LIVE SHIPPING OF AQUATIC PRODUCTS IN THE NORTHEASTERN REGION: AN OVERVIEW

John W. Ewart

Delaware Aquaculture Resource Center
Sea Grant Marine Advisory Service
College of Marine Studies
University of Delaware
Lewes, DE 19958 USA
Tel: 302-645-4060
Fax: 302-645-4007
Email: ewart@udel.edu

 
Introduction

This introductory review covers the live shipping of aquatic products in the thirteen states (Virginia to Maine) of the northeastern region. It includes estimates of market volume and value for leading species traded live in the seafood, recreational sportfishery, and aquarium/ornamental markets and in the relatively newer and developing Asian restaurant, retail and international export markets; factors affecting northeastern live markets; and regional fishery resource issues related to newer trends in live shipping activity. Information sources used to develop this report include published literature such as state and federal fishery landing statistics, seafood surveys, marketing and technical reports and magazine articles; anecdotal information from a variety of public and private sector sources; and the World Wide Web.

"Traditional" Northeastern Live Markets

The New England and Mid-Atlantic states have a long history of shipping live aquatic products from commercial fishery and aquaculture sources to regional, national and international markets. Three established or longer lived segments of the northeast live aquatics industry include seafood distributors and retailers, recreational sportfishery, and aquarium/ornamental markets.

Seafood Distributors and Retailers

Many species of marine shellfish are sold live by regional seafood wholesale and retail businesses. Retail outlets include supermarkets, seafood markets and restaurants. Four leading shellfish species shipped live in the northeast include the American lobster, blue crab, American oyster and the northern quahog or hard clam.

Commercial fisheries for the American lobster (Homarus americanus) exist throughout the northeast in all coastal states, but the industry is centered in New England with Maine and Massachusetts accounting for 79% of regional production. Markets include live wholesale, retail, restaurants and processors. 1995 northeast lobster landings totaling 66.4 million pounds were valued at $214.8 million (NMFS 1996).

Commercial fisheries in the Chesapeake and Delaware Bays are the principal source of the blue crab (Callinectes sapidus). Live markets for blue crabs include seafood distributors, retailers, restaurants and processors. 1995 blue crab landings in the Chesapeake region (Maryland and Virginia) were 71.3 million pounds valued at $50.6 million. Other Mid Atlantic states (Delaware and New Jersey) harvested 16.1 million pounds valued at $12.3 million. Virginia and Maryland led regional soft crab production with 418 thousand dozen valued at $4.8 million and 1.6 million pounds valued at $4.6 million respectively (Virginia Aquaculture Survey 1996; Lewis 1996). The majority of soft crab production in the region is sold live to wholesale and retail outlets and restaurants and to processors who clean, repack and freeze the product for redistribution. Approximately 75% of Virginia soft crab production is sold live (Oesterling 1996).

The 1995 northeast aquaculture harvest of the American oyster (Crassostrea virginica) was approximately 803 thousand bushels with a farm gate value of $49.9 million. (Spatz et al., 1996, Virginia Aquaculture Survey, 1996). Connecticut led the region with 94% of production followed by New York and Massachusetts. Fishery landings (Maryland and New England states) were reported at 6.3 million pounds of meats valued at $16.1 million (Lewis 1996; NMFS 1996). Live markets for oysters include seafood distributors, retailers, restaurants and processors.

The 1995 northeast aquaculture harvest of the northern quahog (Mercenaria mercenaria) was 484 thousand bushels with a farm gate value of $37.4 million (Spatz et al. 1996; Virginia Aquaculture Survey 1996). Connecticut, New York, Massachusetts, Virginia and New Jersey were leading states. 1995 commercial fishery landings for the New England and Mid-Atlantic states were estimated at 8.1 million pounds of meats valued at $30.6 million (NMFS 1996). Principal markets include seafood wholesale and retail outlets and restaurants.

Other species of marine bivalves shipped live in the region from aquaculture sources to wholesale, retail and restaurant markets include the bay scallop (Argopectin irradians), blue mussel (Mytilus edulis), European oyster (Ostrea edulis) and soft shell clam (Mya arenaria). 1995 cumulative aquaculture production for these species was estimated at 31 thousand bushels with a farm gate value of $1.1 million. Connecticut, New York, Massachusetts, New Jersey and Maine led regional production. (Spatz et al. 1996). 1995 northeast fishery landings of soft shell clams yielded 2.4 million pounds of meats valued at $11.1 million. Maine (1.9 million pounds) and Maryland (367 thousand pounds) accounted for 94% of the regional harvest (NMFS 1996).

