Fishermen's News - The Advocate for the Commercial Fisherman

Higher Harvest Helps Harried Shrimpers

Unexpected welcome jump in 2018 pink shrimp landings, prices

 

February 1, 2019

After substantial harvest declines in 2016 and 2017, Oregon's pink shrimp fishery bounced back a bit in 2018. Photo courtesy of ODFW.

For commercial fishermen, unexpected harvest numbers usually mean less, not more, for them.

But Oregon's 2018 pink shrimp season took an opposite tack, especially given the cautious, even pessimistic, pre-season predictions.

Shrimpers landed 34.9 million pounds, fetching an average of 72 cents per pound valued at $26.5 million – third highest on record. It wasn't easy, as many fishermen reported needing more time on the water – often as long as four and five days per trip – and traveling to southern Oregon and California to catch their limit.

While those numbers eclipsed 2017 season results, when shrimpers netted just 23.1 million pounds worth $12.7 million on an average price of 55 cents per pound, they still fall woefully short of the fleet's recent incredible success.

Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) records show that during the five-year stretch from 2011 to 2015, the fleet set several records, including the highest cumulative multi-season landings in the fishery's history, and near-record single-season highs in 2014 (52 million pounds) and 2015 (53.4 million with and record value of $40 million). The fleet netted 48 million pounds in 2011, 49.1 million in 2012, and 47.6 million in 2013. Average catch per trip in 2013 was a record-setting 46,833 pounds from 1,017 individual trips aboard 61 vessels. Catch-per-trip numbers had risen steadily since 2004, and those increases, especially from 2009 on, "reflect the high shrimp abundance available, but also suggest that harvest and processor strategies may be at play."

ODFW's pink shrimp project team notes that, during the prior two seasons, shrimpers "were reminded of the variability of the stock."

The 2016 yield dropped to 36 million pounds worth $25 million on an average price of 71 cents per pound – still quite respectable and above the 25-year average of 30 million - followed by the lowest harvest since 2009. The 64 vessels involved in the 2017 fishing effort made just 754 individual trips, the lowest number since 2010.

In their annual season review, pink shrimp project team leader Scott Groth and assistant leaders Matt Blume and Jill Smith indicated concerns about "count per pound issues early in the season, depending on fishing effort." Based on fishery harvest data, they expected the 2018 season to produce a "moderate" harvest similar to 2017. Some shrimpers said they were prepared to go after albacore tuna or otherwise opt out of shrimping if the numbers were off.

Harvests depend on two elements: abundance (how many shrimp) and age and size distribution.

Marine researchers say ocean and climate conditions are the key factors in determining the abundance of harvestable pink shrimp, which have a four-year lifespan. Researchers compare long-term population and environmental data to forecast potential future catches. Predicting potential harvests from year-to-year is difficult, because larvae survival rates depend on conditions in the year they're born. Market analysts note that fewer survivors mean fewer shrimp of the proper age, size and count per pound, which generally translates into lower prices to fishermen.

Pink shrimp thrive in cold water, and often fare poorly during warm years, especially strong El Niño years.

Since 2014, researchers and fishermen note that the fishery has faced adversity from a persistent vast "blob" of high temperature water and hypoxia that dominated the Pacific Coast from alaska to southern California, interspersed with and enhanced by the effects of intense El Niño events. Fluctuating ocean conditions foster fluctuating shrimp populations. Toss in market conditions, with a worldwide surplus of coldwater shrimp that softens prices, and the Oregon fishery faced a perfect storm of adversity, as price disputes with processors and an overabundance of immature shrimp led to delays of at least a month in each season opener for the past three years.

Market experts also note that smaller coldwater shrimp is "losing shelf space" to larger warmwater prawns. They say doing everything possible to maintain and expand coldwater shrimp's share of the marketplace "is vital to keeping the industry viable."

Despite the challenges, Oregon's pink shrimp fishery remains remarkably viable, considered as one of the most consistently valuable commercial trawl fisheries in the state, with operations from Washington to northern California. ODFW and fishing industry experts say it's the state's second most lucrative fishery behind Dungeness crabs, and actually topped all state fisheries in ex-vessel value in 2015.

Fishermen like Nick Edwards, owner of Coos Bay, Oregon-based F/V Carter Jon, point to the fishery's practices as the foundation for its on-going success.

Pink shrimp is the only shrimp species found off Oregon's shores in quantities large enough for commercial harvest. Researchers say populations vary widely from year-to-year, and their life history makes them "somewhat naturally resistant to overharvest," since overall numbers determine harvest amounts. The season is open from April 1 to October 31 to avoid interfering in the typical December to March reproductive cycle and taking the emerging young shrimp.

According to the Oregon Trawl Commission (OTC), primary management efforts – beyond mandatory commercial fishing licenses and limited entry shrimp fishing permit system – are season, shrimp size (age), and gear modifications. Boats generally work during the day (shrimp migrate off the bottom at night to feed). Most are double-rigged, meaning a net is set out from each trawl arm independent of each other. Those nets are set at depths of 450 to 750 feet (75 to 125 fathoms).

"Trawls used to catch Oregon pink shrimp do not have full contact with the sea floor, which means that bycatch of unwanted fish is greatly reduced," commission directors note. Boats also often work together to locate the highest densities and largest sizes of pink shrimp.

Fishery leaders and fishermen have also been quick to adopt innovations to boost harvests and simultaneously reduce bycatch. Among those innovations are adding LED lights and bycatch reduction devices to their nets. Some fishermen have started to use cameras developed for midwater fisheries in alaska that allow them to see what's on the bottom and more easily avoid bycatch species.

An industry acolyte who eagerly spreads the word about such adaptations wherever and whenever he gets the opportunity, Nick Edwards says Oregon's pink shrimp is "one of the healthiest fisheries on the planet because of what we have done," and is poised for a sustainable future.

Others agree, including the international Marine Stewardship Council (MSC).

In 2007, pink shrimp became Oregon's first fishery and the world's first shrimp fishery to earn the MSC's sustainability certification, followed by re-certification in 2013 and 2018 under the newest MSC criteria.

Working directly with fishermen, gear researchers and manufacturers have created highly sophisticated shrimp nets which eliminate most bycatch without affecting shrimp catch. Two key methods involve using LED lights and bycatch reduction devices (BRDs). Oregon and Washington pink shrimp fisheries also received re-certification and sustainable designation from the Marine Stewardship Council in 2018, in part due to such modifications. Graphic courtesy of Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Through collaborative research efforts with fishermen and the OTC, Groth says ODFW's pink shrimp project team aims to maximize harvest potential and avoid overfishing, and to develop and use measures to minimize bycatch and any other adverse effects on seafloor habitat from fishery operations. Perhaps most vitally, they want to help the fishery "operate under a stable regulatory environment that allows vessel operators maximum flexibility in deciding where, when and how to fish."

Such efforts have allowed the fishery to evolve from its humble beginnings in 1957 into the vital commercial fishery it is now.

Fishermen acknowledge that even a down year like 2017 is significantly more rewarding than the early years (1957 to 1967), when annual harvests were 2.5 million to 5.5 million pounds. Of course, ODFW officials note that when the fishery first morphed into a substantial commercial enterprise, "all known pink shrimp grounds were accessible to the fleet, and all major ports had shrimp processing facilities."

Times have changed significantly, Edwards notes, but fishery participants have adapted to those changes and – with innovative methods and a cooperating collaborative spirit in the present – charted a course toward a foreseeably productive and rewarding future.

One that will undulate with the ups and downs of the pink shrimp population.

 
 

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