Strong landings, record value year and low fuel costs,
but who’s got the bait?

By Cliff White

Lobster fishermen from Massachusetts to Maine report near record catches. Higher prices and lower fuel costs could make 2015 the most lucrative year ever. 

“By everyone’s report, 2015 has been an excellent lobster year. Landings have been strong and along with that we’ve seen a strengthening of the price per pound,” says Patrice McCarron, executive director of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association. “We expect it to be a record value year and a very strong year for overall profits as well.”

The average price per pound has ranged from $4 to $5.25, up from the lows of 2008, when it sunk below $2 per pound. Last year, Maine fishermen took in nearly 124 million pounds of lobster, compared to more than 127 million pounds in 2012 and 2013. McCarron says this year’s numbers would come close to those totals.

An organization affecting the market for lobster is the Maine Lobster Marketing Collaborative. Under the group’s guidance, the total dollar amount going into the marketing of lobsters has increased from $350,000 annually to more than $2.5 million. “We’ve really upped our game with the collaborative and I think it’s been a huge benefit to the industry,” McCarron says.

Annie Tselikis, executive director of the Maine Lobster Dealers Association, agreed that the marketing group’s efforts have opened new marketplaces both domestically and internationally, including China and the Middle East. 

“Generally, the campaign to try to educate chefs and consumers is a good one. We are really proud of the work the collaborative has done, but we want to know what the return is on this investment, because it’s all based on surcharges on licenses, which takes money out of the pockets of fishermen and dealers.”

There aren’t many complaints coming from Maine fishermen, according to Monique Coombs, the seafood program director for the Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association. Coombs says the bountiful year has quieted pessimists who worry that warming water temperatures in the Gulf of Maine might hurt the state’s lobster catch. If lobstermen were complaining about anything, it has been the problems with other fisheries, notably herring, which is used as bait in lobster traps. 

 “It’s the situation with bait that has a lot of lobstermen concerned,” Coombs says. “The price of bait is up and the access to quality bait is down.”

In Massachusetts, the collapse of the groundfish stock in Cape Cod Bay led to experimenting with bait alternatives, including skates and cowhides, according to Beth Casoni, the executive director of the Massachusetts Lobstermen’s Association. Yet difficulties with bait didn’t prevent lobstermen in the Bay State from having an equally exceptional year as their peers in Maine, according to Casoni. The 600 or so lobstermen fishing in Massachusetts waters are on pace to land about 15 million pounds this year. 

“Price-wise and catch-wise, this has probably been one of the best years for lobstering in the past 10,” she says. 

In Maine, the state’s commissioner of marine resources concluded a round of 10 meetings with lobster industry representatives to discuss reforms to the lobster licensing system. The meetings focused on barriers new fishermen face trying to get into the industry, but consensus appeared to form around leaving control of entry requirements in the hands of local zone councils, says McCarron.

Overall, both McCarron and Casoni say the year has been energizing for lobstermen. “We’re seeing a lot of people reinvesting in their businesses, fixing up their boats and equipment,” Casoni says. “We’re even starting to see some young guys wanting to get into lobstering in Massachusetts.” Casoni called that “refreshing,” adding that attracting younger fishermen is vitally important for the industry, where the age of the average fisherman is 57.

* * *

Alaska & Pacific

Rebuilding plan guides catch efforts to a recent high,
but prices are lagging

By Charlie Ess

Petrale sole has rebounded to a level that fisheries managers are calling it a stock rebuilt. Even more optimistically, the new status has been achieved ahead of schedule.

Petrale sole and canary rockfish were two of several stocks that managers and the industry sought to rebuild. Canary rockfish was declared overfished in 2000. A rebuilding plan was put in place for them in 2001, and it was hoped the stocks would recover by 2057. The North Pacific Fishery Management Council announced on June 15 that the canary rockfish population has been rebuilt to allow for sustainable harvests.

Petrale sole was declared overfished in 2010, and an aggressive plan was put into place to rebuild the stock by 2016. Part of the plan meant cutting quotas by half and constraining other fisheries where petrale sole is an incidental catch.

Annual catch limits over the past decade were set at a high of 2,903 metric tons in 2005 but then were ratcheted downward to 1,200 metric tons in 2010, 976 metric tons in 2011 and 1,160 metric tons in 2012.

The ACL for 2013 was 2,592 metric tons, and the quota for 2014 was 2,592 metric tons, while 2015 had been set at 2,816 metric tons. According to NMFS data, a preliminary ACL for 2016 is 2,910 metric tons, while preliminary ACLs for 2017 and 2018 are 3,136 and 3,013 metric tons.

Meanwhile, harvests have ranged from 936 metric tons in 2010 to 2,439 metric tons in the 2014 season, according to NMFS data. As a general trend, harvests have come in below the ACL’s, which helped speed up the stock’s recovery.

The pacing of landings in the 2015 season was on track to take the ACL.

“As of [Oct. 29] there are more than 1 million pounds — about 22.8 percent of the quota — left unharvested,” says Rod Moore, executive director of the West Coast Seafood Processors Association, in Portland, Ore. “But I expect a lot of that will be taken during the last 2 months of the year.” 
As for market dynamics, smaller boats tend to harvest petrale throughout the year; larger boats target tightly congregated spawning fish in winter, says Moore. Petrale sole has found favor in domestic markets along the West Coast, particularly in San Francisco restaurants.
In addition to the West Coast fleet, supplies also come in from Canada. When production of petrale sole rises in British Columbia, prices soften for U.S. fishermen until surplus volumes clear through the pipeline.

“When Canada supplies come in prices drop,” says Scott Adams, operations and production manager with Hallmark Fisheries, in Charleston, Ore. “It doesn’t take a lot of petrale to make the market go down.”

Adams adds that if wholesale prices in San Francisco are running at around $2.50 per pound, he can offer his fisherman $1.50 per pound. When Canadian product is plentiful wholesale prices immediately drop to $1.95 or less.

When supplies dry up, Adams and other processors scramble to keep a steady supply of product. In early November, Adams foresaw a temporary void in production, called one of his fishermen and told him to deliver the next morning.

“He hadn’t even stretched his wire out in what he planned to be a 10-hour tow,” says Adams. “But I told him, ‘You have to be in by tomorrow morning.’” The trawler returned early, and Adams says he was able to deliver fresh product to his customers in San Francisco within 24 hours of when the fish were caught.

The average value of petrale sole in recent years has ranged from $1.27 per pound for revenues of $1.32 million in 2013, to $1.22 and revenues of $1.65 million in 2014 and $1.18 so far this year, according to data in Pacific Fisheries Information Network. In November, Adams says he was able to offer his fishermen around $1.45 per pound.


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