Recreational Sportfisheries

Live shipping of finfish in the northeast has traditionally included several species of baitfish and sportfish including trout, catfish (Ictalurus punctatus), largemouth bass (Micropterus salmoides) and bluegill (Leopomis macrochirus) sold for stocking farm, recreational, and fee fishing ponds. They are typically produced at small family owned and operated farms throughout the region. Fish for public stocking or resource management programs are produced at state and regional federal hatcheries. While most states in the northeast report some commercial production, the volume and cumulative value of regional bait and sportfish commerce is not known. The 1995 Northeastern Regional Aquaculture Center Situation and Outlook report listed the value of Maine baitfish production at $5 million (Spatz et al. 1996). Leading bait species cultured in the northeast include the fathead minnow (Pimephales promelas), golden shiner (Notemigonus crysoleucas), rainbow smelt (Osmeras mordax), common shiner (Luxilis cornutus) and crawfish (Oronectes sp.).

Three varieties of trout (brown, brook and rainbow) are grown in the northeast for live and processed food markets. The rainbow trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss) accounts for 70% or more of regional production. Pennsylvania, Virginia, Massachusetts and New York are leading states. The Northeastern Regional Aquaculture Center Situation and Outlook report (excluding data from Virginia) estimated that live market sales represented approximately 58% or $7.5 million of the 1992 regional trout harvest. Private stocking (48%) was the largest segment of the live trout market followed by fee fishing (9%), and state stocking (1%) (Bush and Anderson 1993). Figures on live market value for 1995 regional trout production were not available but would be estimated at $10.1 million (including Virginia production based on the 1992 live market percentage (58%).

A commercial fishery in Maine for two species of marine baitworms, the bloodworm (Glycera dibranchiata) and sandworm (Nereis virens), supplies live product for distribution to retail bait shops in coastal states throughout the region. 1995 marine baitworm landings of 610 thousand pounds were valued at $2.87 million (Foster 1996).

Aquarium/Ornamental Markets

Numerous species of freshwater and marine tropical fish, several varieties of goldfish, koi, and four categories of aquatic plants are traded live throughout the northeast in pet stores, aquarium shops, and home & garden centers. Aquarium and ornamental markets are believed to represent a significant portion of the regional live aquatics industry. However, information summarizing northeastern sales volume and value is lacking. Leading species sold for ornamental fish ponds and water gardens include several varieties of "fancy" goldfish (Carassius auratus) and koi (Cyprinus carpio) and more than 100 species or varieties of water lilies (Nymphaea spp.), lotus (Nelumbo spp.), bog plants and submerged plants. Goldfish, koi and aquatic plants are produced on small farms within the region. Maryland and Pennsylvania are leading states. Koi are also imported from domestic producers in Alabama, and from Japan and other Asian countries. Wholesale distributors, international exports and mail order are primary markets for regional producers (Spatz et al. 1996; Bush and Anderson 1993).

Tropical species for aquarium and pet shops are imported to the northeast from domestic producers/breeders in Florida and California and from Southeast Asia and South America. During 1995, US ornamental exports to Japan, Canada, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Mexico were valued at approximately $20 million. Ornamental fish represent the largest US aquaculture export. 1995 foreign imports of freshwater and marine ornamental fish exceeded $54 million (Harvey 1996). Information summarizing the volume and value of ornamental fish sold in the northeast is not compiled. The port of New York is estimated to handle 16% of national ornamental import and export trade (Chapman et al. 1994). Approximately 14.8 million freshwater fish valued at $2.5 million (wholesale) and 650 thousand marine aquarium fish valued at $638 thousand were imported to the United States during October 1992. Leading species included the common guppy, neon tetra, goldfish, Siamese fighting bettas and swordtails (Chapman et al. 1994; Olin 1996).

Live Foodfish and International Exports

Live foodfish and international export of a growing list of regional species are relatively newer segments of the northeastern live aquatics industry. Regional live markets are attributed to the preference in urban Asian communities for very high quality fish and to public concern for seafood quality and safety. International demand for supplements to domestic production, "exotic" non-native seafood species, and for early life stages to stock aquaculture farms has created strong export markets (in addition to ornamentals) for food and sportfish (Bason 1996). While live domestic and international export markets are considered to be significant and growing in the northeast, figures summarizing regional activity for both segments are not available. Current estimates are largely based on anecdotal accounts and limited published information. US exports of live fish in 1995 were valued at more than $40 million. Leading species included ornamentals, eels, trout and carp. Japan, Taiwan and Canada were cited as leading market destinations (Erbacher 1996).

