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Tuna Trollers Trash Treaty Talks

Outcome of negotiations disappoints US harvesters as new season begins

 

An EEZ is a specified section of the ocean where the US and other coastal nations have jurisdiction over economic and resource management, including the Pacific Coast Region, where the US and Canada fleets have, since 1981, vied for albacore tuna under a bilateral treaty, which expired in 2011. The EEZ includes waters three to 200 miles offshore. Coastal states are responsible for inshore waters out to three miles (five kilometers) from the coast. Under a one-year extension agreement forged in April with Canada, catches by Canadian fishermen within the US exclusive economic zone (EEZ) would count toward future US allocations, dating back to 1981. Graphic courtesy of NOAA Fisheries Service.

Call it an uneasy truce rather than a treaty.

Two days of intense negotiations held between government representatives from the United States and Canada in Portland, Oregon in mid-April failed to mollify either nation’s commercial tuna fishermen. The session, which featured representatives from the National Marine Fisheries Service, United States Coast Guard, State of Oregon, Pacific Fishery Management Council (PFMC) and tuna trollers, focused on revising and updating a 1981 treaty between the two nations that allowed cross-border tuna fishing in each other’s territorial waters. The treaty expired in 2011, and in the wake of a good 2012 season boosted by the absence of Canadian vessels in US waters, the US harvester delegates went into the negotiation session trolling for another no fishing regime for Canada this season.

They didn’t get it.

Not this season, anyway.

Wayne Heikkila, executive director of the Western Fishboat Owners Association (WFOA), said “other factors were involved, including economic and political” in the US government negotiating position.

In the end, the government representatives forged more of a one-year “truce” for 2013, allowing 45 Canadian vessels into US waters and an unlimited number of US boats allowed to ply Canada’s territorial sea. A phase-out of the entire tuna fishing regime would begin in 2014, still with a reduced number of Canadian vessels allowed. The 2013 season for Canadian vessels in US waters would start June 15 and end September 15, rather than the usual October 31.

Under this agreement, catches by Canadian fishermen within the US exclusive economic zone (EEZ) would count toward future US allocations, dating back to 1981. Those allocations would appear in a separate document and remain in force only as long as the treaty – not the fishing regime – remained in force. An EEZ is a specified section of the ocean where the U.S and other coastal nations have jurisdiction over economic and resource management. The EEZ includes waters three to 200 miles (five to 322 kilometers) offshore (or nine to 200 miles – 14.5 to 322 kilometers – offshore in western Florida and Texas). Coastal states are responsible for inshore waters out to three miles (five kilometers) from the coast (or nine miles, 14.5 kilometers, off the west coast of Florida and off Texas).

The agreement continues access to Canadian ports for unloading, boat work, crew transfers and taking on provisions, and includes South Pacific boats. US officials also agreed to continue working on add-measured vessels and the ability to pick up foreign crews in US ports.

No More Sharing

Tuna fishermen were “quite disappointed in the outcome, and will continue to strive for the elimination of the fishing regime in the near future and beyond,” noted Heikkila, who heads up a non-profit association representing more than 400 family-owned albacore fishing vessels, fishermen and supporting businesses based in Oregon, Washington, California, Alaska, Hawaii, New Zealand and British Columbia. The boats fish for wild Pacific albacore tuna from June through October, and in the South Pacific from January through April.

Since 1981, they have competed not only with each other, but with Canadian vessels that plied US waters under the fishing regime set up by the expired treaty. The Oregon Albacore Commission (OAC), WFOA, American Albacore Fishing Association (AAFA) and the Washington Trollers Association (WTA) called the existing arrangement unfair. A cooperative effort by those groups led to a suspension of the US-Canada reciprocal agreement in 2012. Negotiators decided on no reciprocal fishery, pending additional negotiations toward re-signing the treaty, which meant Canadian fishing vessels couldn’t catch albacore tuna in American waters, and American boats couldn’t venture into Canadian waters.

It enhanced the bottom line for many US trollers.

“Many of us got to fish without a Canadian presence for the first time in our lives,” said Rick Goche, a Coquille, Oregon-based tuna fisherman who also chairs the OAC. “What a difference it made. Without Canadian competition, the US fleet was able to more than make up for the fish the Canadians have historically caught.”

