Gulf/South Atlantic Mullet

Florida's unsteady supply encourages foreign traders to enter roe business

The Gulf of Mexico 2008-09 fall and winter roe season didn't halt discouraging declines in the mullet market, and it's difficult to find any encouraging signs for the near future.

The roe-mullet market, which historically has been the dynamic, moneymaking focus of this fishery, is barely viable anymore. The 2007-08 market was bad; the season just past was even worse.

"The roe season has been miserable," says Bob Gill, owner of Shrimp Landing in Crystal River, Fla. "You try to make some contact with the [Taiwanese] buyers; they won't even give you a price. They say, 'Show me your fish, and I'll pay you what it's worth.'"

You can't do business that way, Gill says. Fishermen are reluctant to go out not knowing what they can get for their fish.

"Functionally, they would be going out unpriced," he says.

Gill attributes the roe market declines to Taiwan finding alternate sources — Australia, the Mediterranean, farm-raised in Taiwan, among others — for mullet roe, coupled with world economic turmoil.

"Egypt, the Mediterranean, they've got roe left over," he says. "You take the alternative sources and put it with the world economy tanking... it's been very difficult."

Even when the world recession ends, the other, basic changes in the global mullet market will likely continue limiting demand for U.S. roe.

"I don't see that changing any time soon," Gill says.

The long decline of Gulf of Mexico mullet roe in the global scene may well be yet another consequence of the Florida gillnet ban passed 15 years ago. A cast net and small-seine fishery developed to fill the breach but has never been able to approach the supply from the gillnet days.

Since 1995, when the net ban took effect, annual mullet landings have fluctuated from 5.6 million to 10.2 million pounds. Foreign buyers have developed new sources, says Scott Richardson, who manages processing and production for Northwest Seafood in Gainesville, Fla.

"You get a lot of mullet out of Egypt," Richardson says. "Anytime you can't get anything constantly, the demand goes down."

To make matters worse, the 2008-09 mullet run was a disappointment.

"The mullet run was late and brief," he says.

Though mullet in Florida — still by far the nation's top producer — are plentiful, many fishermen who targeted mullet in years past are being forced to turn to other pursuits.

Kevin Beckham, a Cedar Key, Fla., mullet fisherman, hasn't completely given up on mullet. But he has taken up clam farming as his mainstay.

"There wasn't anybody wanted any roe" during the past season, he says. "People were waiting in line for 80, 90 cents a pound. The roe market is killing everybody."

Tom Diehl, a Melrose, Fla., fisherman who in years past has followed the winter roe mullet run on both coasts, reported even worse prices.

"They didn't pay nothing for them," he says. "We used to get like a dollar fifty, dollar sixty for them." But this past season, "in Jacksonville, 50 cents a pound for red roe fish. That's all they would pay us."

With the market so depressed, Diehl, who owns four small inshore boats for chasing mullet, has turned to custom boat work to take up the slack.

"To wear all your stuff out for nothing ain't cutting it," he says.

In sum, globalization of the roe mullet market has not worked out well for the Gulf of Mexico mullet fishery, and prospects for the future are iffy at best.

Comparison of U.S. frozen mullet roe exports (most mullet roe exported is frozen) for the first two months of 2009 to exports for the same months in 2008 illustrate just how bad the situation has become. During January and February 2008, the United States exported 484,196 pounds of frozen roe. During the same months in 2009, exports dropped to 123,899 pounds.

Mullet stocks are excellent, and the price for non-roe fish remains relatively good, by comparison with the drop in price for roe fish, at least. Fishermen like Diehl or Beckham, who have developed their gear and technique to a high degree, can still make a good haul in a day if and when the price warrants it.

"Heck, I can go out there and catch 700 to 800 pounds [in a day]," Beckham says.

Average dockside price in 2008 for mullet overall was not great, at 57 cents a pound (about the same as 2002), but was, as previously noted, in some cases better than the dismal prices paid for roe fish. — Hoyt Childers

Pacific Halibut & Blackcod

Recession weighs down halibut price, but blackcod's value is rising with yen

The health of this year's ex-vessel prices for halibut and blackcod will be driven by the relative strength of the U.S. and Japanese economies.

