Alaska & Pacific / Herring

Industry plagued by low prices, soft demand,

decline in West Coast stocks

By Charlie Ess

Fishermen and processors geared up for the San Francisco herring season as the calendar rolled into 2016. Local fishermen, still reeling from the effects of El Nino and the closures of the 2015 Dungeness crab season, hope the herring harvest will help them make ends meet. 

Last year’s warmer waters caused the formation of domoic acid in the crabs, a toxin making them unsafe for consumption. 

With demand for herring roe running soft in Japanese markets and Alaska’s gargantuan quota in Togiak, the West Coast herring won’t offer much compensation for fleets that have been dependent upon Dungeness crab as an economic mainstay for more than a decade.

“Crab has saved our asses for 15 years, says Larry Collins, president of the Crab Boat Owners Association in San Francisco. Collins adds that catches of salmon and other species have been dismal for the local fleet.

Last year’s herring season wasn’t all that hot, with only a couple of boats participating and with low roe recovery percentages in the fish they caught.

“We probably put up less than a hundred tons [of herring],” says Collins. “But we’re set up to buy this year, and we’re going to try it again.”

This year, the San Francisco fleet is comprised of around a dozen boats, Collins said, just days before the season was set to open on Jan. 3. 

Though the abundance of herring in the past has justified harvest quotas of more than 3,000 tons along California’s coastline, now the market won’t bear the volume. 

At the industry’s request, the 2015 quota had been set at 2,500 tons, down from the 3,737 tons of 2014, and the 2,854 tons of 2013.

That was before a sharp decline in the biomass was discovered, which lowered the quota to 750 tons in 2016 for the gillnet fleet.  

“We had a lower population estimate than what was expected,” says Ryan Bartling, a fisheries scientist with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife in Santa Rosa. “Given the market conditions, the lower quota wasn’t so much of an issue.” 

According to the Pacific Fisheries Information Network, last year’s total harvest for Washington, Oregon and California, was around 830 tons, which is down sharply from the 3,440 tons caught in 2014.  Ex-vessel prices averaged around $660 per ton last year, nearly doubling the average $340 paid in 2014. 

Though demand for Kazunoko, or herring roe, isn’t a fraction of what it used to be during the holiday season in Japan, production in Alaska continues to oversaturate the markets.

“The market used to be a lot more sophisticated,” says Collins, adding that the size and golden color of San Francisco herring use to hold much allure with Japanese buyers. In recent years, seiners in Togiak, Alaska’s main production area, have kept warehouses awash in product.

The total Togiak harvest for 2015 came in at around 19,874 tons of a 29,012-ton seine quota. Gillnetters, meanwhile, set on a quota of 8,704 tons and came up with a harvest of 1,220 tons. 

The ex-vessel prices paid for the Togiak fish in 2015 were an all-too-familiar $50 per ton. Prices fell from around $125 per ton several years ago to the doldrum $50 per ton. 

The quotas for Togiak in 2016 are 20,148 tons for seiners and 8,635 tons for gillnetters. The quota for Sitka, meanwhile, is 15,647 tons for 2016. Last year’s prices of $180 per ton and rumors of even less this year will keep many boats tied up. 

Last year the Sitka fishery operated under a cooperative, allowing each of the permit holders about 180 tons. 

The traditional fleet of 51 boats was whittled to two dozen, which caught the quota of about 8,700 tons and split the spoils.

* * *

Northeast Shrimp

Falling diesel prices help offset lower landings and mixed ex-vessel offerings

By Hoyt Childers

Overall shrimp landings — all species and headless — for the Gulf of Mexico decreased in 2015, based on preliminary NMFS data. That continues a downturn spiral that began in 2012. The most unfortunate development in 2015, however, was that ex-vessel prices in the gulf also dropped. In some cases the drop was dramatic, while retail prices in supermarkets and other large retailers remained inflated.

Looking toward the 2016 season, a continuing drop in fuel prices should help soften the economic pain of lower shrimp prices and landings, though during the past year, ex-vessel prices dropped much faster than fuel costs. 

For a couple of years following the 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill, there were some indications that the gulf shrimp industry might be regaining its footing, but the chronic, relentless, cumulative effects of globalization and related dirt-cheap, farm-raised imports once again are pushing the industry into crisis.

This is not to say there aren’t bright spots, at least in the Atlantic, outside the gulf. 

In early November, Joshua McCoy, skipper and owner of the 56-foot Top Tuna, whose family runs the Wild Ocean Seafood Market in Cape Canaveral, said local shrimpers had been having a great fall for landings. 

“Shrimp? We been having a killer,” he said, with 30,000- to 50,000-pound days not uncommon. “They are doing good on whites, brown, rock and royal reds.”

Large hauls of whites seemed to some degree compensating for mediocre prices. White shrimp, 13/18-count and heads-on, had been bringing $2.75 to $3 a pound ex-vessel, McCoy said.

However, Florida shrimpers seemed to be experiencing the same sharp declines in price overall as those farther west. The average price of white shrimp in Florida dropped to $2.77 in 2015 compared to $3.38 on similar landings in 2014, according to preliminary data from the state’s Fish and Wildlife Research Institute. 

For the January to November reporting period, which represents the latest available statistics, prices for all shrimp sizes, heads-off, dropped in 2015 Gulf-wide. 

Decreases in some places were steep. For example, in Texas ports 41/50-count shrimp dropped to $1.13 on average in 2015. That’s one-third of the 2014 price of $3.39. 

In Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana, the average price of 26/30-count shrimp dropped from $5.05 in 2014 to $2.90 in 2015.

In Florida, 26/30s went from $6.48 to $4.55 a pound, and the list could go on. The price decreases are the most extreme for the smaller shrimp, which are subject to the most pressure from farm-raised imports.

In New Orleans, shrimpers held a rally at the August meeting of the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council, calling attention to problems that include abysmal prices and continuing unfair competition from imports. The shrimpers were seeking help and support from regulators and the federal government, which has placed tariffs on shrimp from some countries judged to be engaging in unfair trade practices. 

NMFS established a moratorium on shrimp boat permits in 2006, which is scheduled to expire this coming October. 

The idea was that attrition would make the fishery more profitable for the remaining vessels, but while effort in the fishery has shrunk by more than 400 permits during the moratorium period, the 2015 price debacle suggests the moratorium is not doing much good. 

The council is currently studying options that might take effect when the current moratorium expires.

Overall imports of shrimp have increased every year since 2012, from 881.4 million pounds in 2012 to 1.04 billion pounds in 2015.

India, Indonesia and Ecuador, especially, flooded the market during 2015, and the domestic industry is struggling to retain its roughly 10 percent market share. 


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