Gulf/South Atlantic

IFQ fisheries flourish; oysters, blue crab struggle; shrimp fortunes vary

The top finfish stocks — red grouper and red snapper — are in good shape, as are their fisheries, both now managed in the Gulf of Mexico under individual fishing quota programs. Cold water temperatures early in the year slowed the grouper harvest a bit, but mild weather toward year's end may well compensate when Florida's final numbers are tallied.

Red snapper prices were a healthy $3.82 through mid-August in 2013. And average catch per trip value has risen over the past three years from $1,950 to $2,586 in 2013. Under IFQ management, the grouper fishery has seen growth in ex-vessel price, total dollar value and in pounds landed.

The red snapper fishery bears watching, however, as the recreational sector attempts to gain allocation at commercial fishermen's expense. Reef fish Amendment 28, which could set new red snapper allocation percentages, is now in the scoping phase.

After years of discouraging prices and problems like Florida's East Coast longline ban, swordfish has regained some market stature.

In Florida, the 2012 landings finally surpassed the pre-longline-ban level of 1.4 million pounds, and partial year landings numbers for 2013 indicate the harvest is on track to about equal 2012's 1.8 million pounds. Ex-vessel average price also climbed again, from $3.54 to $3.99 a pound.

In North Carolina, landings and price have increased in most years since at least 2008. In July, markers (100-pound-plus fish) were bringing an excellent $7.50 a pound in Wanchese.
Spanish mackerel has also gained some market respect since 2002, when the annual average was 55 cents a pound in Florida. By 2012, that had jumped to 94 cents a pound and in 2013 increased impressively again, to $1.35 a pound.

The gulf region's number two and three fisheries, oysters and blue crab, are struggling. Fishermen throughout the region have been reporting poor or inconsistent blue crab landings, while the oyster downturn is widespread, leaving no gulf state untouched.

Most of North Carolina's 2013 summer flounder quota was transferred to states farther north because of chronic shoaling at Oregon Inlet, the fleet's gateway to the sound-side fish houses. Further complicating matters, the stocks themselves seem to be shifting farther north, increasing fuel costs for North Carolina vessels big enough to follow them.

In terms of market value in the region, nothing even comes close to shrimp. The value of the top three species — white, brown and pink — combined was $446.55 million in 2012. And while spotty reports of poor landings raised fears of decline earlier in the year, 2013 closed as a pretty good year for harvest and a great year for prices.

For January through November, the latest federal statistics show Gulf of Mexico shrimp landings decreased only slightly — to 108.3 million pounds from 109.8 million pounds — compared to the same months in 2012. Ex-vessel price was the big story, however.

Every single size in every single region increased in price — in some cases significantly — over 2012. For example, average ex-vessel price of 26-30 count (heads off) shrimp increased from $4.20 to $5.20 in Florida Gulf Coast ports, from $3.65 to $5.10 in Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi ports, and from $3.75 to $5.40 in Texas ports.

Texas, Mississippi and Alabama landings decreased a bit while Louisiana and Florida landings increased over the previous year. But shrimpers on the Atlantic side didn't fare nearly so well. Black gill disease took a heavy toll in Georgia and South Carolina.

Trouble abroad aided the domestic market upturn, as diseased stocks plagued Asian shrimp farms, slowing exports to the United States.

Florida's sister fisheries of spiny lobster and stone crab saw mixed results in 2013, with stone crab more or less a repeat of the disappointing previous season. Success with spiny lobster depended more on location, with Lower Keys fishermen reporting decent landings and those farther north not doing so well, depending on the time of year.
— Hoyt Childers


Scallop prices soar, shrimp season is nixed, rich surf clam beds reopen

Scallop prices continued to bounce off the very ceiling of consumer tolerance. They reached around $14 a pound in early February 2014 from $12 a year before, even hitting $15 for the prime 10-and-under count per pound sizes.

One factor is a precautionary reduction that lowered quota about a third from 2012 to 2013. Managers and the industry expect growth in the last rounds of recruited juvenile scallops.

Asian markets remained strong. That demand, combined with lower production from U.S. waters, helped drive prices, with Peruvian fishermen picking up much of the supply slack, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization reported.

East Coast oyster harvests and the Louisiana fishery continued to rebound, while Florida's crashed Apalachicola Bay fishery seemed headed toward a three- to five-year recovery. But Virginia is seeing its best harvests in 25 years, with prices at $40 a bushel dockside.

Whelk may be the most unlikely up-and-comer. Prices are rising for the marine snails that have long been a staple in domestic Italian-American and Asian city markets.

Demand from China has grown so that even smaller wave whelk command a market price around $2 a pound. Hence, boats in New York and New Jersey geared up with small whelk pots.

Chesapeake Bay watermen made good money on blue crabs in 2013 — when they could find them. Females sold for $35 a bushel compared to $20 in summer 2012, and males were up to $85 from $70 the year before.

But those $2-a-piece retail prices for crab house customers meant prices about one-third higher for Chesapeake processors already beleaguered by cheaper and lower-quality canned swimming crab imports from Asia.

Some watermen couldn't find crabs. The summer surprised many, given reports that the female population was up by 52 percent and summer 2012 low-oxygen levels in the bay weren't as bad as in past years. But juvenile crabs in 2013 were barely 20 percent of their 2012 numbers, leading to speculation that red drum, striped bass and other crabs were eating them.

Gulf of Maine shrimp fishermen saw their first shutdown since 1978. Biologists said warming average water temperatures pushing northern shrimp farther north and east to cooler waters may continue fueling the fishery's dire outlook.

