, Gloucester, MA

July 18, 2009

Economy still means low prices for fishermen

Ebb & Flow

Local commercial groundfishermen and vessel owners have fish prices on their minds, besides the upcoming fisheries management of Amendment 16.

Why have the boat prices, even on "money fish" such as cod, haddock and grey sole, generally been low this year?

Capt. Billy "Brownie" Brown knows he has been gillnetting the same "market" and "large" or "steaker" size (fish weighing between 4 and 10 pounds to fish weighing more than 10 pounds, respectively) cod species this year that he has for decades.

But "their prices are down," said Brown.

He and Pete Shoares work Brown's gillnetter Gillian Anne, a part of Gloucester's day boat groundfish fleet that supplies the port with quality cod much of the year. Regulators prohibit these gillnetters, hook boats and draggers from each landing more than 800 pounds of cod a day. Abundant cod on the sand eel-infested Stellwagen Bank has dramatically shortened their fishing trips and also often resulted in cod landed to being just two to three hours old.

"Two summers ago, 'large' cod were worth between $2 and $3 per pound," Brown said. "Last summer, they brought the boat a buck to two bucks a pound. This summer, 'markets' have averaged around 85 cents per pound and 'large' cod around $1.10 per pound.

"We (the fishermen) saw $3.05 per pound for 'large' cod one time, only after a couple of blowy days," he added. "Phil (Powell of the F/V Foxy Lady II) and I were the only ones out then."

Other 'money fish'

Ricky Beal, who skippers the inshore Gloucester dragger Horizons, has been targeting other traditional "money fish" — grey sole, monkfish, and haddock — besides cod this year, with similar findings.

"Their prices have been horrible," he said. "Small grey sole has been about a buck; it's normally about $2 per pound this time of year.

"I was on a boat that got $6 per pound for large grey sole in 1998," he recalled. "You can't get $3 per pound for them today."

Large has been the grey sole's premiere size, which is usually short in supply.

Many of the inshore groundfishermen "... waited two months, not having a trip (because of the rolling closures)," Beal explained. "Once the grounds re-opened (on June 1), the prices were so bad, my crew and I tied up for a week. Market cod was 65 cents per pound then."

Buyers' side

Joe Mason, a buyer for Gloucester's Pigeon Cove Whole Foods that helps supply its parent company's Whole Foods supermarkets with fresh and frozen seafood, figures 2009's groundfish prices so far to the boat have been "... about 25 percent lower than last year."

He attributes "... the economy and a weak Canadian salt fish market" for the ebbed prices.

Sam Favazza, who grades and buys fish at the Gloucester Seafood Display Auction for Legal Seafoods, concurs.

"It's the economy," he said, "It's terrible. Everyone in the fish business is complaining; sales are down."

People in the fish business move their perishable products and keep their markets alive during hard times by lowering the fish prices to create more consumer demand.

Regulatory landing restrictions and their often resulting high fish prices and shortages and cheaper product substitutions have already helped shrink the groundfish markets. The bad economy has only made matters worse for what's left of them.

"Consumers are being very conservative about what they spend," said Mason. Many consumers, he said, have cut down on dining out and "most people don't like to cook fish at home."

"If they want fish, they will go out to eat to get it," he added. For those who do buy fish and take it home, it has to be reasonably priced.

"Price is the best salesman," said Mason.

The bad economy has also hurt the Canadian salt fish market, which usually creates added demand for domestic pollock and "market" and "large" cod. This specialty market's salted fish, packed in one-pound "woods" (boxes), supplies markets in the Caribbean and other ethnic communities in the United States.

"Last summer, people in the salt fish business were buying large cod at $1.85 per pound or more. They have been buying it lately at $1 to $1.20 per pound," said Mason.

"Canadian haddock exports have also been a huge factor in the domestic haddock prices," said Favazza. Local boats have gotten as low as 70 cents per pound for the small-sized or scrod haddock this year.

"It doesn't take a lot of fish nowadays to drop the price because of the limited demand," Mason explained.

Landings of "spawned out" and "feed fish" also lower boat prices.

Summer normally depresses boat prices for white fish such as cod and haddock, too.

"As soon as the weather gets sunny, people think about the grill fish (swordfish, tuna, salmon and mahi-mahi)," said Mason.

Depressing scenario

The low boat prices have dampened the boat owners' and fishermen's spirits.

"These prices don't give me any reward for my investment," said boat owner Corrado Buccheri.

For fishermen like Beal, "It's terribly discouraging. We (he and his crew) are tied up this weekend because of the prices. Most people don't realize how much work is involved with fishing. My crew works hard to put a good product on the wharf, and they don't get anything for it," he said.

Favazza says he often asks himself, "How are these poor people (the fishermen) making a living (with all of their expenses and the low fish prices)?"

"Fishing is what you do for a living. You have to keep going," said Beal.

He and his peers know they will continue to foot the bad economy's bill in their industry.

"It all comes out of the hatch," Beal explained. "It always has, and it always will."

Gloucester lobsterman Peter K. Prybot writes weekly for the Times about the fishing industry and related issues.