July 24, 2008

Trend Shows Seafood is Scarcer, More Expensive

By Scott Harper, The Virginian-Pilot, Norfolk, Va.

Jul. 24--NORFOLK -- Despite environmental concerns about fish and shellfish stocks in Virginia waters, Hampton Roads was the fifth-wealthiest seafood port in the country in 2007, according to the latest federal statistics.

Watermen across the region reported landing $70.2 million worth of fish and shellfish at local docks, up from $51 million in 2006, when Hampton Roads ranked No. 10 on the national money list.

Topping the roster again last year was New Bedford, Mass., which reported catches worth $268 million. Two ports in Alaska finished second and third respectively, followed by one in Louisiana, and then Hampton Roads, according to data released last week by the National Marine Fisheries Service.

North Carolina's richest port was Wanchese-Stumpy Point, near Manteo and the Outer Banks. It finished 41st on the national list, hauling in seafood worth $20.6 million, down about $1 million from 2006, statistics show.

The government also ranks fishing ports by the volume of seafood they handle. Last year, the tiny town of Reedville, on Virginia's Northern Neck peninsula, finished second in the country in this category.

The historic village on the Chesapeake Bay accounted for 421 million pounds of fish and shellfish, behind only Dutch Harbor, Alaska, which landed 777.2 million pounds.

Almost all of the products brought to Reedville were menhaden, a silver bait fish that a single company, Omega Protein, squeezes into fish oil, pet food and health supplements at a large processing plant there.

The menhaden catch at Reedville was larger last year than in 2006 -- by about 50 million pounds, according to federal numbers.

Still, the harvest remained below a quota established after years of negotiation between state politicians and the menhaden industry over conservation concerns, said Jack Travelstead, director of fisheries with the Virginia Marine Resources Commission.

He explained that the quota applies only to menhaden caught within the Chesapeake Bay, and that watermen working for Omega Protein have been moving just offshore to capture more of the coveted little fish.

Menhaden are not eaten by humans, but they are fodder for many game fish in the Bay. They also are considered key filters of algae, which has become a major environmental threat to healthy water quality in the Bay.

Travelstead said the latest federal data illustrate several trends in commercial fishing in Virginia. While the amount of captured crabs, hard clams and summer flounder are all down, robust landings of sea scallops makes Hampton Roads shine.

"The money continues to be in scallops," he said. "Without that, I imagine you'd see Hampton Roads much farther down the list."

Mostly because of scallops, Hampton Roads has slowly pushed its way up the national money list. It was the 18th richest port in 1981, the 16th in 1990, the seventh in 2001, and reached a peak of third in the nation in 2004, federal data show.

When it comes to seafood, the government defines Hampton Roads as Norfolk, Virginia Beach, Newport News, Hampton and Seaford, a small town in York County where many scallop boats go.

The annual report of fishing activity in the United States is based on what watermen report to government regulators. It is widely considered a low estimate of what actually was caught.

Overall last year, 9.2 billion pounds of fish and shellfish were landed at docks around the country, worth $4.1 billion. Those totals represent a 3 percent decrease in volume but a 2 percent increase in value -- a sign that seafood is getting slightly scarcer and more expensive.

The government also drew on incomplete world data that shows China as the top seafood country, followed by Peru, then India, then Indonesia, and then the United States.

Scott Harper, (757) 446-22340, [email protected]


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