Alaska & Pacific / KING CRAB

Russians play fast and loose with crab numbers,
while more Americans are eating Russian imports

By Charlie Ess

Announcement of the red king crab quota for the 2015-2016 season is expected in early October. As always, the health of the resource and the subsequent harvest level dictates the poundage of king crab allocated among IFQ holders. The Bering Sea fishery enjoyed a quota increase from 7.85 million pounds in 2013 to 8.6 million pounds for 2014.  

Last year’s harvest ended up at 9,987,008 pounds (including allocations to Community Development Quota groups), and processors paid an average ex-vessel prices of $6.14 per pound, according to data with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

Dockside prices to the fishermen fluctuate in response to the size of Alaska’s quota, but the volume of Russian red king crab in the market has been paramount in establishing the prices that processors are willing to offer.

The influx of Russian product, illegally caught or not, adds a definitive twist to the supply side of the market chain. Data from the FAO and the Russian Ministry of Agriculture show that harvests have steadily increased from 29.3 million pounds in 2011 to 54.4 million pounds last year.

At the same time, illegal, unreported and unregulated red king crab catches from Russia appear to have declined.

In 2012, data compiled from various sources by the McDowell Group in Juneau show an estimated 52 million pounds of Russian IUU red crab went into circulation. In 2013, that volume dropped to 21 million pounds, and again last year to an estimated 11 million pounds.

But some feel that Russia’s quotas have been increased to conceal the amount of IUU crab actually hitting the markets. “It appears to us that there is very little transparency in how the Russian industry is setting its allowable catch limits in recent years,” says Mark Gleason, executive director of the Alaska Bering Sea Crabbers, in Seattle. “It appears that they are artificially raising their quotas to mask illegal production.”

In 2014, the Alaska industry’s contribution of frozen king crab added up to 21.1 percent of domestic consumption, while Russia’s production, in the form of imports, accounted for 72.3 percent, according to data from the World Wildlife Fund. In 2013, the Alaska industry contributed 19.8 percent, and Russia contributed 65.8 percent.

“At the end of the day it’s all about supplies, whether it’s legal or illegal,” says Andy Wink, a seafood analyst with the McDowell Group.

The quest for stiffer laws and tighter international connections in curbing IUU crab continues. Gleason reports that inroads have been made toward introducing legislation that would allow U.S. law enforcement officials more clout in their international investigations of IUU crab. One of those would be HR 774, a bill to strengthen enforcement regulations. It passed in the House of Representatives and will go to the Senate. Gleason says he is hopeful that it will be ready to be signed into law before the end of the year.

“I’m cautiously optimistic that by fall we will get a bill on the president’s desk,” he says.

Among other market developments, imports of king crab from Argentina this year are up by 18.6 percent over last year, according to Jake Jacobsen, director of Inter-Cooperative Exchange, an organization of 16 crab boats, in Seattle. Jacobsen says the Argentina crab is smaller and occupies a lower-priced market niche, as an alternative to Alaska’s king crab..

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Northeast / OYSTERS

Is NMFS way off base on production?
Erratic labels and measures snarl stats

By Kirk Moore

The Gulf of Mexico oyster shortage is going to be with us for a while. The top three producers — Louisiana, Texas and Florida — are all facing serious issues.

The good news is that oysters have brought dockside prices of $60 to $70, and sometimes more, a sack. That’s several times the price harvesters got a few years ago. But $70 for a sack of oysters doesn’t help if you can’t find enough oysters to fill one sack, and that is the reality in some places.

Louisiana was the top eastern oyster producer in the country following the Chesapeake decline, with an annual harvest of 10 million to 15 million pounds, worth as much as $50 million ex-vessel. But Louisiana still suffers from the aftermath of the 2010 BP-Deepwater Horizon oil spill, says Al Sunseri, owner of P&J Oyster Co. in New Orleans. “You are looking at about a third of [pre-oil spill] production, and almost all of it coming from private grounds,” Sunseri says.

Federal harvest statistics are far more optimistic, showing annual production near historic norms (11.3 million pounds in 2013, the last year full federal statistics are available). But Sunseri believes the NMFS numbers are seriously skewed to the high side by confusion, inconsistency of weights and measures and, in some cases, intentional mislabeling in the supply chain.

Historically, a sack of oysters has weighed about 100 pounds, but Sunseri says that has changed.

“The size of the containers has moved down,” Sunseri says. “What is being sold is one-third, and people are putting that on their trip tickets as a sack.” If the federal statistics were accurate, “we wouldn’t have had a 300 percent price increase at the dock.”  

Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries guidelines say a sack weighs 35 pounds.

Sunseri has been trying to get officials to address the weights and measures issues so accurate information is available.

Inconsistencies from state to state also exist.  In Florida, an official bag of oysters is 10 gallons or 60 pounds of culled oysters. In Texas, a sack is 110 pounds of oysters, according to the Department of Parks and Wildlife.

Fishery statistics experts know about these regional differences and take them into consideration, but inaccuracies could enter the information stream.

The truth, Sunseri says, is the industry is far from recovery, especially east of the Mississippi River and in the Lake Pontchartrain basin, where most public harvesting took place before the oil spill.

“The east side of the river, which used to be the most prolific, has basically been non-productive since the oil spill,” he says, adding that only a fraction of his harvesters have stayed in business.

“Out of the guys we dealt with, I only have two of them back.”

The Texas industry has not recovered from Hurricane Ike in 2008 and the silting of Galveston Bay. The entire Texas coastline suffered a multi-year drought, and then, this year, devastating floods.

Mississippi and Alabama have also suffered from droughts, hurricanes, floods, the oil spill and related oyster diseases with harvests still far short of historic levels, contributing only a few hundred thousand pounds annually.

Florida’s Apalachicola Bay system still hangs in the balance, both ecologically and economically. The fishery collapsed in 2013, falling prey to upstream water withdrawals by metropolitan Atlanta, which left bay waters too salty. Local production dropped from about 3 million pounds in 2012 to 200,000 pounds at the end of this July. A 60-pound bag of summer 2015 oysters was bringing $70, compared to $15 in 2007.

Now, dealers get oysters where they can, including from the Chesapeake, which has become a market force again.

In the Gulf, there is nothing that precludes eventual recovery in most areas, but it’s going to take awhile.


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