Gulf/South Atlantic Yellowfin

Winter's over, but market's still cold for fleet battered by imports, weather

The long, hard winter of 2013-14 is finally over, but the previously thriving yellowfin tuna market has turned cold.

Market prospects were bright early last year, spurring importers to place big orders to build inventory and take advantage of elevated prices. But that inventory buildup ended in glut when high prices cooled demand as 2013 progressed.

Imports, which drive the market, fattened supplies even as U.S. production slowed, and price has yet to recover. Whereas Gulf of Mexico landings typically reach no more than 3 million pounds, 2013 yellowfin imports totaled 41.1 million pounds, up from 39.4 million pounds in 2012.

"Our production levels are down, and the marketplace is really, really down due to oversupply," says David Maginnis, vice president of Jensen Tuna in Houma, La.

Reasons for the domestic production problems worrying Maginnis aren't altogether clear. However, recent research published in the journal Science supports concerns that the 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill could be a factor. An especially brutal winter on both Atlantic and Gulf coasts may have contributed, too.

Louisiana landings data for 2013 was unavailable. But preliminary data shows North Carolina landings slipped from 855,006 pounds in 2012 to 666,918 pounds in 2013. Florida production, according to preliminary numbers, increased slightly from 983,279 pounds in 2012 to a 1.02 million pounds last year. However, Florida's average ex-vessel price dropped from $3.83 per pound in 2012 to $3.69 last year.

The harsh winter hurt domestic production and demand.

"As far as the market, the weather has really killed us," Maginnis says. "People can't get out to eat."

November through April landings for yellowfin, the Southeast's primary commercial tuna, may be even slower than usual this year thanks to winter storms that affected Atlantic states and even the Gulf Coast, where some areas saw snow for the first time in years.

In late March, the story was the same from Virginia to Florida — no tuna and little fishing of any kind. Still, Brian Peede, national sales representative with Wanchese Fish Co., which has facilities in North Carolina and Virginia, said he was expecting some yellowfin soon.

"The longliners that went out, they are catching shark [now], but I should have some boats in this week," said Peede, who works out of the company's Suffolk, Va., office.

Steve George, general manager at Willie R. Etheridge Seafood, also in Wanchese, says rough weather has hurt his fleet's production.

"Conditions have been extremely windy, you can't do much with the wind," he says.

Even as far south as Florida, there was no action, said Gerald Pack, owner of Safe Harbor Seafood in Atlantic Beach.

"We're in the dead of our no-producing time," he said. "We get a few [tuna] when the mahi boats go out."

In Louisiana, Maginnis says he's been concerned about production since the oil spill.

"It's been down, down, down ever since," he says.

Such concerns were bolstered in February when Barbara Block of Stanford University and NOAA scientist Nat Scholz presented their findings about the effects of polyaromatic hydrocarbons from the spill on tunas at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Chicago.

Using samples from the spill, the researchers studied the effects these compounds have on the hearts of yellowfin and bluefin tunas, species known to have spawned in the gulf during the oil spill. Their research uncovered troubling evidence about how these substances compromise the electrical activity in heart muscles. It could potentially cause serious heart problems, especially in larvae and juvenile fish. — Hoyt Childers

Pacific Salmon

Pink surplus could plunge dock price; lots of wiggle room for California kings

Alaska's pink salmon glut last year could dampen ex-vessel prices this season. On the other side of the ex-vessel coin, while Bristol Bay sockeye harvests are projected to improve, prices could rise above $2 per pound as 2014 unfolds.

Alaska harvesters caught a record 282.9 million fish in 2013. They were worth $691.1 million, a total bested only by the $724 million notched in 1988.

Last year's 226.3 million pinks harvest played a major role in the 2013 revenue total. Many fishermen reported dockside offers of up to 38 cents per pound.

This season, huge carryover inventories going into the season will satisfy canned pink demand.

"We came into the 2013 season with roughly a half year's inventory," says Andy Wink, seafood project manager with the Alaska-based McDowell Group. "We're going into this season with two to three years of inventory."

Translated to canned volumes, typical carryover inventories have averaged 1.5 million cases (48-count, tall cans) in recent years. As of March, supplies totaled around 4.1 million cases, Wink says.

Numbers like those would seem like a good predictor of reduced ex-vessel prices for pinks. However, Wink speculates that processors will have interest in high-quality pinks for frozen products.

Alaska's 2014 pinks harvest is projected to fall by 67 percent to 74 million fish, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. It predicts the overall salmon harvest for all species will drop to 132.6 million. That projection total includes 79,000 kings in areas outside of Southeast and Bristol Bay, 33.6 million sockeyes (up 14 percent over 2013), 4.4 million cohos and 19.9 million chums (6 percent lower).

It's projected the 2014 Bristol Bay commercial sockeye catch will hit 17.9 million fish. That's up from 15.37 million landed last year, which fell shy of the 20.5 million taken in 2012.

As a result, ex-vessel prices increased from the average $1 per pound of 2012 to $1.50. Last fall gillnetters speculated that the slimmer 2013 catch and the possibility of a similar 2014 harvest could raise prices going into the season.

On the West Coast, California troll-caught salmon harvests have been on the upswing in recent years but may take a step back this year.

According to the Pacific Fishery Management Council's Review of 2013 Salmon Fisheries, California king landings hit 297,409 fish, up from the 215,585 in 2012. Likewise, revenue jumped from $12.9 million in 2012 to $23 million last year, according to Pacific Fisheries Information Network data.

Still, West Coast harvests have plenty of room for improvement, says Zeke Grader, executive director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations, in San Francisco.

"It was good for this century. But we're still way below what our potential is," says Grader, referring to harvests that hit a high of more than 1 million fish in the late 1980s.

Some 634,650 fall kings are forecast to hit the Sacramento River this year, and 299,300 more are predicted to reach the Klamath River, according to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife's 2014 salmon forecast.

California's ocean commercial harvest could range from 166,900 to 177,800 fish. The catch limit will depend on which of three commercial alternatives the council chooses. It was expected to decide at its April meeting.

Farther north, Columbia River harvesters can expect a run of 1.6 million kings, the best since 1938, and a run of about 964,000 cohos, according to Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife data.

Harvesters hope this year's ex-vessel offerings will rival last year's. Fishermen received an average $6.14 per pound, according to council data. — Charlie Ess

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