Although final numbers aren’t in, estimates indicate that the American fleet hauled in almost 5,000 tons more tuna than the previous season, even though “fishing in 2012 was not that great,” noted Goche, who trolls for tuna aboard the F/V Peso II.

“More commercial boats delivered fish,” he added. “Most of them, I’m told, were smaller salmon boats that found fish close to the beach, but would not have attempted to compete with the ‘wolf pack’ fishing practices of the Canadian fleet.”

“The fishermen said it was pretty peaceful out there and a lot less crowded without the Canadians around,” Heikkila said. WFOA is immersed in fishery management issues at the state, federal, and international levels, and negotiating the tuna treaty topped their list of initiatives for 2013.

Out With The Old

Heikkila said the old agreement – amended in 2002 and codified by law in 2004 – is too lopsided and requires some modifications to make it fair. Nancy Fitzpatrick, executive director of the OAC, agrees.

The treaty allowed US vessels to fish for albacore tuna in Canadian waters to 12 miles from shore, while allowing 110 Canadian vessels the same privilege in US waters. It also allowed Canadian and US boats to use certain of the other country’s ports to offload fish or take on fuel and supplies.

“For many years, everything was fairly equal,” said Fitzpatrick.

In fact, it worked quite well until the past decade, when changes in weather and water conditions skewed the balance.

Collectively, the US and Canadian fisheries bring in 15,000 to 20,000 metric tons of tuna annually. About 60 percent goes to Asia and Europe, 10 percent to United States canneries, and the remaining 30 percent is sold in US and Canadian markets for domestic consumption.

Fitzpatrick said in seven of the past 10 years, Canada’s boats have drawn 80 percent of their catch from US waters, with an annual albacore tuna harvest of about 12,000 tons. US fishermen take less than 1,000 tons of albacore from Canadian waters each year. The 110 boats allowed more than three decades ago, she added, “were mostly family boats and smaller private boats. Now they’re much larger and have way more capacity, meaning they’re harvesting more fish.”

“Not renewing the treaty was our way of telling the Canadian fishing fleet we have been getting the short end of the stick too long, and we’re not going to do it anymore,” said Heikkila, noting that they need to negotiate some new terms “to keep up with the times.”

He, Fitzpatrick and the tuna fishermen want terms in any renewed pact to even things out in determining long-term reciprocal privileges. Suggested changes have included limiting the number of Canadian boats in US water, limiting harvest tonnage, or stipulating how close Canadian boats can get to American boats while fishing.

Heikkila said they would either like to forge an agreement that doesn’t require frequent renegotiation, or preferably eliminate it completely, phasing out all access to Canada’s tuna fleet. Fishermen say they wanted another year of no encroachment from their northern neighbors to determine whether or not last season “is an anomaly” or a potential long-term boon for the American fleet.

Such suggestions didn’t sit well with their Canadian counterparts during the April negotiating session.

Heikkila said the US Department of State (DOS) in early April put out a proposal that a fishing regime would indeed be negotiated in 2013 for one year, with the number of vessels allowed between 35 and 55. US harvesters opposed the idea “every step of the way” heading into the negotiations.

Season length, catch attribution, port check-ins and check-outs, etiquette, research and other issues were all on the table.

Canadian representatives countered the initial US proposal of 20 to 25 vessels with 75 to 80 vessels – close to the historic treaty level of 110. US fishermen argued that numbers had to be near zero or close to it “if something was to be negotiated.” The fishermen said the US was obligated to reduce numbers to pre-1998 levels, dating back to 1981 for an average.

“When the plenary began, both sides agreed that issues like research and on-grounds behavior would remain outside the regime,” Heikkila said.

They also agreed to freeze the Canadian list, with no more license transfers during the season and no increase in vessel size and US approval required for transfers occurring outside the season. Neither side could agree on number of vessels or season length. Everyone but the government representatives were dismissed. When they all returned, Heikkila said “we were told the Canadians did not like what was agreed to and did not come back.”

US leaders opted against a joint briefing, where the terms forged by the government representatives were spelled out.

