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Going Green: Transition times

After a year of highs and lows, questions loom for New England groundfish

Flounder is one Northeast groundfish species that is recovering slowly. - Photo by James Wright
By Lisa Duchene
July 05, 2011

Once, New England cod was king in America, the most lucrative product traded during Colonial times. In modern times, the 1980s and early 1990s were the heyday for New England groundfish, the complex of 20 species that includes cod, haddock, flounders and pollock.

“New England owned the fresh fish business, not just in New England but certainly as far west as Denver and all the way down to Florida,” says John Norton, founder and president of Cozy Harbor Seafood in Portland, Maine.

But by the mid-1990s, Norton says, consistency of supply became an issue and the downfall began. First, it was a lot of small, young fish in the catch, a hallmark of overfishing. Then, it was the national regulations aimed at rebuilding crashed groundfish stocks. The biggest buyers — starting with the U.S. military — began to back off in favor of more consistent product, like farmed salmon.

And in the last 15 years, New England groundfish’s slide in market share has only continued. On a good day, it may be about 15 percent in the eastern United States, says Norton.

After one full fishing year — May 2010 to May 2011 — under catch-share management and annual catch limits, the question of whether New England groundfish can retain or even grow its market share is still hard to answer.

Supply during the first year under the new rules was anything but stable. “It was a constant roller coaster ride,” says Norton.

Under the catch-share system, regional sectors or cooperatives of fishermen were established, and quotas were set for each species. Fishermen — via their sectors — are allocated a share of the harvest. The system replaced one in which the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) limited the number of fishing days per year.

Landings, says Norton, would be high one day, and low the next. May, June and July 2010 were exceptionally volatile, he says. With so much at stake, a lot of fishermen simply waited to see what would happen. In the winter, when prices are traditionally the strongest, more boats went out, putting downward pressure on prices, before things picked back up in March and April.

“There was a lot of paralysis and there was a lot of fear and people stayed on the sidelines,” says Laura Foley Ramsden, co-owner of Foley Fish, a processor selling to specialty retail and fine-dining restaurants from locations in Boston and New Bedford, Mass.
The overall result was relatively high prices — a potential plus for New England fishermen.

NOAA’s Northeast Fisheries Science Center in mid-May released an interim report based on data from the first nine months of the fishing season and found increased overall revenues and prices. Across the board, revenues from all species on all trips were up about $24 million over the same period in 2009. Average prices for all species were up about 15 percent over the 2007-2009 average, according to the report.

While potentially good for fishermen — although the report does not include data on the expenses fishermen incurred, like purchasing quota — Ramsden worries about New England’s share of menu and case space.

“Is someone going to buy flounder at $8.50 a pound when they can have a whitefish fillet at $5.55 in a tilapia?” asks Ramsden. “I will fight to the end that the sole is a better-tasting, sweeter fillet, harvested by a U.S. fisherman. But a chef has to go to his food and beverage manager and justify a higher protein cost and $3 more a pound. In this economy? Why? That’s what we’re up against.”

New England fishermen in the 2010-2011 fishing year landed 7,000 metric tons of haddock, the most since 2001. That represented some growth in New England groundfish for Hannaford Supermarkets, with 173 Northeast stores, and Sweetbay Supermarket, with 105 Florida stores. Delhaize Group owns both chains.

“We saw a growth in domestic haddock and an equivalent decrease in Norwegian [frozen at sea] haddock, as local supply was better in the past year versus the previous year,” says Chris Bowker, seafood and poultry buyer for both banners.

In 2010, fresh Gulf of Maine haddock accounted for 5.8 percent of the Hannaford stores’ total seafood sales versus 5.1 percent in 2009, adds Bowker.

But catches of the rebuilt haddock stock increased while the harvest of just about every other groundfish species decreased, says Tom Nies, analyst for the New England Fishery Management Council (NFMC). In 2007, the last haddock assessment, scientists estimated the species at 199 percent of its target biomass. Pollock is another bright spot, and is considered to be at 215 percent of its target biomass.

Yet other stocks still struggle. Georges Bank cod is at 12 percent of its target and Georges Bank yellowtail flounder is at 32 percent.

For all species, a lot of fish was left in the water. Heading into the first year of catch shares, many worried that exceeding the quota for any one species would trigger an immediate closure in a sector.

“None of the sectors ran out of anything, as far as we know,” says Nies. “None of the sectors were shut down for anything.”

Catch limits for the 2011-2012 fishing year increased for 12 of the species. According to NOAA, 836 more New England fishermen signed up for the program, and the total now represents about 99 percent of groundfish fishermen.

For New England’s catch-share program, the list of unknowns also includes whether stocks will return to rebuilt levels/maximum sustainable yield.

“Clearly, [new management] should be benefitting the stocks because catches are staying below what our allowable catch limits are and those catch limits were designed to achieve our mortality targets,” says Nies.

Early indicators of how the stocks are faring under new management won’t be available for a few years. Assessment frequency varies stock to stock, says Nies, but everybody would like more frequent stock assessments. There may be ways to modify assessments so they can happen more often, he says.

Also unknown is how far consolidation will go in the fishing industry. The NFMC is studying the system’s effect on diversity of the fishing fleet.

New England groundfish is clearly transitioning — but to what? Can it ever regain a prominent market position?

“The best you can hope for?” says Norton. “I cannot tell you because I don’t think anybody knows at this point how the market share will play out in terms of consistency of supply and consistency of quality and how we’re going to arrive at a pricing structure and what that pricing structure is going to look like. Those are fundamental pieces to market share.

“This is not going to turn around in a year or two years or three years,” says Norton.

Contributing Editor Lisa Duchene lives in Bellefonte, Pa.

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