Alaska & Pacific / sardines & Pacific cod

Sardine season prospects up in the air;

European product keeps cod price down

By Charlie Ess

West Coast sardine populations continue to perplex scientists and the industry. In the run-up to this year’s season, which begins on July 1, scientific panels reviewed data from last year’s acoustical surveys and egg counts in hopes of coming up with a stock assessment to be used at the Pacific Fishery Management Council meetings in March.

It was thought that the council would act on the 2015 season at that March meeting. However, the council will instead take action at its April meeting.

Though fishermen near Monterey, Calif., reported seeing small sardines last spring, the fish didn’t make themselves known when test sonars scoured the waters.

“Last spring, [researchers conducting the surveys] saw very few fish and very few eggs,” says Diane Pleschner-Steele, executive director of the California Wetfish Producers Association.

As for what that means for setting the harvest quota, Pleschner-Steele won’t guess.

“At this point any kind of prediction would be pure conjecture,” she said in March. “We don’t know what the quota will be or if there will even be a fishery. What’s worse, since the fishery went from a January-to-January season to a July 1-to-June 30 season, the old model from last year’s cruises will prevail in setting the 2015 quota.

“So, we could see a huge influx of small fish this spring, but we couldn’t count that until next year,” she says.

Last year’s quota had been set at 29,770 metric tons, but concern for the dwindling population begat conservation measures that limited the harvest to 6,946 metric tons in the period from Jan. 1 to June 30.

“We’ve had really low recruitment these last two years,” says Josh Lindsay, a fishery policy analyst with NMFS, in Long Beach. “That’s what’s keeping the stock assessment down.”

What’s causing the decline? Pleschner-Steele cites warm water temperatures in recent months, which favor the proliferation of squid but not sardines, and hydroacoustic surveys that miss fish during scheduled cruises in April and July.

Though ex-vessel prices may have responded slightly to the downticks in harvest levels, oil content and size of the fish will continue to drive dockside offers.

“The prices were based on larger fish,” Pleschner-Steele says. Deliveries of fish in the 100-gram range made them prime for canning, with fish larger than 200 grams going for canned fillets.

According to the Pacific Fisheries Information Network, the 2014 average ex-vessel price for California, Oregon and Washington was 17 cents per pound versus 10 cents in 2013. However sardine landings fell from 63,473 metric tons in 2013 to 23,243 metric tons in 2014.

This year’s total allowable catch for Pacific cod was set at 251,712 metric tons for the Bering Sea, with a 6,487-metric-ton TAC for the Aleutian Islands. The Gulf of Alaska, meanwhile, will work on a quota of 61,519 metric tons.

Pot fishermen in Sand Point went on strike in November when local processors were offering ex-vessel prices in the low-20-cent-per-pound range; they settled in mid-November for 27 cents per pound. In Kodiak, processors offered ex-vessel prices of 38 cents, which was close to what they offered last year.

Though the Barents Sea quota has been reduced from around 1 million metric tons last year to 894,000 metric tons for this year, the influx of European cod over the past few years will continue to dampen ex-vessel prices for Alaska fishermen.

“That’s a problem,” says Bob Alverson, manager of the Fishing Vessel Owners’ Association, in Seattle. “A few years ago that really put a price hold on the West Coast.”

Alverson adds that the reduced Barents Sea quota may have firmed up prices in this year’s fishery in Alaska. “The price is wobbly but holding,” he says.

Meanwhile, Alaska’s P-cod fisheries were slated to receive the Marine Stewardship Council’s five-year sustainability recertification in April.

* * *

Northeast Groundfish

Sector exemption offers fleet greater

flexibility in exchange for cod quota

By Kirk Moore

After a brutal winter that saw landings drop by half, New England’s groundfish fleet got its first break in a long time: an unprecedented government agreement with fishermen who proposed giving up part of their cod quota for more fishing flexibility.

NMFS’ March 3 approval of a sector exemption means Gulf of Maine fishermen can work without the constraints of a 200-pound trip limit on cod and broad stock area closures.

In exchange, groundfish sectors agreed to take 30 metric tons of cod quota off the table for better fishing in weeks before the 2014-15 season closes April 30. The deal, brokered by Vito Giacalone, executive director of the Gloucester Fishing Community Preservation Fund, and other sector leaders, eased for two months the emergency restrictions put in place in November.

“It’s really unique. They had to make sure what they did was legal and doable,” Giacalone says of NMFS Regional Administrator John Bullard and his staff. “The hang-up was not would or should, but how.”

Reducing the closed areas helped fishermen better plan for targeting other available fish. With landings down across the board because of winter weather, less than a third of the quotas for pollock, Georges Bank haddock and redfish had been landed by the end of February, the industry advocacy group Saving Seafood reported.

Despite years of tighter fishing limits, a stock assessment issued in August 2014 found the Gulf of Maine cod stock in worse shape than ever, down by three-quarters in five years and no more than 4 percent of what a healthy biomass should be. It’s a trend Bullard attributes mainly to climate changes.

On the same day NMFS approved the sector exemption, several environmental groups filed a petition with the agency to completely ban targeted cod fishing. The Center for Biological Diversity, Turtle Island Restoration Network, SandyHook SeaLife Foundation and Greenpeace said their petition recognizes the need to permit cod bycatch in pursuit of other species but seeks to minimize it.

Suspending the 200-pound trip limit helped reduce that waste, industry advocates say.

The trip limit “was going to increase discards, by their own estimate, by 500 percent,” says Jackie Odell, executive director of the Northeast Seafood Coalition, which supported the exemption.

The exemption was approved after weeks of storms and ice that kept crews from working — and in some cases trapped their vessels, with Coast Guard buoy tenders and ice breakers coming to the rescue.

“Between the closures and the weather, [fishermen in Gloucester, Mass.,] have not had any income since November,” Odell says.

Landings through New Bedford’s Whaling City Seafood Display Auction were down 56 percent for January and February compared with the same period in 2014, according to NMFS market summaries.

Prices bounced around with the weather, with haddock, cod and even pollock coming close to $3 a pound in late February, and large monkfish around $5. As the big storms that dumped record snows on the region began to abate, prices came down.

At the Portland Fish Exchange in Maine, early 2015 landings were down 54 percent from 2014, General Manager Bert Jongerden said.

Between Jan. 15 and Feb. 15, “prices were quite high, but the last couple of weeks boats have been getting out,” Jongerden said in the first week of March.

It was the second hard winter in a row, and that affected the demand side, too, Jongerden added: “Unfortunately the same thing happened last winter with the weather, people not getting out to restaurants.”

With spring approaching, “the cod has been very inexpensive because of Canadian cod coming in. There’s also a lot of Icelandic cod,” he said. Prices for market-sized haddock and cod ranged between $2 and $2.75 in Maine by 
early March.


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