Atlantic & Gulf oysters

Virginia's rising production fills void,
reverses trend with Louisiana suppliers

By Kirk Moore

Virginia oyster producers saw another year of landings growth in 2013 — good enough for Chesapeake Bay to export to Louisiana dealers still grappling with shortages after years of hurricane damage and the 2010 BP oil spill.

"We're trying to supplement with Chesapeake Bay oysters," says Greg Voisin, vice president of sales and marketing at Motivatit Seafood in Houma, La.

The company still gets oysters from its own farm operations in the Bayou Terrebonne Watershed. But the regional problem is poor production east of the Mississippi River.

"We're seeing small upticks, but there's a lot of fresh water coming down" and holding back recovery on those beds, Voisin says.

Oysters have managed to hold their own in a weak economy. Demand has driven Louisiana dock prices from the $20s to the mid-$40s and occasionally $50 a bushel this year.

That's opened a market for product from the Mid-Atlantic — the populous region in past years more likely to consume Gulf Coast oysters.

"It's like the trucks are going in the opposite direction," says Tom Gallivan of Shooting Point Oyster Co. in Franktown, Va. During Virginia's lean times, some oyster dealers "were repacking gulf oysters for 20 years," he recalls.

Now "the price is strong, and many folks are raising their price as our products continue to improve," Gallivan says.

Virginia's 2013 harvest of 504,000 bushels was the biggest since 1987, state officials said in July, and they figure it's easily on track to at least equal that this year. That's just a ghost of the tens of millions of oysters the bay produced until the mid-20th century. But the continued growth offers hope that restoration efforts and aquaculture can develop a substantial industry again. Virginia landings were worth $22.2 million in 2013, up from $16.2 million in 2012.

"Prices are good. One reason the Virginia product is in such demand is the usual [Gulf Coast] areas are not producing," says Mike Oesterling, the Shellfish Growers of Virginia's executive director.

Virginia sold more than 31 million oysters for the half-shell trade last year, Oesterling says, "and that doesn't count the growth of spat-on-shell," the rougher oysters that make up much of what's heading south.

As Chesapeake growers see prices escalate for branded oysters, more modestly marketed local oysters are retailing for 50 cents apiece on the Eastern Shore.

Those prices have made oyster poaching and theft a problem. In July the Virginia Marine Resources Commission announced it yanked the licenses of four watermen for two years over "repeated and egregious" oyster violations.

In Massachusetts, a Cape Cod man was sentenced Aug. 1 to two years in state prison for a high-profile 2013 case that enraged Cape shellfish growers. Michael E. Bryant of West Yarmouth stole $25,000 worth of oysters and sold them to dealer Joseph Vaudo. Vaudo, who pled guilty earlier, paid a $6,250 fine, according to District Attorney Michael O'Keefe.

Louisiana oyster producers hope that in time, they will return as exporters to the East Coast.

"We usually get a 10-year super spat," a big set of oysters when weather conditions and salinities converge about once a decade, Voisin says. "But," he adds, "it's going on 15 years now."

That's driving a lot of the debate over how to rebuild the eroding Mississippi delta with sediment from freshwater diversions. If diversions can be managed right, and a year comes with prevailing winds pushing saltwater in from the gulf, oyster recovery might happen, too.

"When you have the right conditions, you get it all across the state," Voisin says.
"Hopefully those guys will come back. They can operate on a whole different scale," Gallivan says of the Gulf Coast growers. "We still need them to be in the market; they keep people in oysters."

* * *

Pacific King Crab

Poor recruitment could trigger slide
in total allowable catch for Bering Sea

By Charlie Ess

Alaska king crabbers enjoyed an increase in the total allowable catch for the 2013-14 season, but prospects for similarly high TACs for the upcoming year and beyond look less likely.

Last season, the Bering Sea fleet fished on a TAC of 8.6 million pounds, up from 7.85 million pounds in the 2012-13 season. The announcement setting the 2014-15 season TAC is slated for early October.

But according to Heather Fitch, area management biologist for groundfish and shellfish with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in Dutch Harbor, data from last year’s survey indicates that the number of harvestable male king crab is only slightly higher. However, the greater factor is that legal size crab in the fishery have gained weight. More weight per harvestable crab means more total pounds in the TAC.

“It’s just really poor recruitment,” Fitch says. “The current age class is going through the fishery and increasing in body weight, but we don’t see anything after that.”

At the same time that the crab stocks appear to be dwindling, volumes of illegally harvested, unregulated and unreported Russian crab flooding the mainstay market in Japan continue to dampen ex-vessel prices.

According to NMFS foreign trade data, Japan claims most of Alaska’s red king crab. In 2013, the U.S. industry sent 1.14 million kilos worth $26.6 million there. In 2012, exports to Japan were 1.2 million kilos worth $29.7 million, which indicates that prices suffered a decline of more than a dollar per kilo.

At the docks, prices fell from $10 per pound in the 2011-12 season to $7.27 in the 2012-13 season. Last season fishermen received $6.36 per pound.

The Russian fleet catches the illegal crab that’s routed through China to Japan. But U.S. industry representatives are hopeful that diplomatic relations among the countries will crack down on the problem in the years to come. At least part of the challenge has been informing U.S. policy makers about the problem — and how IUU product affects other U.S. fisheries.

Mark Gleason, executive director of the Alaska Bering Sea Crabbers, a Seattle-based organization advocating for the interests of around 70 percent of the Bering Sea king crab IFQ shareholders, says IUU holds negative trade implications for other U.S. fisheries, including those for tuna and snapper/grouper.

“It’s very in your face, here in the crab industry,” says Gleason, adding that elsewhere among the nation’s fisheries, IUU takes a back seat to other issues. “But for the past two years in D.C., we’ve been very effective in highlighting the issue and to get the administration to take notice.”

Last year in September delegates from Russia, Japan, China and the United States met near Anchorage for a summit to discuss strategies to curb IUU crab and other species. Gleason says there were plans to reconvene this year and continue discussions and that group members have been awaiting responses from Russia to proposals that would put shipping container manifests under the microscope of the participating countries and beef up enforcement protocols.

“Last I heard, it was in their court,” Gleason says.

Though the illegal crab harvest remains a problem, volumes going into the market declined slightly last year.

“IUU crab harvests in Russia appear to have fallen in 2013,” says Andy Wink, seafood analyst with the McDowell Group, in Juneau. “We estimate a decline from 115.8 million pounds to 98.9 million pounds. However, the volume of IUU king crab is still well above 2011 levels when Alaska red king crab prices peaked.”    

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