High-value Dungeness crab, revitalized salmon, near-record pink shrimp, and walloping whiting harvests highlight good year for commercial fishermen
By Terry Dillman
A revival in Oregon's commercial fishing industry during the past few seasons continued in 2014, with fishermen generating some outstanding landings despite facing the usual weather and ocean condition obstacles and challenges. Oregon's key fisheries overall were riding a good tide, highlighted by a record-setting market value for Dungeness crabs, near-record landings for pink shrimp, and the continued resurgence of salmon.
Analysts say real market prices for most seafood species have risen during the past few seasons, factoring in the usual pre-season negotiations and in-season fluctuations.
As in any business, some fishermen fared well, others didn't. Most say they did well enough, but commercial fishing remains a potentially lucrative, but often hardscrabble existence, yet it's a way of life most fishermen – and their families, would never give up.
Fewer Crabs, Higher Value
The Dungeness crab fishery remains the most valuable single species fishery in Oregon, and commercial crabbers punctuated that status with a record-setting $50 million-plus market value from the 2013-2014 season that ended in mid-August.
Hugh Link, executive director of the Oregon Dungeness Crab Commission, called the season unique; although landings dropped noticeably, market value rose. The record value derived from a smaller harvest of 14.4 million pounds – considerably less than last season's 18.1 million pounds that fetched $48.7 million for Oregon crabbers in a season delayed twice because tests deemed the crabs unready for harvest. Crabbers missed almost the entire month of December – usually prime time for the holiday market – and still had an excellent year, thanks to a record-tying opening price of $2.30 per pound and an overall average price of more than $3 per pound.
While well above the average annual harvest of about 12 million pounds for the past three decades, this season's landings finished well below the 20.2 million pound annual average hauled in during the past decade. Crabbers from Astoria to Coos Bay said crab quality was excellent, but hauls ranged from meager to good, with the overall harvest, as usual, good for some, but not for others.
Yet, they set an economic record – surpassing even the record harvest of 33.7 million pounds worth $49.4 million in 2004-2005 - based on an average market price of $3.47 per pound.
The season generally begins December 1 and ends August 14, but crabbers and processors say most crabs are landed during the season's first eight to 12 weeks. Link said this year was no exception. What proved exceptional was market demand. Demand this year was as high as, if not higher than ever, Link said, noting that the commercial crab fishery is cyclical and hard to predict. Crabbers are well aware of the ebb-and-flow nature of the Dungeness crab population, and they pragmatically ride the ups and downs. So while this year's drop in landings wasn't unusual or unexpected, the surge in ex-vessel value was.
Market analysts said the age-old law of supply-and-demand, and demand for exports, especially to China, made this another excellent year for to-the-boat value.
They're Back... At Least for Now
Salmon fishery managers said this season, at worst, could mirror last year's upturn, at best provide another step upward as the Oregon salmon fishery continues to chart a course away from a multi-year collapse. Strong abundance forecasts for coho and chinook could, they noted, lead to "a year to remember" for both commercial and recreational salmon fishermen.
They were right.
In mid-September, Nancy Fitzpatrick, executive director of the Oregon Salmon Commission, said catch and value "has already surpassed last year by a long shot."
Commercial fishermen had already landed more than 1.7 million pounds valued at more than $11 million, with a fair amount of fishing left to do. Prices to the boat rose as high as $8 to $9 per pound in April, then dropped and leveled out, with an average price of $6.28 per pound through the first six months of the season. As of November 5, the tally stood at almost 2.7 million pounds of salmon valued at $14.8 million, with the average price at $5.61 per pound.
By comparison, commercial salmon trollers landed 1.3 million pounds in 2013 worth $7.6 million, and 745,000 pounds in 2012 worth $4.2 million.
"We're definitely back up since the disasters," Fitzpatrick noted, calling this year "outstanding," especially compared to the doldrums salmon fishermen have endured since 2005.
Despite the significant improvement of 2013 and this season, it's nowhere near the fishery's halcyon days of the 1970s and most of the 1980s, when 2,000 to 4,000 vessels plied the waters trolling for the Pacific Northwest's signature fish. Harvests dropped during the early 1990s due to decreases in many stocks and concern for critical natural stocks under both state and federal management and the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA), along with escalating allocation conflicts between river and ocean user groups.
Since 2004, when Oregon's salmon trollers landed 2.9 million pounds of fish, and 2005, when they hauled in 2.6 million pounds, they have endured a federally-declared disaster in 2006, a well-below-average catch in 2007, another federally-declared disaster in 2008, a basically non-existent 2009 season, a somewhat improved, yet quite limited season in 2010, a disappointing 2011, when fish were scarce despite healthy forecasts, followed by improved, but less than stellar results in 2012.