Both species are harvested from March until mid-November. But the majority of halibut funnels through market channels here in the United States while an estimated 70 percent of the blackcod winds up in Japan.

In the United States, the crimp on disposable cash could mean fewer folks dining out — and that means less fresh halibut being consumed in white tablecloth restaurants, says Bob Alverson, general manager of the Seattle-based Fishing Vessel Owners' Association.

"The market for a lot of us is driven by the bling crowd," Alverson says.

In years past, in the weeks before the season ends in mid-November, processors stocked up on product for winter sales. Markets have traditionally absorbed frozen inventories before the season reopens in March.

But waning consumer demand left lots of fish in the freezers coming into the 2009 season. Making matters worse in setting this year's ex-vessel prices, much of the holdover halibut was purchased for more than $4 per pound at the end of last season.

Hoping to shore up prices, fishermen who deliver their halibut to Homer, Alaska, delayed fishing their IFQ shares, says Jessica Yeoman, marketing agent with the Auction Block in Homer.

"Many of the boats were encouraged not to fish right at the opening, so landings were slim the first 10 days," Yeoman says.

The first fish hitting the docks saw ex-vessel prices of around $3.65 per pound for all sizes, Yeoman says. In the days following, processors' bids rose to a high of $4.67 for fish over 40 pounds but fell suddenly when appreciable deliveries started rolling in.

As the season unfolded, prices dropped to $3.90 for fish in the 10-to-20-pound category, $4.10 for fish from 20 to 40 pounds and $4.35 for halibut 40 pounds and up and slipped to $2.90, $3.15 and $3.40 respectively by mid-April, indicating the market's zeal for fresh fish was easy to fulfill.

"Fresh sales must have gotten choked up faster than buyers thought," she says. Some fish sold in late April, she adds, wound up in freezers.

Ex-vessel prices during the same period last year ranged from $4.40 per pound for 10- to 20-pound fish, $4.60 for 20- to 40-pound fish and $4.80 for fish 40 pounds and up.

Halibut prices were holding up somewhat better for deliveries along the West Coast. Scott Adams, production and operations manager at Hallmark Fisheries, in Charleston, Ore., says 10-hour openings and smaller dabs of product have moved well through fresh markets. According to Pacific Coast Fisheries Information Network data, dockside prices in late April were around $4.10 per pound, and fishermen had landed around 160,000 pounds out of 2009's 17 million pound quota.

Meanwhile, blackcod market demand seems impervious to the sagging global economy. That's good news for Alaska harvesters fishing on a 2009 quota of 26.5 million pounds.

In April, the Japanese yen was trading more favorably to the U.S. dollar. As the blackcod season began, the yen gradually increased to around 106 to the dollar. But its relative strength remains high in light of exchange rates of up to 122 to the dollar in recent years.

Blackcod delivered to Homer through mid-April brought e
x-vessel prices of $4.30 for fish less than 3 pounds while fish in the 3- to 4-pound category sold for $4.50. Yeoman says blackcod in the 4-to-5-pound range fetched $4.80; fish from 5 to 7 pounds brought $5.20, and ex-vessel prices for "seven ups" — fish 7 pounds and heavier — remained steady at $5.40.

Throughout the various size categories, blackcod prices are roughly 50 cents per pound higher than what processors offered during the same period last year.

"Blackcod is the shining star in the murky cave of this year's IFQ fishery," Yeoman says.

Sales in Japan dictate demand for Alaska product, Adams says. But most of his blackcod is sold to markets in Hawaii and Seattle, with some going to other West Coast ports. He expects ex-vessel prices will remain healthy on the domestic front as blackcod works its way into markets that West Coast salmon have traditionally filled.

"Blackcod has become a high-demand fish because there are no salmon," he says.