New England cod continued to take a beating, with crew employment at four-year lows. The depression appeared to spread to other fisheries like monkfish, where landings were down by nearly a third, according to a NOAA report.

Lobster prices in summer 2013 made a U-turn back to the worst days of 2009 when some Maine soft-shell prices dropped as low as $2.20 per pound. High production created something of a glut. Some think warming water temperatures have driven down the numbers of cod and other lobster predators.

Price recovered somewhat in the fall, and the state of Maine began work to dramatically increase its marketing budget for Maine-branded lobster, up to $3 million from $433,000 a year.

Competition from other proteins has kept surf clam prices stuck for years. But the industry could get a boost from the rich Georges Bank beds that reopened in 2013.

The industry, federal scientists and the Food and Drug Administration collaborated on research that cleared the way for the first harvests there in more than 20 years, using at-sea tests for the effect of toxic algae blooms. The project determined that algae blooms near the surface have little effect on the shellfish.

"There is a billion dollars' worth of shellfish product on Georges Bank that is property of the United States but that can't be harvested because of
the threat of toxicity," said Dave Wallace of the North Atlantic Clam Association in the spring, "and 99.9 percent of the time, it is good, wholesome product."

Industry sources reckon Georges might produce a million pounds of clams a year worth $10 million to $15 million. — Kirk Moore

Alaska & Pacific

Salmon, shrimp keep fleets in pink; blackcod, halibut, P-cod aprices slide

Alaska salmon fishermen won't forget the 2013 season anytime soon. Historic pink harvests of 219 million chums drove the record total catch of 272 million fish.

Even better, ex-vessel prices of $1.50 for sockeyes and around 40 cents for pinks fueled a second best year in revenues of $691 million. Only the 1988 total, driven by astronomical prices pushing revenues to $724 million, surpassed it.

West Coast shrimpers enjoyed yet another bountiful year, harvesting nearly 70 million pounds. Oregon shrimpers landed more than 47.6 million pounds, with average ex-vessel prices reaching just over 50 cents per pound.

Their volume is just shy of the 49 million pounds they reaped in 2012. Moreover, estimates of a large holdover of last year's 1-year-olds that will recruit into the fishery indicate that 2014 will be another great year.

Russia's pollock fishery continued its effort to earn Marine Stewardship Council certification. Winning the endorsement would bolster entry into European markets, where the MSC ecolabel is key. But U.S. processors shipping single-frozen product to Europe are confident they can compete with the twice-frozen Russian fish.

Strong numbers of young fish recruited into the fishery spurred a larger whiting quota for U.S. and Canadian harvesters. The quota jumped significantly from 186,935 metric tons in 2012 to 269,745 metric tons in 2013. Ex-vessel prices, meanwhile, rose from a dime per pound in 2011 to 14 cents in 2012 before settling at an average of 12 cents in 2013.

As of Jan. 17, West Coast Dungeness crabbers had posted total 2013 landings of 75.9 million pounds at average ex-vessel prices of $2.87 per pound, according to Pacific Fisheries Information Network data.

A 23 percent dip in the value of the Japanese yen against the dollar affected ex-vessel prices paid to Alaska's blackcod fleet. Processors paid $5.25 per pound for blackcod 7 pounds and up versus $8.50 in the 2012 season. West Coast harvesters suffered much the same plight with the exception that some blackcod volumes are winding up in domestic outlets.

Alaska's halibut quota continues to decline. The 2013 quota was 21.9 million pounds, and ex-vessel prices were lower. Early season deliveries fetched between $5.35 and $5.90 per pound, depending on size. In 2012, the price spread ran from $5.65 for small fish, to a high of $7.10 for big fish.

The 2013 Pacific cod quotas were larger in the Gulf of Alaska (68,250 metric tons) and the Bering Sea (262,900 metric tons). However, prices dropped to around 30 cents versus 40 cents in 2012.

The sardine quota nosedived last year, from the 94,000 metric tons of 2012 to 66,495 metric tons. Worse, the 2014 quota is a dismal 29,770 metric tons. Fishermen saw prices of around $200 per ton in 2013.

San Francisco herring fishermen worked on a quota of 2,690 tons last year. Base prices hovered around $500 per ton with more money for higher roe recovery. Rapid spawning of the large biomass hobbled Alaska's fabled Sitka herring fishery, which caught about half of its 11,600-ton quota.

Illegally caught, unreported foreign king crab still plagued markets with excess volume, primarily in Japan. Recent studies indicate that nearly 66 million pounds of illegal king crab has been funneled into world markets.

The Bristol Bay salmon harvest, which totaled 7.74 million pounds last year, represents a fraction of supplies. Ex-vessel prices for 2013 dropped to around $6.50 per pound, about a dollar less than in 2012.

West Coast salmon continues to rebound, with preliminary Pacific Fishery Management Council catch data showing a harvest of 489,483 kings. California caught the brunt of them, landing 298,454 fish.

Fishermen delivered 3.5 million pounds of a 5.1 million pound 2013 quota in the fast-paced petrale sole fishery. Ex-vessel prices hovered at $1.50 per pound early in the season, but dropped to around a dollar when the onslaught of petrale hit the docks.

Squid fishery managers and the industry devised a plan in 2013 that will provide real-time harvest estimates as the fleet races toward catching its quota.

Heavy fishing effort during the season's final weeks forced managers to close last season early in hopes of holding to the quota, only to fall 10,000 tons short at 107,242 short tons. Prices are healthy: processors paid an average $640 per ton in 2013. — Charlie Ess

A collection of stories from guest authors.

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