Despite the universal dislike, Heikkila said “they did a good job to forge an agreement.” And, as he, Goche and Fitzpatrick point out, it’s only in place for 2013. In a letter to OAC commissioners and albacore fishermen, Goche called it “worse than we hoped for and better than we feared.”

“It is what it is,” he added. “Let’s just hope that fish are abundant and those 45 Canadian boats are virtually invisible to us.”

Goche noted that the “trajectory of future agreements is toward zero” and the objective is to phase out the agreement “on a shorter rather than longer timeline.” Canada’s representatives, he stated, “were also repeatedly put on notice” that the one-year agreement is essentially a “probation” and any problems they cause (“such as happened in the past”) could end the possibility of any phase-out.

“They tried to reassure us that any of their boats in our waters will be on their very best behavior, and they’re just grateful to be fishing here again, no matter how temporary,” Goche pointed out, encouraging US tuna trollers to avoid any negative interactions with Canadian vessels, and to keep a log of any problems that do arise, including date, time, boat name, position and nature of the interaction.

Seal of Approval

One agreement still in place is helping the albacore fishery market its product. Ironically enough, in 2009 the WFOA forged a collaborative funding agreement with the Canadian Highly Migratory Species Foundation to undergo full assessment by the international Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) to earn its blue seal of eco-certification for North American North Pacific albacore tuna. They received it, and it has paid some dividends by helping to open up more market niches worldwide.

“It’s a global market, and the MSC logo is an internationally-recognized symbol of good management and sustainability,” Heikkila said. Adding the MSC eco-label to their tuna products enhanced their already high standard of sustainability and consumer awareness and recognition of those efforts.

The WFOA followed in the wake of its smaller cousin, the AAFA, which – with its 26-vessel membership – became the first tuna fishery in the world to earn the designation in August 2007. “A good fisherman is not necessarily one who catches lots of fish, but one who takes good care of what he catches and protects the resources of the sea,” noted Newport-based tuna fisherman and AAFA member Herb Goblirsch.

Troll-caught one fish at a time, wild Pacific albacore is considered a superior tuna with a mild, rich flavor, and firm flesh. It’s available fresh, frozen, or as canned “white”, “troll-caught”, or “US-caught” albacore. The albacore harvested by Oregon fishermen are younger (three to five years old), weigh from 10 to 30 pounds, and are higher in beneficial omega-3 fish oils than larger, leaner, older albacore snagged in the central Pacific. Because they are young, mercury accumulation is not a concern.

Albacore trollers or jig boats tow 10 to 20 lines of varying lengths from the outriggers and stern, with a lure (jig) attached to the end of each un-weighted line. Boats range from 38 to 100 feet long, and carry crews of two to three fishermen. Catches can range from none to as many as 300 on a good day – and last season’s experiences are proof.

Mixed Results

The ebb and flow of the 2012 albacore tuna season, which started slightly later than normal and ended early for many commercial fishermen, was nearly as capricious as the ocean itself. While some were still out fishing – way out – pursuing their elusive quarry 100 to 150 miles offshore late in the season, many called it quits and went into wait-until-next year mode.

Most fishermen called it an average season, but their experiences ran the gamut from good to fair to mercurial.

Markets in 2012 were “softer” than 2011’s record prices, but didn’t drop as far as some fishermen feared, and even strengthened somewhat during the season. Market prices fluctuated, with processors paying as little as $1.10 per pound and as high as $1.35, while fishermen selling fresh tuna off their boats are getting anywhere from $2.50 to $3.50 per pound.

Only about 200,000 pounds is sold directly off the boats each year, say ODFW officials. The remainder goes to processing plants or is exported.

Counting everyone who brings in 50 pounds of tuna or more, Heikkila said the albacore tuna fishery has about 600 to 700 individual boats, but maybe 200 to 300 are “serious tuna fishermen.” The best tuna trolling, he noted, takes place off the Oregon coast from Coos Bay northward to the Columbia River, with some available off Washington’s southern coast.

Most fishermen focus on Oregon waters, including Newport-based Dave Logsden, who chases his quarry 30 to 100 miles out aboard the F/V Grace Elizabeth. “It was a pretty good season – one of the best for me,” said Logsden, who started fishing in 1972 and also pursues salmon, ling cod and halibut. “I sell everything off the boat, and prices were about the same as last year.”