Adams says blackcod prices have been running from between $2.75 to $4.75 per pound for longline-caught blackcod and slightly less for those caught in trawls. — Charlie Ess

Northeast Scallops

At $7 per lb., it's not peanuts they're catching on Elephant Trunk off Jersey

East Coast scallop boats converged on the March 1 opening of the mid-Atlantic Elephant Trunk grounds, gathering fat shellfish and battling tough early spring weather that may have sunk one boat with the loss of six men, in the region's worst accident since 1999.

The March 24 sinking of the Cape May, N.J.-based Lady Mary, and a non-fatal collision three weeks later involving the Dictator from Southwest Harbor, Maine, and a container ship, marred an eagerly anticipated season. In early May, underwater video showed the Lady Mary may have fallen victim to a gear entanglement, says Stevenson Weeks, a lawyer for family owners Royal "Fuzzy" Smith Sr. and the Smith & Smith company of Bayboro, N.C.

Elephant Trunk scallops earned $8 a pound for extra-large scallops and $6 for U-10 to U-20s. Given the withering recession and lower diesel costs since last year, those prices made scallops one of the industry's few bright spots. The opening drew New England crews shut out of areas like Nantucket Lightship.

"This is the first time for me. If I didn't come down here, I wouldn't catch my share," says Phil Michaud of Wellfleet, Mass.

Michaud steamed more than 40 hours and 320 miles in his 32-footer from Provincetown, Mass., joined by at least a dozen other Cape Cod captains who based themselves out of Ocean City, Md. Michaud started fishing there March 1 and was finishing his last trip to the Elephant Trunk in early May.

By mid-March weather was rough but prices were consistently staying between $6 and $7 a pound, Barnegat Light, N.J., captain Peter Dolan said following a seven-day, 15,000-pound trip on the 75-foot limited-access boat Ms. Manya.

Dozens of boats at a time worked southeast of Cape May on the Elephant Trunk grounds, which got the name from an elongated shape on nautical charts.

"It's been pretty good. There are spots offshore where you can get good tows. It's not as good as last time. But everybody is getting some," said Robert Dane of Virginia Beach, Va., captain of the general category boat Laura Mae.

Dane, 21, started working in the general category fishery six years ago and is one of those who got in early enough to hold onto his 400-pound daily permit. He started fishing in early April with his 50-foot Nova Scotia-built Dixon and two deckhands, and they were seeing around $5.75 at the beginning of May.

Compared to the last opening, "there's not that many," Dane said. Bigger scallops were coming from the Trunk's north end, "and they've done pretty well up north on open ground off Point Pleasant [N.J.]" in the New York Bight, he said.

"They're hitting them really good on the open bottom," said Bill Goshen of the Miss Taylor, a Cape May, N.J., single-dredge boat.

He and his crewmates likewise did well, harvesting 20-30 count shellfish and ending up at $6.15 a pound when an April 7 mechanical breakdown forced them in, Goshen said.

While fishermen noted the abundance of young scallops, captain Samuel Christopher of Jacksonville, Fla., said the idea of so many boats towing through them made him uneasy.

"It's not as good as last year," said Christopher, who based his boat Christopher's Joy in Cape May. "It's taking longer to catch them... and they're not as large as last year. What they should do is shut it down for a while. They're going to do the same thing they did to the Hudson Canyon."

Christopher said the big boats were next looking forward to Georges Bank opening in June. But despite the respectable money coming out of the Elephant Trunk, Michaud said the industry's troubling signs are still there.

"When you're doing the numbers, it sounds like a lot," he said of the prices. "But it is very expensive to fish like this, a lot of wear and tear. I don't want to be running out to Georges Bank.

"I used to fish for 100, 200 pounds locally. It was better for our families, better for the resource. They're managing us now like we're a big-boat fleet," Michaud said. "I should not be here. I should be fishing at home, on my own time."

But in Provincetown, Michaud said, "I've seen permits leave town to stack on bigger boats. There are four or five of us left," he said. "I see consolidation of the limited access fleet, but also to general category... I think eventually you could see the scallop resource concentrated in the hands of 25 individuals." — Kirk Moore

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