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One Man's Opinion: Fish processors going extinct

Property of SeaFood Business magazine
By Peter Redmayne
April 01, 2008

Sustainability is a fact of life these days in the fish business. Environmental NGOs (non-governmental organizations) have successfully seized upon the issue and put federal fisheries managers under the gun to restore fish stocks as quickly as possible. That's led to some draconian cuts in fishing effort on both the East and West coasts.

With less fish being landed, there is less fish to be processed. So it's hardly surprising that processing plant after processing plant is closing its doors. On the West Coast, dozens of fishing plants once dotted the coast from San Francisco to Seattle. There was so much fish to be caught in the industry's heyday during the 1980s and early 1990s that even an oil company jumped into the fish business and built a processing plant.

As recently as 1994, more than 100 million pounds of rockfish, the bread-and-butter of the West Coast trawl fleet, were landed. Add 70 million pounds of pink shrimp, about 50 million pounds of salmon, a good shot of Dungeness crab and there was plenty of fish to keep plants busy year-round.

Fast forward to today. The rockfish catch is less than 10 million pounds. The entire West Coast troll salmon fishery may be shut down to protect decimated Sacramento chinook stocks. More and more of the Dungeness catch bypasses processing plants because it goes live to markets in China and North America. And shrimp catches are down by two-thirds because shrimpers are getting 30 percent less for their catch at a time when fuel costs have increased drastically.

So who can blame the owner of a dilapidated processing plant when he sells his choice waterfront property and retires? The situation is similar on the East Coast. So what will happen when the fish do come back? That's a question East Coast fishermen are already asking. Stocks of Atlantic pollock and redfish in the Gulf of Maine have already rebounded to levels not seen since "the good old days." But according to one fisherman, "if over 100,000 pounds of redfish were landed in Gloucester in one day now, it would probably sell for bait." During the 1950s, plants in Gloucester and Rockland, Maine, could cut almost a million pounds of redfish a day.

Even if the plants were still around, it would be a challenge to find and train people to stand around a damp, cold room and fillet fish all day.

And there's also no guarantee there will be enough fishermen around to fish the rebounding stocks. The boat price for pollock is currently about 25 cents a pound, the same price it was when fuel was less than 50 cents a gallon. And gutting all that pollock is hard work. The long-term prospects for a fishery where the "lumpers" who offload the boats make more money than the fishermen who catch and gut the fish are hardly bright. That's just one reason why so many veteran East Coast fishermen have hung for-sale signs on their boats and encouraged their sons not to follow them to sea.

The irony in all this is that the NGOs who have spent millions badgering and suing fisheries managers to manage fisheries on a sustainable basis may be killing the future of the very fisheries they want to sustain.


Contributing Editor Peter Redmayne lives in Seattle


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