Oregon’s Pink Shrimp Fishery Trying to Net Eco-Recertification

By Terry Dillman

Yaquina Bay, ORNewport’s fishing fleet casts reflections in Yaquina Bay in the early morning light of a tranquil day. Oregon’s pink shrimp fishery based in Newport, Charleston and Astoria was the first fishery in the state and the first shrimp fishery worldwide to earn eco-friendly certification from the international Marine Stewardship Council in 2007. Fishery managers are currently seeking recertification. Photo by Terry Dillman.

In 2007, Oregon’s pink shrimp fishery became the state’s first fishery and the world’s first shrimp fishery to earn certification – and the blue eco-label on their products signifying the achievement – from the international Marine Stewardship Council (MSC).

At the time, then-Gov. Ted Kulongoski called the designation “a very important milestone in sustainability that will bring international attention to our state. This achievement represents a significant step in identifying Oregon as a leader in sustainable resource management.”

Now fishery leaders and managers, seeking to sustain the label, have voluntarily entered a full reassessment process to obtain recertification.

An international non-profit organization, MSC operates the world’s leading independent certification program for wild fisheries, bestowing its coveted blue eco-label on those fisheries it deems well-managed and sustainable, and using that label to educate consumers about those fisheries. Council officials said they are “dedicated to improving the health of the world’s oceans and creating a sustainable global seafood market.”

Focusing on three main principles – fish stock health, fishery management and the fishery’s effects on the ecosystem, council certification for pink shrimp involved an intense process that began with pre-assessment in 2003, followed by full assessment beginning in 2005 and wrapping up late in 2007. The Oregon Trawl Commission (OTC), which represents Oregon’s traditional groundfish, whiting and pink shrimp fisheries, funded and provided documentation for the fishery’s certification review. The trawl commission provides support for education, research and marketing, and advocates for proposed legislation on behalf of those fleets and fisheries.

The certification, which lasts five years with annual surveillance audits, featured improvement actions for the fishery to put in place, among them recording additional data in vessel logbooks and obtaining more independent research about the fishery’s catch and ecosystem impacts to glean information for fishery managers.

“Certification confirms to the public, retailers, the conservation community and our government officials that the Oregon pink shrimp fishery is managed to the highest standards in the world,” said Brad Pettinger, OTC director. He said they look forward to the recertification effort to prove that the fishery “is deserving of the right to use” the MSC’s blue label.

Intertek Moody Marine will conduct the independent reassessment process, which officials expect to take about a year.
Value and Viability
Fished from the cold waters of the Pacific, Oregon pink shrimp or ocean shrimp (often erroneously called bay shrimp or simply salad shrimp) are – compared to the larger species usually found in supermarkets and restaurants – the real “shrimps” of the shrimp world, with 100 to 160 whole shrimp comprising one pound.

Started in 1957, Oregon’s commercial pink shrimp fleet is considered one of the most consistently valuable commercial trawl fisheries in the state. Centered off the Oregon coast with operations extending from Washington to northern California, the 50 to 60-vessel fleet works out of Newport, Charleston, and Astoria. With short at-sea trips and immediate on-board icing, pink shrimp fishermen quickly deliver their catch to shore for cooking, peeling, and freezing.

Best of all, they do it in an ecologically friendly manner.

Pettinger said fishery activities and shrimp landings are carefully monitored “to maintain an ecologically sustainable trawl fishery.”

While many shrimp species exist in the ocean off Oregon’s shores, pink shrimp is the only species found in quantities large enough for commercial harvest. Populations vary widely from year-to-year, and their life history makes them somewhat naturally resistant to overharvest, since overall numbers determine take.

The season is open from April 1 to October 31 to avoid interfering with the typical December-to-March reproductive cycle and taking the emerging young shrimp. Pink shrimp have a life span of just four years, with two-year-olds the most common age found in the commercial catch. That catch must average 160 or fewer shrimp per pound, so fishermen shy away from areas with higher populations of one-year-old or younger (and smaller) shrimp.

Primary management tools – beyond mandatory commercial fishing licenses and limited entry shrimp fishing permit system – are season, shrimp size (age) and gear modifications, said Pettinger, noting that the fishery historically concentrates on four beds – “areas of commercially sustainable populations” where the bottom is relatively flat and smooth, consisting of mostly green mud or sand. Those beds expand or shrink each season, depending on the shrimp population at the time.

Boats generally work during the day, since shrimp migrate off the bottom at night to feed, and most are double-rigged, with nets 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,” an OTC fact sheet notes.

In addition, boats often work together to locate the highest densities and largest sizes of pink shrimp.

Feeling ‘Grate’
However, the main key to the fishery’s latest eco-exploits involves harvesting with trawl nets containing a Bycatch Reduction Device (BRD) known as the Oregon Grate, a “fish sorter” placed in the net to separate the shrimp from other fish and prevent excessive incidental capture of other species, such as hake and rockfish. Developed through a long-term collaboration between the fishery and Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) and its Marine Resources Program (MRP), the grate keeps the shrimp in the net while allowing most fish to escape, guided by either rigid aluminum grids (preferred by most fishermen) or soft panels through a large opening at the top of the net.

ODFW/MRP scientists say shrimp trawl fisheries worldwide are notorious for high levels of fish bycatch. They cite on-going monitoring and research during the past three decades, along with mandatory logbooks, biological sampling, and population dynamics modeling, as factors in raising the ecological profile of Oregon’s pink shrimp fishery.

But the collaborative effort with the fishery in developing and mandating use of BRDs really made the difference.

Use of the grates – mandatory in Oregon since April 1, 2003 – helped make the Oregon pink shrimp fishery one of the “cleanest” fisheries, with little or no impact on other commercial species. Their use first led to a “Best Choice” recommendation from the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program, which also caters to environmentally concerned seafood consumers, and played a major role in earning the MSC sustainability nod.

