Alaska & Pacific / Dungeness crab
Crab harvest stays down, prices up; meat count testing starts in October
By Charlie Ess
The West Coast Dungeness crab fleet suffered setbacks in production during the 2015 season. By the first week in October, the fleets in Washington, Oregon and California had landed 10.83 million pounds. That’s far below last year’s harvest of 49.72 million pounds, and marks the end of a long ride that hasn’t known catches below 43 million pounds in the last decade.
Fewer crabs and a dangerous toxin along coastal waters hampered this year’s catch, which forced managers to curtail the season in Washington until levels subside.
Though domoic acid has plagued shellfish populations in the past, its abundance in crabs this year has scientists and the industry perplexed. The Washington State Department of Health set the threshold for safe consumption at no more than 30 parts per million; some of this season’s crab samples contained more than twice the acceptable amount at 65 parts per million.
As for the cause, early theories point at warmer waters of “the blob,” a large mass of water in the northeast Pacific where ocean temperatures are elevated 2 degrees or more. It is believed that warm waters have amplified blooms of Pseudo-nitzschia, the algae that produces the domoic acid.
Harvest areas in the southern third of Washington closed on June 5, and managers closed the central coast area between Point Chehalis and the Queets River on August 3.
“The closures gave fishers few options,” says Dan Ayres, coastal shellfish manager with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, in Montesano. Though an area north of Queets River remained open, harvest levels from that area had not been all that hot.
Traditionally, fewer fishermen continue hauling pots through the middle of summer, says Ayres, but for those who made trips in July, the catches were dismal. “These closures just added insult to injury,” he says.
The Oregon fleet was more fortunate, according to Hugh Link, executive director with the Oregon Dungeness Crab Commission, in Coos Bay. Link says researchers conducted tests to monitor levels of domoic acid along the Oregon coastline, but didn’t find concentrations that would warrant the closure of crab fisheries.
“We weren’t able to find any elevated levels of domoic acid,” he says. “At least not on our side of the Columbia River.”
As for the lagging numbers in the Oregon harvest, Link attributes those to normal fluctuations in abundance. “Whatever goes up must come down,” he says. At the same time, Link and others were anticipating better fishing in terms of volume when the fishery opens for the 2015-2016 year on Dec. 1.
Oregon fishermen splashed their pots last Dec. 1 and began delivering to processors for $3.10 per pound, says Link, but prices soon escalated in response to demand for fresh and frozen crab as the calendar approached the holiday season.
“We basically settled on that price just to get the gear out on the water, and it just went up from there,” he says, adding that the season average hit $4.11 per pound, an all-time record. Buyers shipping live crab to markets in Asia helped push up that average. At one point in the season, ex-vessel prices shot north of $7 per pound.
Link expected markets to be equally hungry this year, and plans were to begin sampling crab for meat content in late October.
Though ex-vessel prices paid out to fishermen in all three states in the 2014-2015 season hit record highs they were nowhere near compensatory in terms of total revenue generated by the fleet. This season’s average ex-vessel prices responded to the season’s shortfall; at the beginning of October it was $5.47 per pound, with revenues for the period at $59.25 million.
* * *
Northeast Red snapper
Slow landings could leave fleet short on quota, soft on prices at year’s end
By Hoyt Childers
As fall began, Gulf of Mexico red snapper prices were very good, but there was some cause to expect near-term weakness in the market.
Landings through the summer were “a bit slow,” says fisherman and John’s Pass-Madeira Beach small fleet operator Glen Brooks, who is also president and founder of the Gulf Fishermen’s Association.
As of Sept. 29, red snapper IFQ participants had harvested 69.4 percent, or 4.56 million pounds, of the 2015 quota, leaving 2.01 million pounds for the last three months of the year.
Fishermen would have to harvest 668,500 pounds per month, compared to roughly half a million pounds per month for the first nine months of the year, in order to catch the full quota.
Jason De La Cruz, president of the Wild Seafood Company on the John’s Pass boardwalk in Madeira Beach, Fla., was seeing some weakness in the market and expected it to continue for a while.
“It’s almost certainly going to,” De La Cruz says. “Too much fish on the market.”
Red snapper is a premium fish that is always in demand by restaurants and the retail market, but that doesn’t make it immune to supply-and-demand dynamics. It wouldn’t be surprising to see the ex-vessel price dip as large amounts of fish hit the docks and the quota is filled out. At the end of September, the ex-vessel price was holding at about $5.
Unfortunately, the red snapper fishery is not just about catching fish. For years now, fishermen have been forced to divide their attention between fishing and management politics, to protect the commercial sector’s share of the resource from attacks by the Coastal Conservation Association and other recreational groups.
One chapter of the long struggle over reallocation may be drawing to a close, assuming the U.S. Secretary of Commerce approves the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council’s reallocation plan, Amendment 28. That hadn’t happened as of Oct. 1.
“It’s not been signed yet,” De La Cruz says, adding that some of the methodology on which the amendment is based is questionable and could leave an opening for dissent, were someone at the federal level looking hard for such an opportunity.
Amendment 28, if signed into law, will change the sector allocation from the historical 51 percent commercial and 49 percent recreational — established with the reef fish Amendment 1 in 1989 — to 48.5 percent commercial and 51.5 percent recreational for 2016-2017.
The final version of the amendment wasn’t ideal, but commercial fishermen managed to persuade the council to steer clear of some of the more radical reallocation ideas — extending all the way to 100 percent recreational possession of the resource — that could have devastated the commercial fishery.
Commercial fishermen may have more success opposing another set of proposals in the Gulf council Amendment 39 that would turn over recreational red snapper management to individual states.
De La Cruz says he thinks Amendment 39, which is now at the public hearing phase, will fail.
“I don’t think the states are all going to agree on that,” he says. “When the [advisory panel] met the other day. . . they were all saying this is so complicated it is unbelievable.”
Commercial fishermen generally see Amendment 39 as a back-door attempt to erode federal control of the fishery in political arenas where the recreational sector has heavy clout; it’s a first step toward designating red snapper a game fish and eliminating the commercial sector.
Since the red snapper IFQ began in 2007, commercial fishermen have consistently fished within their quota, whereas the recreational sector has exceeded its quota “in every year but two,” according to Gulf council documents.