Live Seafood Markets

Growing demand and premium prices paid for live seafood in major northeastern metropolitan centers has created live markets for an increasing number of freshwater and marine finfish and shellfish. Leading cities include New York City, Boston, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., Toronto and Montreal, Canada. Chinese and other Asian restaurants and shops, seafood distributors and retailers are principal market outlets. Regional aquaculture farms and domestic imports supply tilapia (Tilapia sp.), hybrid striped bass (Morone sp.), and other freshwater species. Popular marine finfish such as tautog, black sea bass, summer flounder, American cod and other species are supplied from regional capture fisheries. Non-native species imported from other states include big head carp, redfish, yellowtail snapper, grouper, pompano, Caribbean lobster, dungeness crab and the manila clam (Castle 1996; Seafood International 1996).

During 1995, regional tilapia production was 580 thousand pounds with a value of $1 million or $1.72 per pound. Massachusetts, Maryland and New Jersey were cited as leading states (Spatz et al. 1996). An estimated 80% or more of regional tilapia production is sold live (Spatz 1996). Fish shipped live from Texas, Arkansas and North Dakota also supply regional markets (Castle 1996). The Maryland Department of Agriculture Live Market Report estimated live tilapia sales during 1994 and 1995 of 432 thousand pounds. Prices for 1-2 pound fish ranged between $1.86 and $2.15 per pound. Prices for live tilapia in the New York metropolitan area were reported at $1.50- $2.00 per pound for 1-2 pound fish (Malchoff 1996).

Regional hybrid striped bass production was estimated at 1.37 million pounds with a value of $3.3 million or $2.41 per pound (Spatz et al. 1996). Massachusetts, Maryland and Pennsylvania were cited as leading states. An estimated 27% of 1992 regional production, 255 thousand pounds valued at $615 thousand, was sold in regional live markets (Bush and Anderson 1993). Figures on live market sales of 1995 regional hybrid striped bass production were not available but would be estimated at $891 thousand based on the 1992 live market (27%). The Maryland Department of Agriculture reported prices paid for live 1 2 pound hybrids during 1994 and 1995 ranged between $2.44 and $3.12 per pound. Prices for live fish in the New York metropolitan area were reported at $3.00-$5.00 per pound for 1.5-2 pound fish (Malchoff 1996).

Factors affecting Live Markets

Supply is a key factor affecting regional live markets. The availability and price of a given species depends on its source (wild stocks or aquaculture), season, weather patterns, fluctuations in fishery landings or aquaculture harvest, state and federal regulatory policies, shipping costs, schedules, logistics and other technological constraints. Technological issues affecting product availability include high mortality rates during transport, insufficient knowledge of individual species' physiological requirements, optimum stress reduction strategies and methods, water quality management, and inadequate transport and holding facilities.

Aquaculture is considered to have an advantage over capture fisheries for maintaining control of product quality, size and supply. Many marine species are being evaluated for their culture potential due to concern about the status and future availability of wild finfish and shellfish stocks and anticipated growth of regional of live and traditional seafood markets. The state of the art for culturing most regional species of marine finfish is predominantly experimental. Summer flounder or fluke (Paralichthys dentatus) and Atlantic cod (Gadus morhua) are examples of species in transition to commercial production.

Regional Fishery Resource Issues

The stocks of several northeastern species of commercially important marine finfish have experienced unprecedented depletion due to overharvesting. Many of these same species are the subject of growing popularity in live seafood markets. Additional harvest pressure created by expanding live markets and higher prices paid for already fully or over exploited stocks has attracted the attention and concern of state and regional resource agencies. The American eel and the tautog are examples of two species affected by the convergence of live market and regional natural resource trends.

The American eel (Anguilla rostrata) is a catadromous species that migrates from estuaries and fresh waters along the east coast of North and Central America to the Sargasso Sea near Bermuda to spawn and die. Eel larvae develop at sea and return via ocean currents to the continental shelf and enter coastal estuaries as glass eels or elvers. They reside, feed and grow in coastal estuaries and headwaters before returning to the sea to spawn and complete the cycle (Field 1996 a). Three life stages are the target of regional commercial fisheries. Juvenile "yellow" eels are sold live in the northeast for sportfishing bait and in Asian restaurants and seafood markets. Yellow and adult "silver" eels are exported to live seafood and restaurant markets in Europe and Asia. Although eel fisheries exist in most New England and Mid-Atlantic coastal states, estimates of regional landings and live market value are incomplete. In the Chesapeake Bay system from 1984-94, commercial fisheries in Maryland and Virginia averaged 200 thousand pounds and 829 thousand pounds respectively. Total dockside value in 1994 was approximately $1.7 million (Speir 1996). Up to 40 thousand pounds of live eels were airfreighted weekly to Europe from Dulles International Airport during the summer months of 1996 (Colbert 1996). Elvers have been increasingly targeted for live international export. Technical problems with larval development have impeded establishment of eel hatcheries making wild elvers the only source for stocking eel farms in Japan and other Asian countries. Strong market demand for live elvers at prices ranging from $230.00-$280.00 per pound or higher has led to a rapidly expanding harvesting effort (Foster 1996; Bergman 1996).

