in mid-July, with about $400,000 available and a score or so of fishermen so employed in the keys.

"I would say there's 20 or 30," Niles says.

A shortage of wood for traps still plagues both the stone crab and spiny lobster fisheries. Many Florida Keys fishermen participate in both, and even the lucky ones with the capital for trap replacement are still struggling to find necessary materials. They use Southern pine and some imported wood from Nicaragua, and both are in short supply, Niles says.

"We've got a big problem getting wood," he says.

Johnson doesn't have that problem, at least.

"We use all plastic traps," Johnson says.

Florida also waived trap tag fees. For fishermen like Johnson, who had more than 10,000 stone crab traps before Wilma, 50 cents a trap adds up quickly.

"That helped everybody," he says.

But other than some assistance from the state and private donations, help has been in very short supply, Niles says.

"We've had eight storms in two years," Niles says. "I never dreamed we would not get any help from the federal government."

— Hoyt Childers

North Pacific King Crab

Consolidation boosts vessel earnings 200%, but high-grading is an issue

As expected, North Pacific crabbers found a few wrinkles in the newly rationalized fishery last year.

Average earnings per boat in the king crab fishery jumped by 202 percent, according to a socio-economic study by Gunnar Knapp, economics professor at the University of Alaska. But ex-vessel prices dipped, and some fishermen endured the same harsh weather they faced under the derby-styled fisheries.

With a total allowable catch of 18.3 million pounds, last year's Bristol Bay red king crab season began Oct. 15 and ran until Jan. 15 of this year. Conventional economic theory suggests that spreading the delivery pace over several months instead of days, as under the old derby fishery, would control volume into the markets and bolster demand.

But some fishermen were chagrined to find that processors wanted their respective fleets' crab IFQ shares delivered over a period of a couple of weeks, with the ultimatum that ex-vessel prices would fall sharply for crab delivered later.

Others argue that selling crab has always been a matter of timing.

"Crab has always been a Christmas market," says Glenn Reed, executive director of the Pacific Seafood Processors Association. Reed says some processors put out the call for crab hoping to distribute a substantial volume of product before markets weakened.

"Some people may have felt pressure because of their particular business arrangements," says Forrest Bowers, Bering Sea-Aleutian Islands area management biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in Dutch Harbor. "But what I can comment on is that we had a lengthy season and that people were fishing throughout that season."

Although the fishery began in October, Bowers says deliveries really began arriving in December, with some running into January. The actual harvest, meanwhile, hit 16.4 million pounds.

As anticipated under the new system, fleet consolidation reduced the number of boats from a historical average of around 250 down to 89. According to Knapp's preliminary analysis, which was released in June, rationalization led to the loss of 757 crab fishing jobs from the Bristol Bay red king crab fishery. The sharp fleet reduction shot earnings per vessel up from almost $262,000 in 2004 to nearly $792,000 in the 2005-06 red king crab season, Knapp's study says.

What wasn't foreseen, however, was that the '05-06 fishery's slower pace would encourage skippers to sort through pots and discard barnacle-covered legal-sized males that previously would have been kept and sold. Unblemished king crab appeals more to restaurateurs; however, high-grading also increases crab mortality.

According to Fish and Game data, the fleet dumped 677,000 legal male king crabs during the '05-06 season. The previous record for discarded legal males was around 80,000 in 2002.

"That was one of the concerns that was raised when this program was developed," says Bowers, adding that high-grading was discussed when the plan's environmental impact statement, which was released in November 2003, was drafted.

Some industry members fear the discarded crab will be subtracted from the 2006-07 TAC. They avow the fleet will clean up its act.

"The industry is working toward a solution that they're going to present to us sometime before we set the TAC," Bowers says. Fish and Game is expected to release the red king crab TAC in the weeks before the October opening.

Despite the high-grading, average ex-vessel prices slipped slightly from years previous. Fish and Game crab harvest data reveals Bering Sea king crabbers saw an average ex-vessel price of $4.52 per pound last year. In 2004, dockside prices hovered at $4.70 per pound, and the fleet saw $5.15 in 2003.

According to Bowers, part of that decline can be attributed to the king crab TAC, the highest seen since the 1980s. Quotas then fluctuated wildly from around 33.6 million pounds in 1981 to just 3 million pounds in 1982 and to a first-time closure in 1983.

