Gulf/South Atlantic Summer Flounder
North Carolina summer flounder harvesters still face logistical challenges despite recovery
by Hoyt Childers
In terms of biology, summer flounder surely rates nine out of 10. NMFS declared summer flounder rebuilt in 2010, and a 2013 benchmark stock assessment found fishing mortality was well below maximum limits with the spawning biomass "just below" the target of 137.55 million pounds.
Marketwise, the 2014 outlook also remains very good. Flounder is a premium fish consistently in high demand. Ex-vessel prices remain high and relatively stable — averaging $2.56 a pound in 2013, according to the North Carolina Division of Marine Fisheries.
And there's a new wrinkle this year. Between April 15 and Nov. 14 — roughly the period when the fishery would normally be closed — North Carolina management officials are allowing vessels one additional 50-box trip (that equals 5,000 pounds) to help catch the state's quota. Vessels were also allowed to land 20 boxes of black sea bass (2,000 pounds) before the end of April.
Boats that make that 50-box summer flounder trip can land another 500 pounds of black sea bass between the end of April and Nov. 14. After Nov. 14, managers will assess remaining quota and open another harvest window.
Through May, North Carolina had landed 2.39 million pounds of the 2014 adjusted quota of 2.88 million pounds. Early raw data yields an average ex-vessel price of $2 per pound. In 2013, harvesters landed 541,661 pounds worth $1.39 million.
Oregon Inlet shoaling stymied deliveries into North Carolina last year; consequently, much of the state's 3.13 million pound quota was transferred to other states.
With the market and the stocks healthy, the problems facing the North Carolina fleet — which gets the largest portion of the Atlantic coast allocation at 27.44 percent — are logistical and, more recently, political.
"What we are dealing with is a success story," says North Carolina Fisheries Association President Jerry Schill. "Success is pretty hard to deal with sometimes."
One problem is the fishing grounds have moved farther north, which some attribute to climate change. Schill cites the successful rebuilding effort as a factor, too.
Whatever the reason, having to steam to fishing grounds now mostly off New Jersey and north is a deal-breaker for smaller boats and a profit-eater for larger ones that can make the trip.
Off-loading in Virginia is another option, but it's one that in addition to robbing North Carolina's industry of landings and income has birthed an allocation fight. Because North Carolina hasn't been able to fully land its allocation in recent years, states to the north are eyeing the Carolina quota.
Schill notes that while North Carolina fishermen get the biggest allocation share, they also suffered the most during years of rebuilding.
"It would be patently unfair to penalize the Southern states for it [by taking quota]," he says.
Millions have been spent through the years on dredging Oregon Inlet, which crosses between Hatteras Island and Bodie Island on North Carolina's Outer Banks. It was dredged late last year.
Yet chronic shoaling persists there, making it difficult for larger boats to deliver to the big Roanoke Island fish houses that buy much of the flounder. The next option, Hatteras Inlet, lies 60 miles to the south, but it, too, requires frequent dredging.
Despite such considerable challenges, the 2014 portion of the past season "wasn't too bad," says Steve George, manager of Willie R. Etheridge Seafood Co. in Wanchese. "Very rarely did anybody have to go to Virginia."
The 50-box trip and related black sea bass bonus should help bump up the profit margin for boats already at sea but probably won't motivate many dedicated summer flounder trips.
"It's just not enough weight to go that far," George says. "I don't see that many boats participating."
* * * *
Best recruitment in 30 years may not offset fallout from Ukraine's upheaval
By Charlie Ess
Pacific whiting harvest quotas are on the upswing for West Coast trawlers. Strong recruitment of harvestable age classes in the whiting biomass contributed to an overall total allowable catch of 316,206 metric tons for the U.S. fleet.
That's a lofty improvement over the 2013 TAC of 269,745 metric tons and the 2012 total of 186,037 metric tons. The abundance of young fish recruiting into the fishery fuels the TAC growth.
"The 2010 year class is the strongest seen since 1980, which is the highest recruitment observed for the stock," says John DeVore, a groundfish staff officer with the Pacific Fishery Management Council in Portland, Ore. "The 2008 and 2009 year classes are also above average."
Last year, trawlers targeted the 2008 fish because their size made them favorable fits for the processors' filleting machines. This year, the trawlers will shift their focus toward the 2010 fish.
"The fleet targeted both the 2008 and 2010 year classes last year," DeVore says. "There are still plenty of the 2008 cohorts available for harvest, but I foresee there will be increasing targeting of the 2010 year class, which should be the dominant year class in the fishery for the next few years."
The United States and Canada jointly manage the whiting fishery and set TACs for both countries, as set forth in the Pacific Whiting Treaty. Early on, the Canadian contingent worried that larger U.S. TACs would reduce the abundance of larger fish swimming north toward British Columbia; the larger fish tend to migrate farther north than younger fish do. More recently, however, the two countries have agreed to an approach that will optimize the harvest.
"The international process is quite interesting, and an overall management strategy is starting to emerge," DeVore says. "The assessments in the last two years have also attempted to do more sophisticated population simulations to evaluate different management strategies. This type of modeling is important to optimize harvest strategies for both countries."
The U.S. share of the total coastwide adjusted TAC of 428,000 metric tons percentage is set at nearly 74 percent. Canadian harvesters receive the remaining 26 percent, or 111,794 metric tons.
Last year the U.S. fleet caught around 229,000 metric tons, according to an International Joint Technical Committee for Pacific Hake stock status report issued in February. Pacific Fisheries Information Network data for 2013 shows that ex-vessel offerings averaged 12 cents a pound.
However, whether prices remain at that level may depend on factors like Russia's takeover of the Crimea region of Ukraine, a prime buyer of frozen U.S. whiting fillets. Uncertainty over how the situation will affect Ukraine's whiting demand has the potential to shake market confidence and bring lower ex-vessel prices.
Among top trading partners — which include Lithuania, Russia, Italy and China — Ukraine stands heads above in its share of U.S. whiting exports, according to NMFS foreign trade data.
In 2012, the country claimed 13.94 million kilos that generated $29.17 million in revenue. Last year, U.S. exports of frozen whiting products to Ukraine spiked to 21.26 million kilos that was valued at $39.4 million.
"I think it's too early to early to tell," whether the upheaval in the Ukraine will affect ex-vessel prices, said Pete Leipzig, executive director of the Fishermen's Marketing Association in McKinleyville, Calif., speaking at the end of May. "The shore-based boats won't fish until June 15."
Leipzig added that only the catcher-processor sector of the fleet had been fishing and that early PacFIN ex-vessel data entries of around 6 cents per pound aren't representative of the averages that will be posted later in the year, when more of the season's volume begins pulsing through various distribution channels.