Red snapper landings, price rise;
tough times for blue crab, oyster
Fisheries for the Gulf of Mexico’s two top finfish continued their winning streak, with improvements in both landings and, according to reports from fishermen, ex-vessel prices.
Red snapper fishermen landed 99.2 percent of the overall commercial IFQ quota, compared to 97.1 percent in 2013, according to NMFS data. In September, red snapper were bringing fishermen $4.74 to $5 a pound in Louisiana, well above the 2013 gulfwide ex-vessel average of $3.88.
Likewise, red grouper showed even greater improvement, with fishermen landing 99.5 percent of the commercial quota, compared to only 83.2 percent in 2013. In August, red grouper landed in Madeira Beach, Fla., were bringing about $3.80 a pound, compared to the 2013 gulfwide average of $3.
Bolstered by strong Asian demand for live lobster, Florida spiny lobster came on strong in 2014, with early prices an eye-popping $20 a pound or more and still holding in excess of $10 a pound in October, along with a strong harvest, according to reports from the Florida Keys.
For fishermen who depend on blue crab and oysters, the hard times continued.
As part of an ongoing effort to reestablish seed-oyster grounds, Louisiana opened its oyster season late in some areas and delayed until further notice the opening of the primary seed grounds east of the Mississippi River and north of the river outlet, including Lake Borgne.
Texas oystermen had to cope with drought and flood, algae blooms and the Galveston oil spill.
Florida oyster dealers tried unsuccessfully to get the state to close down Apalachicola Bay to allow the bars to recover after a virtual collapse of the bay’s oyster fishery. The state instead implemented additional time and area closures for the winter season.
Louisiana’s blue crab harvest for roughly the first half of the year was very low and could make 2014 the worst year since 2008 if the catch hasn’t improved when the final tally is in. North Carolina crabbers, who historically have vied with Louisiana for top-producer status in the Southeast, did manage an increase over a very poor 2013 harvest, with 23.64 million pounds of hard crab landed, according to mostly complete 2014 figures.
ONES TO WATCH
Overall, 2014 was a bit of a letdown for Gulf of Mexico shrimpers. Gulfwide landings through November dropped from 108.3 million pounds in 2013 to 105.7 million pounds in 2014, the third consecutive year with a volume drop since the 110.9 million-pound high of 2011. Near the end of November, prices for heads-on shrimp were disappointing, with ex-vessel prices for all sizes lower than at the same time in 2013. However, prices for heads-off sizes 26/30, 41/50, 51/60, 61/70 and 70-plus were higher than at the end of November 2013.
Yellowfin tuna may be a victim of the 2010 oil spill. Recent research shows that high concentrations of hydrocarbons in spawning locations can cause serious health issues in larval and juvenile fish. Landings decreased in 2013 compared to 2012. If this trend continues, when the 12-month harvest numbers for 2014 are available, concern among scientists and fishermen will intensify.
When final stone crab numbers are in, the 2014-15 season may well show an improvement compared to recent years. Crabbers to the north, at Crystal River, Fla., and beyond, were doing especially well during the first few weeks after the Oct. 15 opening. Prices were generally very high, with mediums at $10 a pound, larges at $18, jumbos at $23 and colossals at $27.
In North Carolina, despite continued severe shoaling problems at Oregon Inlet, gateway to major fish houses at Wanchese on Roanoke Island, summer flounder fishermen managed to land 2.86 million pounds — roughly 99 percent — of the state’s 2014 quota, based on preliminary information from the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources. This should bolster their case in the looming quota battle with states to the north.
Roe mullet were beginning to show up in December in Florida, bringing a normal $1.10 or so a pound in Crystal River, compared to the lofty $1.75 a pound at opening last year. Recession in Japan is probably limiting the market for such luxury items, though other Asian markets remain fairly robust. — Hoyt Childers
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Scallop prices sustained; cod landings limited; Virginia oysters on upswing
The scallop fleet continued to see sustained high prices, $10 to $13 per pound and peaking past $15 for the largest sizes. Conservation measures that reduced landings drove some of that pricing, but as U.S. retail prices for fresh neared $20 in metropolitan markets, consumers weren’t as willing to pay that much.
Swordfish crews saw one of their best seasons. Prices to the boats were up about $1 from 2013, to $4-$4.50 per pound by September, after a slow start caused by warmer waters in the northwest Atlantic.
The highly successful loligo squid fleet got a longtime roadblock resolved when a reassessment of butterfish led the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council to set a quota of 22,000 metric tons for the little silver fish. Butterfish can swim with squid and had been a choke species.
That new quota could clear the way for fishermen and processors to recapture the Asian export market they once had for butterfish.
New England’s groundfish crisis dominated the news in 2014. Gulf of Maine cod landings were whittled down to a 200-pound trip limit in the final weeks of the year, driving up year-end prices to over $5 a pound and haddock to $4.
The gulf’s northern shrimp weren’t an alternative for groundfish harvesters. The fishery remained closed for another winter because of poor stocks, blamed on warmer water in the Gulf of Maine. Maine landings of 5 million pounds worth $4.6 million in 2012 dropped in 2013 to 563,000 pounds at $1 million.
Still, some shrimp came ashore in 2014, with the Maine Department of Marine Resources and Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission funding a $10,000 survey project to keep tabs on the depleted population by collecting data on size, gender and egg counts.
Four trawlers and five trap boats did the sampling for $500 a trip and the bonus of selling up to 1,800 pounds per trip. Trappers could do some cooking and freezing; they were allowed to keep 100 pounds per week.
Mid-Atlantic buyers were still relying imported blue-crab meat from Venezuela and other overseas suppliers, supplanting yet another poor season from the Gulf of Mexico up to New Jersey.
