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Poor Harvests, Prices, Afflict NW Seafood Industries

SOUTH BEND, Wash. — Smaller harvests and poor markets created serious problems for Northwest fisheries in 1998. Tighter harvest quotas and strong competition from inexpensive imports point to continued problems in1999.

This was the assessment published today by the 1999 Pacific Northwest Agricultural Situation and Outlook Report.

Steve C. Harbell, WSU extension marine resource agent, also said the Endangered Species Act provisions could further reduce salmon harvest levels for years to come.

Pacific Pink Shrimp

Washington and Oregon pink shrimp production plummeted to near record lows in 1998. Oregon’s 13.5-million pound catch was only a fraction of the 27-million pound average. Washington fared even worse, with landings of only 1.6-million pounds, compared with average catches of nearly 14-million pounds.

“Because of ocean temperature anomalies associated with El Nino, early season landings were almost non-existent and many boats went back to groundfish because no shrimp were available,” Harbell wrote.

Several coastal counties were declared disaster areas, allowing fishermen to receive federal low-interest loans. Ex-vessel prices in 1998 were up from the previous year’s average of 40 cents per pound. Despite an early season strike, initial prices were just over 40 cents per pound, with a season average of 52 cents in Washington and 63 cents in Oregon. Market competition from Canadian shrimp remained strong, but also helped compensate for decreased local production in seafood markets.

Cooler ocean temperatures in 1999 may provide some relief for shrimp stocks that were pushed far to the north in 1998 and landings likely will improve somewhat, as they did following the 1984 El Nino. “However,” Harbell says, “groundfish by-catch problems could result in future shrimp harvest restrictions. Continued strong competition from an abundant supply of Canadian shrimp may affect ex-vessel prices, as well as overall market conditions.”

Salmon

Commercial salmon production in Washington dropped dramatically to just under 7-million pounds in 1998, less than a third of the 1997 catch, and only 20 percent of the five-year average. “Chinook landings were a mere 2.1-million pounds, and coho landings were half of the 1997 catch at just 1.6-million pounds. The sockeye harvest also declined to 3.2-million pounds. Because pink salmon runs are only sizable in odd years, pink salmon production was minimal,” Harbell wrote.

Overall Oregon salmon production was just under 2-million pounds. Chinook landings of 1.8-million pounds were down 40 percent from the five year average. At just under 200,000 pounds, coho production was only 10 percent of the 20 year average. Ex-vessel prices continued at lower than historical levels. In Oregon, ex-vessel prices for chinook averaged just $1.25 per pound, with coho at $.65 per pound. Washington’s salmon prices were depressed. Average ex-vessel prices for chinook were $.75 per pound; sockeye, $1.50 per pound, and coho, $.55 per pound.

No relief is in sight for salmon production. “Problems in ocean survival, loss of spawning and rearing habitat, and interception of coastal and Columbia River stocks by fisheries in Canada and Alaska will continue to affect Northwest salmon harvest levels,” Harbell says. In addition, the Endangered Species Act may force substantial changes in fisheries management and lead to further reductions in the harvest of northwest salmon stocks.

“Some increase in the catch is likely next year as the odd year pink salmon run returns. Prices should remain near current levels, influenced by continued high production of farmed salmon, and the commercial harvest in Alaska,” Harbell says.

Groundfish

Reductions in harvest quotas and the Asian economic crisis had a significant effect on groundfish production in the northwest. Annual catch limits were reduced by nearly 40 percent for most species, and lingcod and rockfish prohibitions during the season caused further problems.

Washington landings of just over 38-million pounds were above last year’s total of 35-million pounds, but well below the five year average of nearly 50-million pounds. In Oregon, the bottomfish catch was just over 196-million pounds, down from 211-million pounds in 1997 , and from the 212-million pound five year average.

Prices were similar to last year, with overall average ex-vessel prices of 39 cents per pound in Washington, and 43 cents per pound in Oregon. The Japanese surimi market dropped, leaving shoreside Pacific whiting processors in a bind. Ex-vessel prices fell to under 3 cents a pound. At 98 metric tons, coast-wide landings were down 30 percent. At-sea processors moved increasing proportions of their product into the headed and gutted or fillet market. Pollock surimi prices strengthened during the last several months of the year.

Projections for the 1999 groundfish season are for reduced landings. Some boats may be forced out of the fishery by harvest guideline restrictions and declining stocks. Pacific whiting production will be the same as 1998, about 232-thousand metric tons. Despite lower production levels, prices for surimi are not expected to increase.

Dungeness Crab

Oregon landings of 7.1-million pounds in 1998 were almost identical to 1997, but well below the ten year average. Washington’s catch was also the same as 1997, with 14.8-million pounds landed statewide. Season average ex-vessel prices were under $2 per pound. Shipments to Japan decreased, forcing most of the product to move into the domestic market.

The 1999 Dungeness crab harvest for both Washington and Oregon should again be below the historical average, Harbell says. Early season storms limited fishing activity in December, and catch rates began to decline in January forcing many fishermen to pull their gear. In Washington, tribal fishing regulations caused a major early season management dispute that has not been resolved. Inventories are down from a year ago and market conditions should remain stable for the rest of 1999, with escalating prices in the spring and summer.

Albacore

Ocean conditions and the Asian market had profound effects on northwest albacore production in 1998. Harbell said warmer ocean temperatures caused stocks to disperse. Along with soft market conditions, this led to a slight reduction in the overall catch. Oregon’s landings of just under 9-million pounds were down slightly from last year’s levels, but nearly double the historical average. With just over 10-million pounds landed, Washington’s catch was well above the 3.8-million pound average, but just under 1997 levels.

“The Asian economic situation and a shift in Asian tuna fisheries created a dramatic decline in demand for west coast albacore. Prices dropped sharply from an early season spring ex-vessel price of $1,600 per ton, to less than $1,000 a ton by fall. Buyers began turning boats away in June, as production glutted world markets,” Harbell wrote.

“With cannery markets saturated late in the season, fishermen turned to direct sales to consumers, with retail prices at the docks ranging from $1.00 to $1.50 per pound. However, much of the catch remained unsold late into the year, with inventories finally reduced in early 1999.”

Harbell says albacore fishers can expect continued strong production in both Oregon and Washington, which may lead to oversupply. “Prices should remain depressed at low 1998 levels, with landings well above average. The industry will continue to look for alternative markets including direct sales, custom canning and frozen loins and steaks,” Harbell advised.

Aquaculture

Salmon net-pen production in Washington increased slightly to 13-million pounds in 1998, with average prices for Atlantics remaining at depressed levels of around $1.50 per pound. Northwest trout production was similar to 1997 harvest levels. Idaho harvested 40-million pounds. Oregon produced 800,000 pounds; Washington, 1.5-million pounds respectively. Wholesale prices averaged $1.50 per pound. In Washington, over 280 million trout eggs were sold at a wholesale price of $12.00 per thousand.

Shellfish production increased slightly in both Washington and Oregon over 1997 levels. Washington produced 58-million pounds of oysters, at a wholesale value of $24 million. Oregon harvested 6-million pounds worth just over $2.4 million. In Washington, nearly 7-million pounds of other shellfish, primarily hard shell clams and mussels, were produced at a wholesale value of nearly $8 million.

Harbell expects production levels for both shellfish and fin fish species to continue near current levels. Prices for salmon and trout should remain at low levels with strong competition from outside the region. Shellfish prices could strengthen slightly, with improving domestic and international market conditions.

The full report is available here.

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