This year's season kept alive the upward rally that really began in 2013.
What the future holds remains uncertain, because no one is exactly sure what's behind this three-season uptick. Salmon survival and recovery depends on so many factors, most notably ocean conditions, which makes it difficult for fishery managers to make accurate predictions. But for the third consecutive year, commercial fishermen harvested more salmon, and this time around the catch matched predictions and met expectations.
Pink is the New Green
Oregon pink shrimp fishermen had another gigantic season, landing good numbers as predicted by Bob Hannah and Steve Jones from the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. They head up ODFW's pink shrimp project as part of the agency's Marine Resources Program.
While all fishing tickets weren't yet tallied, as of November 7, the catch had reached an estimated 51.8 million pounds – second only to the record of 56 million pounds set in 1978.
Jeff Boardman, skipper of the F/V Miss Yvonne, said "a considerable part of Oregon landings" were originating off the southern coast of Washington this season.
"The Newport fleet is going up there," Boardman noted. "Oregon is not quite as good as it has been. Washington is going to set a record." The long-time commercial shrimper isn't sure what caused the shift to Washington waters, although shrimpers discovered good volume in those waters last year, and fishermen, he said, "run toward volume."
"We had fantastic shrimp fishing," said Brad Pettinger, executive director of the Oregon Trawl Commission, calling this and the prior three seasons "a phenomenal resurgence" for pink shrimp. Fishermen, he added, set a record in Washington waters, hauling in 25 million pounds in August alone – nearly double the previous monthly record.
The season ended October 31, and fishery managers and market analysts note it adds to a four-year stretch of near-record production. High catch rates "remained fairly constant through the season" and prices "strengthened through the year," said Hannah.
Fishermen received mid-season price hikes that put the season average at 56 cents per pound.
Landings have fluctuated, sometimes widely, in the decade since 2000. Shrimpers took 25.5 million pounds that year, followed by 28.5 million (2001), 41.6 million (2002), 20.6 million (2003), 12.2 million (2004), 15.8 million (2005), 12.2 million (2006), 20.1 million (2007), 25.6 million (2008), 22.1 million (2009) and 31.4 million (2010). Shrimpers hauled in 49.14 million pounds in 2012, easily besting the 2011 "season to remember" with its 48.3 million pounds.
Fishermen said this year's numbers in terms of vessels and landings followed a trend comparable to the past three seasons, and they expected a stellar season overall. This year's catch follows in the wake of 47.6 million pounds in landings in 2013 – just 1.5 million pounds less than 2012 – and caps the highest cumulative four-season landings total in the fishery's history.
The Oregon pink shrimp fleet is considered one of the most consistently valuable commercial trawl fisheries in the state. Centered off the Oregon coast, the 45-vessel fleet works primarily out of Newport, Charleston, and Astoria, with operations extending from Washington to northern California. Best of all, they do it in an ecologically friendly manner.
When shrimpers went out and achieved one of the highest landing totals ever in 2011, the record-setting performance occurred despite a price-haggling delay and new Oregon by-catch reduction device (BRD) regulations related to the 2010 listing of smelt as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act. When the fishery opened in 2011, the entire fleet was set to go out equipped with nets designed to keep small eulachon – a species of smelt – from getting trapped along with the shrimpers' pink bounty.
The international Marine Stewardship Council recognized the fishery's efforts at reducing by-catch and maintaining the fishery with initial certification in 2007 and recertified it in February 2013.
This season, the fishermen continued their efforts to exclude eulachon smelt from their nets.
Some tried a brand new technique that involves attaching a series of green LED lights to the fishing line of the trawl, which guides the smelt out of or away from the net. Hannah and Jones considered the simple technique "a big breakthrough for dramatically reducing euchalon smelt by-catch." In fact, results from tests conducted in July and August aboard Boardman's vessel "were so dramatic" that Hannah and Jones encouraged all shrimpers to begin using it or some variation of it ASAP – call it a late season course change. They believe that "broad adoption of the technique or something similar" could sharply reduce the overall take of the threatened fish, enhancing the fishery's reputation as it continues to set records.
Catch Them All
Brad Pettinger, executive director of the Oregon Trawl Commission (OTC), said this year featured "one of the biggest quotas in years" for Oregon's whiting fleet at 240 million pounds, and vessels were hauling in "good catches of decent-sized fish." As of press time, said fishermen had hauled in 213 million pounds worth $28.8 million. The "sheer number of fish" in the water means fishermen have a good chance of reaching the quota, but Pettinger noted that the success of another iconic Oregon fishery created some problems for the whiting fleet.
"We've had some issues about salmon by-catch," he said. "There were a lot of salmon in the water this year, deep and offshore."
