Shrimp fleet on a roll with big landings,
higher prices and major bycatch victory
By Charlie Ess
Increased harvest volumes, higher ex-vessel prices and a major development in reducing bycatch of eulachon (aka candlefish) will mark 2014 as another pinnacle year in the West Coast shrimp fishery’s history.
For five straight years, a fleet of 70 trawlers has enjoyed bountiful harvests of more than 40 million pounds coastwide and ex-vessel prices that have hovered near 50 cents per pound. In Oregon, preliminary 2014-season data shows fishermen caught 51.96 million pounds worth $29.32 million.
As of early December, preliminary 2014 Pacific Fisheries Information Network data showed landings for Oregon, California and Washington had grown from 68.83 million pounds in 2013 to 89.47 million pounds, and the season-average ex-vessel price had risen from 48 cents per pound in 2013 to 55 cents.
“The fishermen have never seen it this good,” says Brad Pettinger, the Oregon Trawl Commission’s executive director. “It’s a very good time to be a shrimper.”
In late November, Pettinger expected the season to go down as Oregon’s second best ever, with contributions from California and Washington pushing the catch to a coastwide record.
“We’re talking about 90 million pounds this year,” Pettinger says. Prices in Oregon started out around 50 cents per pound and rose to 57 cents as the season progressed, he adds. It became obvious that East Coast production shortages would leave markets hungry.
“Prices went up in the last third of the season because of the shortage on the East Coast,” Pettinger notes. “People are scrambling.”
The season’s harvest has established the West Coast as a major player in the global markets.
“Ten years ago, when we landed 10 million pounds in Oregon, we made up about 2 percent of the world landings,” says Pettinger. “Now, we’re maybe pushing 20 percent.”
As has become the norm in recent years, trawlers passed up tows of 1,000 pounds or more in favor of tows of around 5,000 pounds.
“They were running away from tows of a ton,” Pettinger says.
As if the bumper harvest and prices weren’t enough good news, the industry made a breakthrough discovery that reduced bycatch of eulachon and other species, thanks to a study funded by NMFS’s Bycatch Reduction Engineering Program.
With the help of the Pacific Fishery Management Council and the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, the test vessel Miss Yvonne rigged its trawl rope with LED lights every four feet. The lights, commonly purchased for swordfish longlines, were aimed ahead of the footrope.
The results were astonishing: The lights reduced eulachon bycatch by more than 90 percent. At the same time, the lights cut the bycatch of juvenile rockfish by 78 percent, and bycatch reduction of some flatfish species hit 68 percent.
“It was a little difficult to believe what we were seeing,” says Bob Hannah, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife’s pink shrimp project leader. “The level of bycatch reduction was so large; we all instantly knew that if this held up through the rest of the experimental tows, it was going to be huge for the fishery, and for eulachon.”
Hannah quickly adds that the 90-percent reduction is in addition to already-significant reductions achieved by bycatch-reduction devices introduced to the fishery in 2001 and implemented into trawl gear in 2012. Studies and observer reports indicate that the BRDs cut the incidental catch of eulachon to around 2 percent of what it was before the devices were installed on trawls.
Conversely, when the lights were placed near the sieve-like bycatch-excluder devices, eulachon bycatch rates climbed by 100 percent.
“We just completed a survey of the Oregon fleet [in December] and found that within about two months, virtually every boat had installed these LED lights on their footropes and were using them full time,” Hannah says. “This may be one of the most rapid and complete adoptions of new bycatch-reduction technology ever.”
* * *
Prices soar, but population downturn
may spark pilot project to limit catch
Atlantic Blue Crab
By Kirk Moore
Another season of lower landings drove Chesapeake Bay blue crab prices to new highs, and biological warning signals led a volunteer panel of Virginia watermen to call for dramatic reforms — including testing individual harvest limits and a hard allowable-catch limit.
Outside the Chesapeake, crabbers reported a poor season. New Jersey dealers had to resort to Maryland contacts for high-priced crabs.
“The dockside value was pretty good, which allowed the guys to work,” says Jack Brooks of C.M. Clayton Co., a Cambridge, Md., packer. Prices on the Cambridge docks were 75 cents to $1 a pound for females and $1.50 to $2.50 for No. 1 jimmies.
Blue crab is a must-have summer food in the Chesapeake region, making the escalating cost for basket-trade live crabs a topic of everyday conversation. The Baltimore Sun even tracked weekly retail price reports, using Maryland Department of Natural Resources data. That data showed the price for a No. 1 bushel jumped from around $200 in July 2013 to $230 in July 2014.
But the scarcity that drove prices is sounding new alarms in the industry, just a couple of years after there were hopeful signs of greater abundance in the bay. Overall, winter dredge surveys showed a steep decline in estimated total crab numbers, from 765 million in 2012 to 297 million in 2014.
A key 2014 finding was low numbers of female crabs — fewer than the 70 million minimum threshold set in a 2011 agreement among Maryland, Virginia and the Potomac River Fisheries Commission. The preferred target in that stock assessment was 215 million females.
Spikes in the numbers of female and juvenile crabs found in the bay-wide winter dredge surveys conducted between 2010 and 2012 raised hope that conservation measures were working. Virginia banned the traditional winter dredge fishery — a step watermen have greatly maligned — after the 2008 federal declaration of a fishery collapse.
Despite giving up the dredge fishery, watermen are not seeing improved catches. In 2013, Virginia landings of 18 million pounds were down from 29.6 million pounds in 2010, which had been the best season in a decade and cause for optimism. For 2014, Virginia cut female crab landings by 10 percent.
The Virginia Marine Resources Commission recruited 15 people for its Blue Crab Industry Advisory Panel, whose recommendations include a pilot project with about 50 fishermen who would work under individual catch limits instead of seasonal and daily catch restrictions. The idea is to “fish for dollars, not volume,” when market prices are best, says Ken Smith, president of the Virginia Watermen’s Association.
That would take pressure off watermen to take what they can, including lower-value females and small crabs, the group asserts. Those recommendations are on the table but need consensus from Maryland and the Potomac commission to move forward, says Laurie Naismith, a VMRC spokeswoman.
Theories about the cause of poor crabbing in the Chesapeake and elsewhere along the coast range from pollution to oceanographic conditions perhaps affecting crabs’ early life stages. Brooks, like many crabbers, blames striped bass.
“How in the world could we go from having all those crabs in 2012 to two years in a row of very, very low numbers?” Brooks asks. “Something happened to them out there.”
Shrinking sea grass beds, the crabs’ favorite habitat, could be a factor, but crab numbers are falling as striped bass increase, and “they are opportunistic feeders” on juvenile crabs, he says.
With local production down, imported crabmeat competes for purveyors, at costs sometimes as much as one-third less. Venezuela, willing to take price cuts for volume, continues to aggressively push product into the U.S. market.
“Venezuela wants to sell up here on consignment, basically. They lower the price until it goes,” Brooks says. “If they send up 25,000 or 30,000 pounds on a plane, there goes your own price.”