Northeast LOBSTER

Prices hit best level since recession,
thanks to cool spring, Asian demand

By Kirk Moore

Northeast lobster fishermen saw the best price surge since the Great Recession of 2008 in the latter part of 2014, driven by buyers — including export demand from China — and odd weather and water temperatures that reduced supplies.

Lobstermen say the season got a late start with cooler spring weather, and by fall it appeared Maine landings would be lower and the fishery’s southern areas would be slowing down sooner than usual. Some Area 4 captains began pulling gear early because of those diminishing catches.

Prices were better after years of soft demand and high production from Maine. Soft-shells were around $3 a pound in late 2014 — compared with $2 or less at times in recent years. Early fall prices to the boats from Boston buyers were $3.75 to $4.25, and Canadian fishermen were expecting to get some of that as their fall season commenced.

Summer hard-shell prices in southern areas were $5 to $5.50. Continuing uncertainty over the recovery from Hurricane Sandy in 2012 still dampened the beach tourism trade, especially at New Jersey resorts that are big consumers of Northeast lobster.

But Asia’s growing middle class wants lobster. The demand from China was underlined when the seafood powerhouse Zhangzidao Group announced it had acquired H&H Fisheries Ltd. of Eastern Passage, Nova Scotia, to process and export Canadian lobster — and as a beachhead for the company’s future expansion in Canada.

Renamed Capital Seafood International, the plant will be a subsidiary of the Zoneco Group, the Chinese company’s new North American division. Company officials said they expect the plant could move as much as 10 million pounds of lobster a year.

New anxiety arose when the Maine Lobstering Union moved toward potentially suing NMFS over the five-year-old rule that requires sinking rope and longer traps lines to help reduce whale entanglements.

The union — organized in 2013, and with about 600 members, an upstart competitor to the much larger and established Maine Lobstermen’s Association — contends the sinking gear is a safety hazard to fishermen and not of that much benefit to whales.

The union’s filing of a notice of intent for taking the government to court ignited a debate in Maine’s industry, where some 70 percent of lobster waters are exempt from the gear rules. But the 60-day notice expired in early October without a lawsuit appearing.

The MLA and others in the industry worry a court fight could unravel hard-won compromises that helped Maine fishermen — and lead animal welfare and environmental groups to come forward with new demands.

“The plan we have in Maine has been hard-fought and hard-won…Maine has done very well,” says Patrice McCarron, the lobster association’s executive director, who notes the sinking-line rules in effect for the last five years are the result of 20 years of negotiating.

In those first years sinking line caused safety problems, as the union’s complaints assert, McCarron agrees. But “five years later, we’re not seeing that any more,” she says. “The industry had to adapt.”

But there are other calls for exemptions to the Large Whale Take Reduction Plan. The Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries in August submitted a request to NMFS to exempt inshore areas from some requirements, contending there are no whale interactions in those areas and the numbers of fixed gear in trap fisheries are down substantially over the years.

NMFS’ goal with the 2009 gear rules is to reduce entanglements with North Atlantic right whales, one of the most endangered marine mammal species in the world, with a population estimated to have fallen below 500 animals.

Ship strikes in East Coast port approaches and fishing gear entanglements are dangers. NMFS issues speed limit warnings for big ships and required changes to fixed lobster and gillnet gear all along the East Coast.


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Alaska & Pacific PETRALE

Catch reflects less-than-all-out effort;

numbers signal stock rebuilding gains

By Charlie Ess

So-so fishing effort for petrale sole along the West Coast could leave leftover quota on the table. That bodes well for raising the status of the stock to rebuilt in 2015.

Trawlers got off to a slow start in 2013 and had harvested around 64 percent of the annual catch limit under their IFQ shares as of mid-October. Fishing then picked up and deliveries ran heavy, with some fishermen delivering up to 20,000 pounds from trips that were less than two days. Final 2013 data indicates that the fleet caught 2,265 metric tons out of an annual catch limit of 2,592 metric tons.

This year, as of Oct. 22, the fleet had landed 1,722 metric tons of an ACL of 2,652 metric tons.

“In spite of the value of petrale relative to other groundfish species, and the constraints on catch due to the rebuilding program, to date only 72 percent of the trawl petrale quota has been caught,” says Rod Moore, executive director of the West Coast Seafood Processors Association, in Portland, Ore. “I doubt that we will catch more than 85 percent of the quota this year.”

More fish left in the water can only hasten the recovery of the stock, which had been declared overfished in 2009. In June 2014, the Pacific Fishery Management Council recommended an ACL of 2,816 metric tons for 2015, and 2,910 metric tons for 2016. Final rule on the exact ACL was expected in February, according to Gretchen Hanshew, fisheries management specialist with NMFS, in Seattle.

Hanshew says there are measures in place to run the fishery in the interim between the proposed and the actual ACLs. The fishery begins concurrent with other groundfish fisheries on Jan. 1.

“We are putting some interim quota in for January-February 2015 due to a delay in analyses that support the 2015-16 rule making,” says Hanshew. “The intent is to keep the fishery uninterrupted.”

As for the health of the markets, Moore says conventional market dynamics are in play.

“As far as I know, it’s just normal supply and demand functions that fluctuate during the year,” he says.

Overall, ex-vessel prices have fallen from around $1.45 per pound in 2012 to $1.25 in 2013 and to around $1.12 in 2014.

“That sounds about right,” says Scott Adams, operations and production manager with Hallmark Fisheries, in Charleston, Ore. Adams adds that ex-vessel values have fallen in accordance with plentiful supplies, not only from the West Coast fleet but as a result of an influx of petrale coming in from Canada.

Though petrale can’t be singled out from other sole species in the NMFS foreign trade databases, U.S. imports of fresh Dover sole from Canada rose sharply from 63,220 metric tons in 2012 to 255,774 metric tons in 2013. Adams says enough fresh petrale hits markets along the West Coast, particularly in San Francisco, to dampen prices all the way up and down the distribution chain.

“As soon as Canada gets fish, the market drops,” he says.

As luck would have it, local fleets haven’t swamped the docks with an onslaught of product in a repeat of last year, and Adams says ex-vessel prices were holding at around $1.25 per pound for fish that his company could sell in the round and a buck a pound for fish that incurred added costs of processing if they had to go through filleting machines.

The reason for slower paced petrale deliveries?

“Shrimp was killer this year,” says Adams. “This year the effort has been on shrimping.” He expected his fleet to wind up their shrimp seasons and begin fishing petrale sole in early November.

And when the trawls go overboard for petrale, Adams predicts, the harvest will be bountiful.

“There’s an awful lot of fish out there,” he says.


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