Markets for whiting firmed up after some early uncertainty due to the Russia-Ukraine situation, with processors eventually offering 12 cents per pound. Analysts said the Russian boycott on American seafood would "test the resilience" of overall whiting demand by the end of the year.
As for groundfish, landings were slower, as analysts predicted at the end of last season. Oregon's landings were on a par with last season, with sizeable boosts in landings of yellowtail rockfish and petrale sole offset by drops in arrowtooth flounder and slope rockfish. While fishery managers called the situation a good tradeoff, Pettinger said the fleet must find a way to reach the available harvest levels to pay for the fishery's overhead costs.
Progress continued in the effort to refinance the buyback loan to lower the interest rate and cap the payback at three percent of the landed value, with approval of separate bills in the US house and US Senate. A cost recovery fee of three percent for the shoreside trawl groundfish fishery went into effect, as efforts by industry representatives to delay it until the buyback loan was refinanced were unsuccessful. Combined with the costs of having observers on board vessels, fishermen lose about eight to 10 percent off the top.
Still, the fishery is riding higher than it was 15 years ago.
Declared a disaster in 2000, the fishery foundered, along with communities that depend on it. In 2001, fishermen proposed a government buy-back program, which launched in 2003 and reduced the fleet by half. Still considered overcapitalized, the fishery adopted the controversial quota system, which government officials and fishery managers say have definitely turned things around. Finally, after a four-year effort by the Oregon Trawl Commission, the groundfish fishery received certification from the international Marine Stewardship Council in June. The Pacific coast trawl fishery is the largest ever to receive the valuable certification, and 99 percent of the fishery's species, including Oregon pink shrimp, are now MSC certified.
Those sea changes in the fishery's management have, Pettinger noted, led to changes in perception in the market, including a positive revision of the Monterrey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch recommendations on groundfish.
All of this, said Pettinger, "sets the stage for demand to rise."
Tuna Market Flattens
Oregon's albacore tuna fishermen endured another average season, catching more than 8.5 million pounds (usual catch is 9 to 10 million pounds) worth $10.7 million based on an average price of $1.26 per pound, said Nancy Fitzpatrick, executive director of the Oregon Albacore Commission.
Things, however, were a bit "strange" this year, she noted.
The best tuna trolling takes place off the Oregon coast from Coos Bay northward to the Columbia River, with some available off Washington's southern coast. Most harvesters fish off of Oregon's central coast, and generally hook more tuna off Oregon's shores than off the Washington coast. But this season, about 15.8 million pounds of albacore landed in Washington ports, according to the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.
Tuna arrived early, enticed by warm water, but while the fishing went well, markets played hard-to-get, said Cyreis Schmitt, marine policy project leader with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. Markets for sashimi-grade (raw) albacore were flat for the first time in eight years, although the market for brine-canned albacore grew. But with too much tuna in cold storage facilities, processors weren't buying much more, so fishermen spent more time finding a buyer to offload their catches, which translated into less time fishing.
Fishermen – especially those in the albacore and salmon fisheries – often "follow the fish" to glean higher landings.
Many fishermen who fish for tuna also fish for salmon and switch between the two, depending on fish runs and markets. The long, warm, relatively storm-free summer and good fish runs offered substantial fishing opportunities for both salmon and albacore. With the continued resurgence in salmon runs and good market prices, Fitzpatrick said quite a few fishermen ignored tuna to pursue salmon.
After another lackluster opening in 2013, the Oregon albacore tuna fishery went on a wild late season run to bring in 10.1 million pounds of tuna that fetched to-the-boat revenue of $15.9 million. Those numbers easily bested the 10-year averages of 9.8 million pounds and $11.9 million. The past three seasons, Fitzpatrick said, were phenomenal in terms of revenue, with a leap to $18.8 million in 2011, followed by $15.2 million in 2012 and $15.9 million in 2013.
Tuna sold fresh off the boat fetches higher prices, but only about 200,000 pounds are sold directly off the boats each year, say ODFW officials. The remainder goes to processing plants or is exported. Market prices fluctuate, depending on whether it's fresh, brine frozen or blast frozen. A tight market in 2011 pushed prices about $1 per pound higher than normal, but 2012 prices ebbed and flowed, especially at processing plants. While markets in 2012 were "softer" than 2011's record prices, they didn't drop as far as some fishermen feared, and strengthened somewhat during the season. Average price for 2012 was $1.53 per pound, down from $1.94 in 2011, but well above the 2001 to 2010 average of 95 cents per pound.
Most fishermen agree that 2014 was an average season, but experiences as usual ran the gamut from good to fair to mercurial, producing mixed results, but with an improved payoff for those who persevered.