In this first rationalized season, the Bering Sea opilio TAC was 19.6 million pounds, and the final harvest total hit 24.89 million pounds. However, many fishermen began harvesting opies in late winter because they had committed their boats to other fisheries, which forced them to fish in harsh weather.

"We had a fairly severe winter in terms of sea ice and freezing spray conditions," Bowers says of the January and February weather. "Many people made a choice to do other things with their boats, like fish cod, and ended up coming into the crab fishery during the worst weather."

Opilio ex-vessel prices averaged $1.81 per pound, down slightly from $2.05 in 2004 and $1.84 in 2003.

— Charlie Ess

Pacific Urchins

Domestic sushi market growing, but it's out of phase with harvest season

California's sea urchin industry got hit this year with almost as many problems as an urchin has spines. Changing markets — and fishing seasons that may need to change with them — and higher air and water temperatures, among other issues, have proved problematic in 2006 and likely will continue into 2007.

More sushi bars are popping up domestically, says Dave Rudie, chairman of the California Sea Urchin Commission, and that raises demand. However, fishing seasons no longer correlate to product demand.

"Fewer and fewer buyers are shipping to Japan," Rudie says.

Japan, once the prime market for West Coast urchins, now buys more uni from North Korea, China and Russia. The shift has occurred over the last 10 to 15 years. Fishing regulations allowed wide-open harvesting in the winter months so product could ship to Japan at peak demand.

Now, however, the highest demand comes during summer from domestic buyers, when fishing days are fewer. Southern California divers in particular are landing more product in summer and early fall than they once did.

Consequently, regulators will examine whether to revise the seasons to allow fishermen to take advantage of the summer demand. "We
're in the process of reviewing the regulations," Rudie says.

The decade-long market shift also brought fishermen and buyers unexpected changes. As recently as a couple of years ago, B-grade uni was selling to Japan and the best uni, A-grade, was selling to U.S. sushi bars. A few U.S. purchasers also sought the B-grade uni.

At the same time, the commission redefined the product grades: A-grade, the best, is now "gold," B-grade is now "premium" and C-grade is now "select."

More recently, many U.S. processors have been trying to provide a gold or premium product or sell it at a lower price to compete in the domestic market.

"Once everybody shifts over to the U.S. market, supply and demand should kick in," Rudie says.

Indeed, roe shipments to Japan dropped dramatically. In 2004, roe exports from all U.S. urchin sources were 1.9 million pounds. In 2005, they totaled 1.5 million pounds. The value dropped by more than $8 million during the same time.

However, a few processors still are holding out for sales to Japan, Rudie says, and consequently the traditional rules of supply and demand don't match current market conditions.

Still, given that most U.S. processors have shifted to domestic markets, fishermen have seen a slight uptick in ex-vessel prices.

Rudie's San Diego–based company, Catalina Offshore Products, was paying an average of around 90 cents a pound this year; last year it was closer to 80 cents a pound. Statewide, the average price in 2005 neared 54 cents a pound, way down from the highest state average of $1.07 per pound in 1994, according to the California Department of Fish and Game.

This year, a previously unenforced state law is being enforced, Rudie says. The price the fisherman gets per pound must be written on the fish ticket. Previously, buyers left the price blank until the quality of the uni could be checked. Now, processors must estimate the quality at the dock, so many are estimating prices of between 30 and 60 cents.

The situation leaves a hole in the data-gathering process, Rudie says.

"There is no information on what the average price to the diver is," he says. "There are no real good industry numbers anymore." Fish and Game is aware of the problem and is working to rectify it.

But as of July, the main problem divers and processors were battling was a heat and quality issue: hot water, hot air temperatures and hot transportation.

Urchins typically are harvested in bottom-ocean waters that are 65 degrees or lower. At 70 degrees — the surface temperature of many areas of the ocean in California — the urchin become stressed, and the uni begins to turn to mush. At 75 degrees, urchins begin to die. In Southern California, particularly, everything's been simply hot, Rudie says.

Divers risk losing uni quality when bringing urchins up through 70-degree water and stowing them on deck in 75-degree-plus heat. Loss of quality results in a lower price. Divers typically don't have refrigerated seawater systems on their boats, and uni rarely is shipped in refrigerated trucks, Rudie adds, but everyone's searching for options.

Sea urchin port representatives have distributed thermometers to divers and processors. hoping to establish a system in which temperature is checked every step of the way. "It's critical," Rudie says.

— Susan Chambers

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