Northeast lobster

Landings keep rising, sinking prices; Northeast fleet faces uncertain future

Maine's lobster landings continue to surge, but dock prices declined again in 2013. The state moved toward an aggressive new $3 million marketing campaign to brand Maine lobster in both live and processed forms.

The less valuable soft-shell lobsters pull the average dock price down. Soft-shell prices went as low as $2.20 a pound in August. And there were scattered reports of $1.20 during the summer, as bad as 2009 when economic woes cut the bottom out of the market.

Maine Department of Marine Resources data shows in 2008 Mainers landed nearly 70 million pounds worth $245.2 million with an average price of $3.50; prices had already began to soften from the $4-plus range of the mid-2000s boom years. In 2012, lobstermen caught 126 million pounds worth $340.7 million. But the average price of around $2.69 was by some measures the lowest in 30 years.

Bait prices continue the escalation that began with herring quota cutbacks in recent years. Ex-vessel herring prices are now 25 percent higher than in 2009. A barrel of herring that sold for $90 in 2009 as those cuts began cost $120 this fall.

As a result, menhaden is gaining a bigger share of the Maine bait market, now over 30 percent, with 40-pound boxes of menhaden going for almost $20.

Meanwhile, fuel prices that fell during the recession are creeping back to near 2008 levels, with diesel reported from $3.84 to $4.49 per gallon in the fall.

Increased fishing effort, fewer cod and other predators eating young lobsters, and warmer water making the Gulf of Maine more productive are cited as factors driving the ever-higher landings. Whatever the causes, state and industry leaders believe they must adapt to a new world.

In October the turnover began from the old Maine Lobster Promotion Council — which operated on a $433,000 budget in its last year — to the Maine Lobster Marketing Collaborative. The collaborative will lead what state officials call a "new and more aggressive era targeting increased global demand."

Change advocates say the industry can capitalize on the conservation and sustainability history of Maine lobster. But, they say, it needs to adapt to younger consumers and chefs who would rather see high-quality processed lobster than deal with live animals.

Maine Gov. Paul LePage wants in-state processing capacity to expand faster. Proponents say more local processing could yield better soft-shell prices.

Some Maine lobstermen sought help from organized labor. The International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, which has a base in Maine's mills and manufacturing industries, helped organize the new Maine Lobstermen's Union. As of late September the union, which had recruited around 600 members, elected Rocky Alley of Jonesport as its first president.

Getting better prices is foremost on their minds. But fisherman and organizer Tristan Jackson of Vinalhaven says the union also wants to address long-term issues of industry sustainability and health care.

Low prices extended into Massachusetts, too.

"The prices were too low," says Bill Adler, executive director of the Massachusetts Lobstermen's Association. Adler, who closely tracks price trends, saw soft-shells as low as $2.50, while hard-shells in New Bedford brought $4 to $5. "Our guys need $4 a pound to really make anything."

Massachusetts' South Shore fishery was having a poor season. But the Bay State's Gulf of Maine lobstermen were having an above average year through the fall, says Bob Glenn, chief fisheries biologist for the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries. And at Cape Cod, "they fish right off the beach on the back side of Cape Cod, and they've been doing extraordinarily well," Glenn says.

Biologists think climatic changes and warmer average sea temperatures are driving those differences. "It's a dramatic difference in water temperatures, despite the geographic proximity. The water off Cape Cod stays cold throughout the year." — Kirk Moore

Alaska & Pacific Petrale Sole

Ocean thick with fish after slow start; prices drop following surge of landings

The 2013 petrale sole season started slowly but soon picked up, flooding markets with product in late October.

In October's first weeks, the West Coast fleet had landed 64 percent of its allocation. By comparison, it had caught 100 percent of the allocation by that time in 2012 and 93 percent in 2011.
But deliveries were soon in high gear.

"For the last two weeks the petrale are thicker than the hair on a dog out there," says Scott Adams, operations and production manager with Hallmark Fisheries in Charleston, Ore. "It's nothing for my guys to go out there and get 15,000 to 20,000 pounds of petrale; they're only out a day and a half."

Adams speculates favorable oceanic factors are one reason for the surge in sole catches. "The conditions are so good out in the ocean," he says, adding that the sole are big. Catches of shrimp and other species have been healthy throughout the year, too.

The sudden shift in the delivery pace can be attributed to the later appearance of larger numbers of petrale and to mechanical workings of the West Coast bottomfish individual fishing quota program, according to Rod Moore, executive director of the West Coast Seafood Processors Association, in Portland, Ore.

Sporadic fishing during the year seems to be the fallout of the IFQ program, says Moore. "We've had good shrimp years recently; so fishermen have been concentrating on shrimp during summer season, filling in with groundfish during spring and fall."

In late October, petrale were conveniently there for the taking.

"The fish schooled up close to shore so they were readily available to both large and small boats," Moore says. "Theories about how fishermen will behave under IFQs notwithstanding, when a high value fish becomes suddenly available in large numbers, fishermen go get them. That is what happened here."

According to NMFS data, the cumulative catch for 2013 neared 3.5 million pounds of a 5.1 million pound quota on Nov. 1. Revenues, meanwhile, had climbed to just over $4 million.

In 2012, the total catch, at 2.5 million pounds, was worth $697 million. The respective numbers for 2011 crunch out to 1.8 million pounds yielding revenues of almost $536 million.

Processors had been offering ex-vessel $1.50 per pound earlier in the season. However, the onslaught of fish in late October quickly lowered dockside prices to $1 per pound. The average cumulative ex-vessel prices for the season were tracking at $1.31 per pound, whereas the fleet received $1.43 per pound in 2012 and $1.39 in 2011.

The fishery has evolved toward greater efficiency in catching the entire harvest of petrale and other groundfish species under the IFQ program. Since the program began in 2011, quota shareholders have been trading allocations of species among themselves to ensure that they hit their maximum allowable limits.

"The stocks themselves seem to be holding up well, although petrale is still subject to a rebuilding program after being designated overfished a few years ago," Moore says. "We were all a bit surprised when the most recent stock assessment [in 2010] didn't show petrale as being completely rebuilt."

When the next petrale stock assessment will occur is still to be determined.

"The Pacific Fishery Management Council will consider which stocks to prioritize for the next stock assessment cycle at their September 2014 meeting," says Gretchen Hanshew, fisheries management specialist with NMFS in Seattle. "Those stock assessments would then be conducted during winter, spring and summer, and likely finalized at the council's September 2015 meeting for use in management in 2017-2018." — Charlie Ess

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