Jeff Boardman, who has 31 years of shrimping experience, 25 aboard his trawler F/V Miss Yvonne, helped develop the grate in 2001 and credited the cooperative research effort – research that he said actually began in 1994 – for getting the fishery to this pinnacle of success. In particular, he gave ODFW’s Bob Hannah, Steve Jones, and Keith Matteson his seal of approval. Matteson, he noted, “did a lot of underwater camera work” to show the effectiveness of BRDs. Based in Newport at Oregon State University’s Hatfield Marine Science Center, Hannah and Jones – project leaders for the commercial pink shrimp fishery – were instrumental in assisting the OTC in the certification effort.

They also publish an annual pink shrimp newsletter, which outlines trends, issues, and other vital information with fishery participants.

“This should prove to fishermen these things are actually working,” Boardman said. “It makes the fishing a lot cleaner and the product a lot fresher, with a lot less effort on deck.”

Long-time commercial fisherman and current Lincoln County Commissioner Terry Thompson called the 2007 certification “a real success story” that began when the state legislature under former Gov. John Kitzhaber restored ODFW research funding. He also lauded ODFW for not forcing the BRD issue.

“They let the fleet work on it,” he noted. “The fishermen perfected the device.”

Thompson also pointed to the pink shrimp fishery as a prime example of the best way to manage ocean resources. “When we go after shrimp, we catch shrimp,” he added.

“Although we produce just two percent of the world’s coldwater shrimp supply, Oregon is leading the way for other shrimp fisheries, and providing a best case example of how to run and manage a sustainable fishery,” said Pettinger.

Yields during the past decade tell the tale: Shrimpers took 6.1 million pounds in 1998, followed by 20.5 million (1999), 25.5 million (2000), 28.5 million (2001), 41.6 million (2002), 20.6 million (2003), 12.2 million (2004), 15.8 million (2005), 12.2 million (2006), 20.1 million (2007), 25.6 million (2008), 22.1 million (2009) and 31.4 million (2010).

Market Boost?
Fresh pink shrimp are available at local and regional markets during the season (April 1 to October 31), while canned and frozen shrimp are marketed throughout the year.

Going green and earning the blue was touted as a way to keep this vital Oregon fishery in the pink, or at least out of the red. Reality has yet to even get within shouting distance of the hype in terms of boosting ex-vessel prices, but most shrimpers remain pragmatic about it, knowing that numerous other factors beyond catering to the folks of the green revolution are at work.

From a marketing standpoint, Oregon Department of Agriculture and fishery officials said in 2007 that certification would help the fishery maintain existing access and possibly provide access to new markets, since it allows Oregon pink shrimp to go to market as a premium product. “This program is targeted to consumers,” Katy Coba, director of the Oregon Department of Agriculture, said when the fishery first earned the designation. “The MSC eco-label goes onto the product and consumers will see that label at the retail level. This certification gives a boost to the credibility of Oregon wild fisheries in both the domestic and international marketplace.”

MSC officials said global demand for independently certified and labeled sustainable seafood is growing, and certification allows Oregon pink shrimp to go to market as a premium product.

Little has changed since then, as possible fell short of probable, at least at the fishermen’s level.

Corey Rock, skipper of Newport-based F/V Kylie Lynn, said he really saw no up-tick in market prices during the past four seasons, but slapping the MSC label on their products did broaden the market scope.

“It might not help us to have it at the moment, but it could hurt us not to,” he said, noting continued public clamor for sustainable commercial fisheries that are conservation-minded and eco-friendly as a result. That clamor, Rock added, is only likely to intensify in the years ahead, making the overt endorsement conferred on pink shrimp by the MSC label almost a must to stay in business at any viable level.

During testimony about a separate matter at a hearing of the Senate Committee on General Government, Consumer and Small Business Protection in March, Boardman noted that Oregon’s shrimp fishermen “have been leaders in developing a fishery that is certified as sustainable” by the MSC.

Boardman, a member of the Shrimp Producers Marketing Cooperative since 1986, told the Senate committee that wholesale and retail prices for pink shrimp have risen, ex vessel prices paid to the fishermen have dropped. He cited data from the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife and Urner Barry – “the industry’s leading tracker of wholesale seafood prices” – indicating that while wholesale price for pink shrimp “has moved up substantially” during the past five years, ex vessel prices for pink shrimp landed in Oregon have remained at or below 50 cents per pound since 2006, and stood at 31 cents per pound on average in 2009 and 35 cents in 2010.

“I am fortunate not to have any mortgage on my fish boat, but it has still become harder and harder to make a decent living in my fishery over the last five years,” Boardman noted.

The fault for the “disconnect” between wholesale/retail and ex vessel prices, he said, lies elsewhere, and many shrimpers say enhancing marketability of pink shrimp with the MSC label could never make up for it. But they take pride and satisfaction in earning the label, knowing that it’s best to pursue anything that might open up new markets or maintain or enhance existing ones.

Fishery officials continue to hold out hope that the labeling will help fetch a higher price for the fishery, which generates hundreds of seasonal harvesting and processing jobs along the Oregon coast. Stock-wise, the fishery is in good shape, they noted, and landings are up. Overall, the cold water shrimp market is improved worldwide, and they hope to take the product to the next level.

Consumers, however, are fickle and price “seems to rule the marketplace.”

Boardman agreed, but is bothered by something else he hopes this ongoing recognition can amend. “If we can just get them to stop calling them bay shrimp,” he concluded, finding the misnomer grating. “They’re Oregon pink shrimp.”

Terry Dillman can be reached at tdwordwright@gmail.com