Fins Up for Oregon’s Albacore Tuna Season

Trollers land second highest to-the-boat value in past decade

By Terry Dillman

It was almost the worst of times. It was almost the best of times.

After another lackluster opening that spawned worries among commercial fishermen, the Oregon albacore tuna fishery went on a wild late season run to bring in 10,104,702 pounds of tuna that fetched to-the-boat revenue of $15,916,410. Those numbers easily bested the 10-year averages of 9.8 million pounds and $11.9 million.

And those 2013 numbers from the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) are preliminary as agency officials (as of press time) awaited the tally of remaining fish tickets not yet submitted.

Although a significant upward bump is unlikely, Cyreis Schmitt, the agency’s marine policy project leader in the fish division, said they “should go up some.”

Schmitt, who is based at Oregon State University’s Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport, Oregon, noted that the numbers were Oregon landings only. They expected additional landings in Washington, but numbers were not yet available. Washington-based tuna trollers bring in more than 80 percent of their catch from Oregon waters.

Even without those tallies, Nancy Fitzpatrick, executive director of the Oregon Albacore Commission (OAC) called it “a good year,” noting “the price is really good.” She and Schmitt unveiled the preliminary numbers during the November 15, 2013 session of the OAC, the nine-member commission formed in October 1999 as part of the Oregon Department of Agriculture (ODA) commodity commission program.

Fitzpatrick said the 2013 season initially mimicked 2012, which started slightly later than normal and ended early for many commercial fishermen, proving nearly as capricious as the ocean itself. Most fishermen called 2012 an average season, but experiences ran the gamut from good to fair to mercurial, at least while it lasted. This season mirrored those mixed results, but with an improved payoff for those who persevered.

Schmitt and Fitzpatrick said the landed tuna featured typical size and age distribution: 3.5 to 4.5 years old, averaging 28.5 inches long and 14 pounds.

A late season rebound provided the key to success, they added, noting that fishermen hauled in more than half the overall landings during the last two months – 4 million pounds in August and 2 million pounds in September.

“That’s a little bit later than normal,” Fitzpatrick said. “You guys know better where the fish were.”

The best tuna trolling takes place off the Oregon coast from Coos Bay northward to the Columbia River, with some available off Washington’s southern coast. Most harvesters fish off of Oregon’s central coast, where the tuna were “farther out and fewer” for most of this season, in another reflection of 2012.

Newport led the way with 4.9 million pounds valued at $7,582,756 – just shy of last season’s state record for highest revenue at a single port. Astoria was next with 2.6 million pounds at $4.4 million, followed by Charleston with 1.9 million pounds worth $2.8 million. Other South Coast ports took in a combined 491,977 pounds valued at $805,032, while other North Coast ports gleaned a combined 266,737 pounds worth $353,489.

Tuna sold fresh off the boat fetched prices of $2.75 to $3 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. Market prices fluctuated from $1.25 to $1.75 per pound for fresh tuna, $1.10 to $1.68 for brine frozen, and $1.75 to $2.20 for blast frozen.

Those prices and markets reflected trends from the previous two seasons.

A tight market in 2011 pushed prices about $1 per pound higher than normal, but 2012 prices ebbed and flowed, especially at processing plants. While markets in 2012 were “softer” than 2011’s record prices, they didn’t drop as far as some fishermen feared, and strengthened somewhat during the season.

“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,” notes Taylor Frierson from ODFW.
After “rocking and rolling” in some places with an opening off-the-boat price at $3.50 per pound, a saturated market dropped the price to $2.25 before it rebounded to hover at $2.50, although, as always, it varied from port to port. Market prices also 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 were getting anywhere from $2.50 to $3.50 per pound.

Average price for 2012 was $1.53 per pound, down from $1.94 in 2011, but well above the 2001 to 2010 average of 95 cents per pound.

ODFW reported a total of 447 vessels making at least one landing of albacore in Oregon ports in 2012.

As it was this season, August was the peak month, with landings of 4.4 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 9.7 million pounds.

Newport received most of Oregon’s albacore landings in 2012 with 5.06 million pounds, just under the port record of 5.07 million pounds in 2009.

Newport netted $7,733,275 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. The final Newport tally for 2013 – already second-highest single-port revenue for a season – could almost eclipse the 2012 record.

Ex-vessel revenue in 2012 stood at $15,147,543 – well below the record high $18,803,492 gleaned in 2011, but still third highest on record. Albacore accounted for 13 percent of Oregon’s marine fish revenue in 2012, with the ex-vessel revenue from tuna landings ranking third among all Oregon’s marine fishery landings behind Dungeness crab and pink shrimp.

Newport, Astoria and Charleston have led the way in tuna landings and revenue since 2004. During the past five seasons, Newport has led the way, except in 2010.

In 2009, Newport landings reached 5.1 million pounds valued at $5.1 million. Astoria finished with 2.6 million pounds worth $2.7 million, and Charleston landed 2.1 million pounds worth $2 million. In 2010, it was Astoria (4.4 million pounds, $5.4 million), Newport (4.1 million, $4.6 million) and Charleston (1.8 million, $1.97 million). In 2011, Newport’s landings were higher than Astoria’s (3.7 million pounds to 3.2 million), but Astoria set the state revenue record with $6.9 million, while Newport’s haul was valued at $6.6 million. Charleston finished with 2.4 million and $4.2 million.

Since 2004, overall Oregon landings have fluctuated (10.7 million, 8.1 million, 8.5 million, 10.5 million, 8.9 million, 10.2 million, 10.7 million, 9,7 million, 9.9 million and 10.1 million pounds, respectively), as have revenues. Value of landings was $8.8 million and $8.1 million, respectively, in 2005 and 2006. Revenue reached $9.1 million and $9.5 million, respectively, in 2004 and 2007. Value exceeded $10 million in 2008 ($10.7 million) and 2009 ($10.3 million), then jumped to $12.4 million in 2010.