Logsden, who only uses jig, not bait, said his catch fetched $2.75 per pound. Others were going as low as $2.25 or $2.50 and as high as $3. A tight market in 2011 pushed prices about $1 per pound higher than normal, but he said 2012 prices ebbed and flowed, especially at processing plants.

“The season started a bit late and ended early,” Logsden noted. “I usually begin about July 1, but we didn’t have fish here until mid-July – and by mid-September, they were too far offshore for my boat. The warm water and the tuna were gone.”

Other fishermen deemed the season anywhere from good to great, at least while it lasted. After “rocking and rolling” in some places in June with an opening off-the-boat price at $3.50 per pound, a saturated market in July dropped the price to $2.25 before it rebounded to hover at $2.50, although it varied from port to port.

Price these days is generally a function of fishermen talking to buyers first, said Fitzpatrick – getting their fish in a barrel, as it were, before venturing out. Things were really fizzling out as the 2012 season neared its traditional endpoint in early October.

Taylor Frierson from the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife reports a total of 447 vessels making at least one landing of albacore in Oregon ports in 2012 - 1,608 total trip landings to be exact, up from 1,554 landings in 2011.

August was the peak month, with landings of 4.39 million pounds - the most productive August since 1997. Overall commercial landings reached 9.9 million pounds, besting the 2011 total of 9.7 million pounds and the 10-year (2003-2012) average of 9.6 million pounds.

Newport received most of Oregon’s albacore landings with 5.04 million pounds, just under the port record of 5.07 million pounds in 2009. Newport netted $7,696,622 in revenues - a state record for the highest tuna revenues at a single port, easily besting the previous record of $6,942,548 set in Astoria in 2011. Landings at Astoria, meanwhile, were down by 36 percent, reaching just 2.01 million pounds. Frierson noted speculation about the absence of the Canadian fleet causing the precipitous drop. Pacific City’s dory fleet featured a port record of 20 vessels that landed 37,974 pounds of albacore, surpassing their ten-year average (2002-2011) by 650 percent.

“The West Coast albacore market in 2012 was not quite as strong as the all-time record revenues for 2011, but remained well above average from past years,” noted Frierson.

Ex-vessel revenue stood at $15,089,164 – down 20 percent from the $18,800,634 gleaned in 2011. Average price for 2012 was $1.53 per pound, down from $1.94 in 2011. Average price from 2001 to 2010 was 95 cents per pound.

“This phenomenon of sudden increased values began in 2011 after the tsunami in Japan destroyed their tuna fleet and the largest fish freezer in the world, which contained millions of pounds of albacore,” noted Frierson. “Other world market factors may have also influenced the value spike.”

Albacore deliveries in early July “were rewarded” with a peak of $1.84 per pound average price before the market declined to the season’s lowest average price of $1.41 per pound by the second week of August.

“The slump in price was likely due to the highest volume of landings in the first week of August,” Frierson noted. “Average prices then rose steadily until the end of the season, finishing at up to $2.04 per pound. Many large deliveries of frozen albacore were made within the final two weeks of October, where blast-frozen tuna sold for as high as $2.18 per pound.”

For the season, fresh-iced tuna average prices ranged from $1.25 to $1.50 per pound; brine-frozen tuna averaged $1.35 to $1.55; blast-frozen tuna averaged $1.60 to $1.85; and direct sales of fresh-iced tuna ranged from $2.50 to $3.00 per pound. Blast and brine-frozen tuna sales each accounted for 38 percent of the market, while fresh-iced tuna sales were 24 percent.

Albacore accounted for 13 percent of Oregon’s marine fish revenue in 2012, with the ex-vessel revenue from albacore landings ranked third among all Oregon’s marine fishery landings behind Dungeness crab and pink shrimp.

As for this season, as of press time, Fitzpatrick said she had “no idea” as to what the season might bring. “There’s no way to know yet,” she added.

Catches and market prices, as usual, are sure to fluctuate, and the Canadian influence is back in the mix. Cold water has led to a slow start, and Fitzpatrick and Goche both noted that much can happen to both catch and markets between now and October.

“The markets are a little more fluid than last year,” said Heikkila. “Demand is starting to go up, but it depends on what’s caught elsewhere worldwide.”