Pacific Shrimp

Boom and bust fishery goes big in ’15, fleet could see signs of decline this year

By Charlie Ess

The record-breaking trend in the West Coast shrimp fishery jumped off the charts in 2015. Preliminary data with the Oregon Department of Fish and Game puts the Oregon harvest at 53 million pounds, with huge catches off the coasts of California and Washington as well.

“There were guys who had 100,000-pound days this year,” says Brad Pettinger, executive director of the Oregon Trawl Commission, in Brookings, Ore. Pettinger says the word on the docks is that one vessel broke 2 million pounds for its landings in Oregon and that eight boats surpassed the 2 million-pound mark in Washington. “That’s fantastic fishing.”

At the same time, ex-vessel prices skyrocketed to a dollar a pound for some deliveries, putting Oregon’s revenues north of $40 million. According to preliminary data with Pacific Fisheries Information Network, the 2015 harvest for the three states topped 101 million pounds. Average ex-vessel prices stood at 73 cents per pound for coastwide ex-vessel revenues of $74.3 million. That bests the 91 million pounds of 2014 and the 70 million pounds of 2013. Ex-vessel revenues for the fisheries in 2013 came in at more than $33 million, and 2014 revenues stood at just over $50 million.

“The real bright star this year was Washington,” says Pettinger. “They had 42 million pounds.” 

“People made good money this year,” says Oregon Department of Fish and Game Shrimp Project Leader Bob Hannah.

The season follows a banner year in 2014, when the harvest for Oregon came in at 51.96 million pounds, which was the highest since the fleet there landed 56.9 millions in 1978. The near-record landings were driven by strong recruitment of 1-year-old shrimp into the fishery and a bountiful holdover component of 2- and 3-year-olds.

That biological scenario played out again in 2015, according to Hannah.

“What was surprising was that the age-2 held up so well,” he says. “In a year when we don’t have a good 1-year-old class the fishery usually drops off as the season progresses, but this year they just kept finding more 2-year-olds along with the 1-year-olds.”

Hannah adds that fishermen typically target the 2-year-olds until the biomass peters out. Then they redirect their efforts toward the 1-year-olds. The abundance of the larger shrimp in deliveries meant lower counts per pound, made for less grading in processing lines and translated to record prices for fishermen.

Pettinger says processors in Oregon paid the dollar per pound for shrimp under 250-count and that prices held up at around 85 cents for shrimp running from a 250- to 350-count.

Looking over the horizon to 2016, however, the abundant biomass the fleet has enjoyed during the past five seasons may be in for a decline. 

“We’re getting a lot of mixed signals about the incoming year class,” says Hannah. “There were a fair amount of zeros [shrimp that will be 1 year old when the 2016 fishery opens on April 1] but the fleet was not fishing in its normal areas.”

As for other influences on the shrimp population, the severity of El Niño could hamper survival of larval shrimp. Pettinger says conditions are stacking up for what could become the third super El Niño since the 1950s. 

“Central Pacific El Niños don’t seem to affect shrimp at all,” says Hannah, but he hastens to add that warming waters of the Eastern Pacific can be detrimental to survival of the shrimp. Also, an influx of juvenile hake into larval shrimp areas could pose predation problems. In 2014, fishermen reported an abundance of young hake on the shrimping grounds. In the previous few years the fish had inhabited areas offshore of the continental shelf.

How does this shake out for shrimp harvest predictions in 2016? “We do know one thing,” says Hannah. “There won’t be a lot of age 2s, so if we have shrimp, they’re going to be small.”

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Atlantic Blue crab

Expanding markets drive up demand; warm winter could lead to glut in 2016

By Larry Chowning

The 2015 Chesapeake Bay blue crab winter dredge survey determined that the population of male and female crabs increased by 38 percent, from 297 million crabs in 2014 to 411 million in 2015.

The number of juvenile crabs is up from 198 million in 2014 to 269 million. The number of spawning age crabs of both sexes is up from 99 million to 143 million, and the number of spawning age female crabs is up from 68.5 million to 101 million. The stock assessment clearly states that the bay’s blue crab population is not overfished.

Chesapeake Bay supplies about one-third of the nation’s blue crab harvest, and blue crabs — hard shell, peeler and soft shell — are the bay’s highest-valued commercial fishery. 

Although 2015 harvest figures have not been finalized, watermen in most areas of the bay see the 2015 crab season as profitable. It was one of the best crab seasons Freddie Wheatley can recall. Wheatley of Tangier Island is a highline crab potter with a 425-pot license, the maximum that’s allowed.

During May, when female crabs (sooks) were $60 a bushel and male crabs (jimmies) were $100 a bushel, Wheatley says he and others were catching their limit of over 40 bushels a day.

“This year was steady the entire season,” says Wheatley. “One week in November the price went down to $20 a bushel but the rest of the time it was between $30 and $60 a bushel. There was plenty of market, so we were able to fish most days during the season.”

One reason Wheatley feels he has a steady market throughout the crab season is because his buyer has diversified into both picking crabs and selling to a fast-growing mixed basket market in the Midwest and Canada. 

“He has a 150 bushels a day picking house, but all excess bushels he can sell for as much as $200 a bushel to Chicago and other Midwest and Canadian markets,” Wheatley says. “That market does not demand No. 1 jimmies, which means I can mix bushels with No. 2 [smaller male crabs] and female crabs, which I catch a lot of. My buyers always seem to have a market,” says Wheatley.

The soft-shell crab fishery was also good for crabbers in 2015, says Lee Walton of Walton Seafood in Urbanna, Va. The Walton family fishes exclusively for peelers and soft-shell crabs in unbaited peeler pots in Mobjack Bay, and the Ware, North, York and Rappahannock rivers.

“We had a better than normal year,” says Walton. “Strong runs of peelers started in the beginning of April and lasted through July, and it was one of the best Augusts I’ve ever seen.”

In the early spring, North Carolina peeler crabbers usually get the best prices for soft-shell crabs because the runs start earlier than on Chesapeake Bay. “The last two years, though, the runs in North Carolina and Virginia have started about the same time, which means we’ve shared those high early season prices,” Walton says.

He also feels Maryland’s early peeler runs came later this year, which helped keep supply and demand fairly level. “The Maryland run showed up in June, rather than May, which did not seem to have much effect on the price of crabs. Usually, the Maryland run causes our prices for crabs to come down.”

Walton says a reason prices of crabs stayed higher might be because the restaurant market for fried soft-shells in Washington D.C., Philadelphia, Boston and New York has grown and they are buying more crabs.

Ida Hall, a crab potter and member of the Potomac River Fisheries Commission, who agrees that 2015 has been a good crab season, noticed an over abundance of juvenile crabs when fishing her pots. “If we have a warm winter and don’t have the cold freezes that kill a lot of the bay’s juvenile crabs, there will be a ton of hard crabs next summer,” she says. “From what I’ve seen, there will probably be so many hard crabs that we will have a glutted market and low prices at the dock.” 

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