The past three seasons were phenomenal in terms of revenue, with a leap to $18.8 million in 2011, followed by $15.2 million in 2012 and $15.9 million so far this season.
Market analysts say tuna fishermen must realize that those values derive to a large extent from a rise in exports to Asian markets – most notably Japan – in the wake of the 2011 earthquake-spawned tsunami that devastated much of Japan’s tuna fishing fleet. When the fleet recovers, fishery managers say they will return with newer vessels, the latest technology and more capacity, upping market competition with a potential corresponding influence on market prices and landings value. Other nations also began targeting albacore this season, including China, which put as many as 1,000 boats in the water.

Fishery managers also noted the diminished presence of albacore tuna fishing boats from Canada.

New Treaty?

Counting everyone who brings in 50 pounds of tuna or more, Wayne Heikkila, executive director of the California-based Western Fishboat Owners Association (WFOA), said the US albacore tuna fishery features about 600 to 700 individual boats, with 200 to 300 of them owned and operated by “serious tuna fishermen.” Until 2012, they also competed with a fleet of vessels from neighboring Canada under a 1981 treaty between the two nation’s governments that allowed cross-border tuna fishing in each other’s territorial waters. That treaty expired in 2011, the governments ended up temporarily suspending the reciprocity, and no Canadian vessels were allowed in US waters in 2012.

Negotiators opted for 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.

“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, noting that it enhanced the bottom line for many US trollers in 2012. “More commercial boats delivered fish,” added Goche, who trolls for tuna aboard the F/V Peso II.

In the wake of a season boosted by the absence of Canadian boats, US harvester delegates went into a 2012 treaty negotiation session trolling for another “no fishing” designation for Canada again during this season. To the chagrin of most US tuna trollers, government representatives forged a one-year “truce” for 2013, agreeing to allow up to 45 Canadian vessels into US waters and an unlimited number of US boats to ply Canada’s territorial sea.

A phase-out of the entire tuna fishing regime is scheduled to begin in 2014, with a reduced number of Canadian vessels allowed during the phase-out period.

The 2013 season for Canadian vessels in US waters started June 15 and ended September 15, rather than the usual October 31.

“A lot of Canadian boats stayed in their own water,” Heikkila said. “We didn’t see the effort here this year.”

Schmitt said 377 US vessels landed tuna in 2013. Just 17 vessels from Canada landed 1,052,415 pounds of tuna valued at $1,965,261 during July, August and September. Most of those landings – 852,456 pounds – went to Astoria, the remainder to Newport and Charleston.
The presence of Canadian vessels remains a contentious issue for US albacore fishermen. With less than five percent of the total number of boats in the water, the Canadians took 10 percent of the overall Oregon catch this season, noted OAC member Laura Anderson from Local Ocean Seafood in Newport, Oregon, one of the commission’s three processor representatives. Some fishermen and fishery managers say the amount landed by the small number of Canadian boats (an average of almost 62,000 pounds per vessel) points to underlying issues concerning possible “loopholes” about admeasuring – determining the dimensions, capacity, weight and other details of a vessel for official registration, documentation or rating – and vessel ownership, in particular American-registered vessels that are partially Canadian-owned.
The OAC, WFOA, American Albacore Fishing Association (AAFA) and the Washington Trollers Association (WTA) called the former treaty unfair, and a cooperative effort by those groups led to the 2012 suspension of the US-Canada reciprocal agreement.

Disappointed with the government’s approval to allow the return of some Canadian vessels in 2013, the OAC, WFOA, AAFA and WTA remain committed to presenting a common fishery position on the issue. After a lively discussion during their November session, OAC members opted to “stand down” until the fishing associations make final determinations and declare their positions on this issue before treaty negotiations move forward.

Tim Thomas, skipper of the F/V Steel Fin II out of Garibaldi, Oregon, one of five harvesters serving with the commission and an AAFA board member, expressed concerns about admeasuring, along with partial Canadian ownership of US vessels. He favors the proposed phase-out of the agreement.

“We represent the needs of the overall fleet,” Shawn Ryan, a Charleston, Oregon-based fisherman noted. “I still want options to fish in Canadian waters. I hardly saw a difference between no boats last year and 45 this year.”

Goche pointed to what he called a history of the Canadians “finding every little loophole and disregarding treaty terms.”

He opposes allowing any Canadian vessels into US waters, not even “a specified bottom line” of a minimum number of boats. “Every foreign vessel that comes into the US fishery decreases the value of my vessel,” he added, noting that the Magnusson-Stevens Act directs that US fisheries “should take precedence,” and due to the “significant negative impact” on the albacore fishery, he advocated continued suspension of the treaty and additional analysis of economic impacts of allowing Canadian vessels in US waters.

Heikkila said the WFOA supports the proposed phase-out during the next two to three years. “The quicker, the better for most guys,” he added.

Fishery managers say the only option other than treaty termination to circumvent these issues is adopting a limited entry program for albacore – something the fishermen don’t advocate, especially with a pending stock assessment.

Goche expressed concern about some of the potential parameters of the assessment that “could change the whole dynamic” of the fishery by having the assessment “based on fish not in our fishery or our stocks.” “That’s scary,” he added. Thomas sees a problem with doing stock assessments based on landings. “If we don’t catch a lot of fish trolling, it doesn’t necessarily mean the stock is in trouble,” he noted.

For now, as with the treaty negotiation, the stock assessment is a wait-and-see situation.