Northeast Groundfish

Disaster aid package brings good news to long-suffering New England fishery

NOAA had one piece of good news when it announced New England would be awarded $32.8 million out of a $75 million fisheries disaster relief package approved by Congress. That came as industry advocates were pressuring the agency and New England Fishery Management Council to reopen closed areas at the council's February meeting.

"We're so appreciative," said Jackie Odell, executive director of the Gloucester, Mass.-based Northeast Seafood Coalition, which partnered with other fishing groups to press for the funding. "We're hoping at least a portion of it goes to direct assistance."

New Jersey and New York, which had been scrapping to revive a Hurricane Sandy fisheries relief package defeated in Congress last year, were incensed. Those states got just $3 million.

"In fact, NOAA reported that there was an estimated $193 million in total losses for New York and New Jersey fisheries combined," protested Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. (D-N.J.). Pallone kept pressing for an aid package after a first attempt was shot down amid the early 2013 budget fights in Congress.

But NOAA officials said they took a longer look at each region's losses over time.

"There are three criteria that must be met to determine if a fishery disaster has occurred: was there a resource failure, is there an allowable cause, and has the commercial fishery failed?" according to Marjorie Mooney-Seus, a spokeswoman for NMFS' Greater Atlantic Fisheries Regional Office in Gloucester, Mass.

Those legal imperatives led NOAA to use its "good information about the economic impacts of the disaster, and so for all of the disasters," to estimate the commercial fisheries revenue losses.
"We used that as a baseline to proportionately divide the funds among the six disasters," Mooney-Seus said.

Those calculations look at the preceding five years of statistics, so New England was ahead because of the groundfish fleet's unending travails. That was even after excluding the worst year.

"However, each situation is unique and we try to take into account unique characteristics or situations," Mooney-Seus said. "For example, in New England, 2012 was a particularly difficult fishing year due to quota reductions to end overfishing and rebuild stocks; we excluded that year from the baseline calculation and instead used 2007-2011 for the five-year comparison to the 2013 fishing year."

The instability in pricing that low supply caused in 2012-13 continued this winter. Cod that in February 2013 was ranging from $2 to $2.40 per pound in New England auctions was $1.75 to $3 a year later. Haddock that doubled in price from 2012 to 2013 with area closures dropped back slightly to an average $3.

The 2012-13 fishing season brought a shocking reversal of what had been modest growth in landings and revenue from 2010 to 2011. Groundfish landings fell by nearly 25 percent, and revenues were down almost 23 percent to a four-year low of $69.8 million, as prices rose on average by a modest 2.7 percent overall, according to a NOAA report.

A week after the disaster funding announcement, NMFS' Northeast director John Bullard was still in the process of talking to state fisheries agencies about how best to use the money. There were no early indications what avenues that might take, Odell said.

The coalition, Associated Fisheries of Maine and the Cape Cod Commercial Fishermen's Alliance signed onto a letter asking for the coming plan to have "regional consistency... so permit holders are treated fairly and equitably," Odell said.

This disaster funding round — part of the annual omnibus appropriations bill Congress passed in January for the 2014 federal budget — brings some added value to the states. Under the Magnuson-Stevens Act, states are usually required to bring some matching funds to the deal. But the state governors and members of Congress managed to get an exemption to that rule. — Kirk Moore

Alaska & Pacific Sardines and P-Cod

Setting seines under new management; empty freezers are promising for P-cod

The upcoming year poses challenges for West Coast sardine seiners, who will be fishing on a substantially lower harvest quota.

Last fall's population estimates put the biomass at 378,120 metric tons for 2014, down significantly from 906,680 metric tons last year. Consequently, the harvest guideline has fallen sharply to 29,770 metric tons from last year's 66,495 metric tons, and is less than a third of 2012's 94,000 metric tons.

Moreover the 2014 quota will be divided to accommodate a new management plan that runs from July 1 to June 30 instead of Jan. 1 to Dec. 31.

Originally, managers were going to let harvesters take 35 percent (10,420 metric tons) between Jan. 1 and June 30. But when the Pacific Fishery Management Council met last December, it chose to err on the side of conservation and set the Jan. 1-June 30 quota at 6,946 metric tons.

Environmental groups, which wanted the commercial harvest curtailed altogether, lauded the council's decision. But industry advocates saw it as a political decision that overrode present tenets of sound management.

The lower quota's effects as the new plan takes hold remain to be seen, says Diane Pleschner-Steele, executive director of the California Wetfish Producers Association.

In March, sardine scientists were working on a new stock assessment model based on the 2013 surveys. But those surveys don't offer the best input, Pleschner-Steele says, especially when fishermen were catching young fish for bait markets in January.

"Unfortunately, the spring daily egg production and summer acoustic surveys did not capture the young sardines that fishermen are seeing now," she says.

One of the problems with acoustic surveys is that the downward angle of the sounders' sensors typically misses fish from the surface to about 10 fathoms deep. Weather and visibility affects other methodology in which aerial spotters take photos of the schools, boats make test sets and scientists extrapolate the tonnage of biomass in the school by the known tonnage inside the circumference of the seine.

In early March, landings reports were scarce. However, Mike McCorkle, a fisherman in Santa Barbara, Calif., says sardines are showing up.

"I see sardines all over the place," says McCorkle, referring to the waters near Santa Barbara. "I'm seeing schools of 150 tons, 200 tons."

Last year, harvesters landed 63,068 metric tons worth $14.46 million, according to Pacific Fisheries Information Network data, with ex-vessel prices averaging $220 per metric ton. In 2012, they tallied 100,206 metric tons valued at $21.49 million.

Meanwhile, a new allocation plan is taking hold in the Pacific cod fishery. Whereas in 2013 the Bering Sea-Aleutian Islands areas shared a total allowable catch of 260,000 metric tons, in 2014 there are separate TACs for the two areas. According to the March 4, 2014, Federal Register, the Bering Sea TAC is 246,897 metric tons while the Aleutian Islands TAC is 6,997 metric tons.

This year's Gulf of Alaska TAC totals up to 64,738 metric tons, up slightly from 2013's 60,600 metric tons.

Last year, it was predicted global markets would wind up with decks awash in product in light of a 1 million metric ton cod quota in the Barents Sea. Though the 2014 quota is only slightly less at 993,000 metric tons, product inventories appear to have been liquidated.

"There was so much product coming out of the Barents Sea," says Harry Mahleres, director of purchasing with the Seattle Fish Co., in Denver. "Now that's kind of leveled off, and [markets] are getting firmer."

Ex-vessel prices hovered around 30 cents last year, down from 40 cents in 2012. Early reports this year were that boats fishing out of Homer received 35 cents per pound. — Charlie Ess

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