The July basket trade for live crabs hit $230 a bushel in the Washington-Baltimore market, and Eastern Shore processors paid $1.50 to $2.50 a pound for large male crabs. The Chesapeake winter dredge survey calculated a population at 297 million — down from the 765 million estimate in 2012 — and showed female crabs falling below the 70 million threshold in the bay’s management plan.
ONES TO WATCH
Virginia continued to increase oyster production, which has surpassed 500,000 bushels a year through an earnest restoration program. There was enough to go around, such that Louisiana dealers — still coping with damage from hurricanes and the BP oil spill — bought oysters from Virginia as prices on the Gulf Coast touched $50 a bushel.
There was movement toward expanding spiny dogfish opportunities by lifting trip limits, as processors in New England began to gradually increase capacity.
Government managers and the industry could probably boost landings safely to take advantage of a spawning stock approaching 240,000 metric tons, according to James Sulikowski, a University of New England professor who confirmed fishermen’s reports that female dogfish can reproduce year-round.
That explained the rapid rebuilding of the dogfish population, and led to raising potential landings from 15 million to 49 million pounds. But with dockside prices around 15 cents a pound, the annual quota was nowhere near being caught, and there was still skepticism in the industry over how Europe’s continuing economic malaise would affect that primary export market.
After a slow start in spring, lobster prices continued to recover from their last post-recession dip, with early fall prices from Boston buyers between $3.75 and $4.25 per pound. The industry saw growing export potential to Asia, underlined when the Chinese seafood giant Zhangzidao Group acquired a processing plant in Nova Scotia.
Converging pressures in the lobster-bait market drove herring and menhaden prices in Maine to $110 and $130 per bushel, even with a slow start to the lobster season.
The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission cut the menhaden bait fishery’s 2013 landings by about 20 percent. That, combined with earlier season closings for herring and recreational demand for fresh menhaden in the Mid-Atlantic, has in effect doubled the price of pogies in the last couple of years, fishermen say. — Kirk Moore
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Dungeness, shrimp fleets thrive; sardine quota takes a tumble
West Coast Dungeness crab fishermen saw ex-vessel prices go crazy shortly after the season began. Processors had negotiated starting offers of $2.65 per pound, but a bidding war quickly broke out, driving prices to $7 per pound and even $8.50 for a short time in California.
Interest in obtaining substantial volumes for holiday-season consumption in the domestic market and competing interests in the Asian export market were primary price drivers. Average ex-vessel prices for the year came in at $4.22 per pound.
Shrimp fishermen were all smiles as the fleet of 70 trawlers brought in landings of more than 90 million pounds. Ex-vessel prices fluctuating between 50 and 57 cents per pound made for revenues of nearly $50 million.
West Coast whiting trawlers saw a sharp jump in their total allowable catch — from 269,745 metric tons in 2013 to 305,206 metric tons in 2014. Strong representations of fish born in 2010 bode well for healthy quotas over the next few years. Prices in 2014 averaged 11 cents a pound, down from 12 cents in 2013.
Alaska’s king crab fishery enjoyed a quota increase from 7.85 million pounds in 2013 to 8.6 million pounds for 2014.
West Coast squid fishermen received ex-vessel prices of $650 per ton (up from $620 in ‘13) as they whacked away at their quota of 118,000 short tons.
Sardine seiners headed out to fish on a 29,770-ton quota, which was down drastically from the 66,495 tons they had access to in 2013. According to fishermen, the stock assessments predicating the lower quotas missed fish, and they reported seeing large schools on their sonars as they fished for other species.
The heartbreak of herring continued in Alaska and along the West Coast as ex-vessel prices continued their downward spiral from recent years. In Togiak, Alaska’s mainstay producer, a fleet of 17 vessels saw prices plummet from $125 per short ton in ‘13 to just $50 per ton last year. With 18,668 tons coming from Togiak and around 17,000 tons out of Sitka, markets remained soft.
Halibut longliners fished on a quota of 15.95 million pounds in all areas of Alaska last year. That’s on the heels of 20.83 million pounds in 2013 and 23.32 million pounds in 2012. Prices for fish larger than 40 pounds climbed higher than $7 per pound versus $5.90 for the same-sized fish in 2013.
ONES TO WATCH
Alaska blackcod fishermen saw their TAC and ex-vessel prices increase slightly in 2014. The TAC rose from 21.81 million pounds in 2013 to 23.67 million pounds in 2014. Despite weakening currency exchange rates with Japan in the last couple of years, production levels now parallel demand, and ex-vessel offers for fish 7 pounds and up climbed from highs of $5.25 in 2013 to $6.75 in 2014.
At an average of slightly more than $1.10 per pound, petrale sole prices continued to fall in 2014, from $1.25 in 2013 and $1.45 in 2012. Price declines tend to correspond with Canadian production, and U.S. imports from Canada are on the rise. Harvests were lagging in the early season, and for the second year in a row, trawlers left quota on the table, catching 2,033 metric tons of a 2,652 metric ton allotment. Bountiful shrimp seasons had some in the fleet leaving petrale behind.
There was an unexpectedly strong return of sockeyes to Bristol Bay. Predictions had been for a harvest of 16.9 million sockeye, but the nets yielded closer to 30 million. Southeast Alaska pink seiners landed more than 33 million fish. Prices fell from highs of 38 cents per pound to around 25 cents or less in response to the banner year of 2013, when a statewide harvest of 219 million pinks put an extra two years’ worth of canned inventories in warehouses.
Alaska pollock trawlers fished on a TAC of 1.24 million metric tons, which is unchanged from 2013. Surimi sales were healthy in 2014, and the Marine Stewardship Council certification of Russian pollock has yet to show any detrimental effects on the single-frozen U.S. product coming from the Bering Sea. — Charlie Ess