Dramatic declines in regional eel populations during the last decade and increasing harvest pressure on all life stages have prompted most northeastern states to tighten regulatory control of their fisheries. Minimum size limits of 4-6 inches and moratoriums on elver collection are in effect in most northeastern states until the current status of eel stocks can be determined. In October 1996, a program to compile stock assessment data and recommend a regional fishery management plan was initiated by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission.

The tautog (Tautoga onitis) is a popular sportfish and the subject of a small regional commercial fishery which harvested 1.1 million pounds in 1991 valued at $586 thousand or $.53/pound. Rhode Island, Massachusetts and New York led regional commercial landings. Declining populations and the vulnerability of this species to overfishing led the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission to implement a regional management plan in 1996. The plan includes harvest restrictions for commercial and recreational fisheries and recommends a minimum size of 14 inches (ASMFC 1996). Live tautog, approximately 12 13 inches in length, are preferred in regional Asian restaurants and wholesale prices of $3.25/pound have been reported (Malchoff 1996). The tautog is a long lived and relatively slow growing species. Market sized fish are believed to be just reaching sexual maturity. Faced with declining stocks and perceived additional live market harvesting pressure, the states of Rhode Island, Massachusetts and New York have independently implemented a 16 inch minimum size (Carmichael 1996).
 
Summary

Regional commerce involving the live sale of more than 175 species or varieties of marine and freshwater fish and shellfish and aquatic plants can be subdivided into the seafood, recreational sportfishery, and aquarium/ornamental markets. Sources of live product include regional capture fisheries and aquaculture farms plus domestic and international imports. Markets for live seafood include wholesale distributors, seafood retailers, restaurants, processors and international imports and exports. Marine shellfish are the traditional mainstay of regional live seafood sales. Leading shellfish species include the American lobster, blue crab, American oyster and the northern quahog or hard clam. Fishery and aquaculture landings of these and other shellfish species for regional live markets or for export were valued at over $430 million during 1995. Newer, developing markets for live seafood include Asian restaurants in major northeastern metropolitan centers and international exports. Species sold live in regional, domestic or export seafood markets include tilapia, hybrid striped bass, American eel, tautog, black sea bass, summer flounder and more than 30 other species of marine and freshwater finfish and shellfish.

Major segments of the recreational sportfishery market include live bait sales, private and public pond stocking and the marine baitworm fishery. More than 20 species of farm raised baitfish and sportfish are distributed to regional, domestic and export markets. Species sold for ornamental fish ponds and water gardens include several varieties of "fancy" goldfish and koi and more than 100 species or varieties of water lilies, lotus, bog plants and submerged plants. Wholesale distributors, international exports and mail order are primary markets for regional producers. Tropical species for aquarium and pet shops are imported to the northeast from domestic producers/breeders in Florida and California and from Southeast Asia and South America. Leading species include the common guppy, neon tetra, goldfish, Siamese fighting bettas and swordtails.

Asian restaurant, recreational sportfishery and aquarium/ornamental markets are significant but poorly documented elements of the northeast live aquatics industry. Estimates of market demand, species traded, size preferences and prices are largely based on anecdotal accounts and limited published information. Summaries of regional sales volume and value for these markets are not available and are difficult to determine.

Supply is a key factor affecting regional live markets. Seasonal, regulatory and technical constraints influence product availability and price. Aquaculture is considered to have additional capacity for improving control of product quality, size and supply. Several marine species are being evaluated for their culture potential due to concern about the status and future availability of wild finfish and shellfish stocks and anticipated growth of regional of live and traditional seafood markets.

Stocks of several northeastern species of commercially important marine finfish have experienced unprecedented depletion due to overharvesting. Many of these same species are the subject of growing popularity in live seafood markets. Additional harvest pressure created by expanding live markets and significantly higher prices paid for already fully or overexploited stocks has attracted the attention and concern of state and regional resource agencies. To maintain the fishery resource, states have increased harvest restrictions or are developing regional management plans for select species.

Acknowledgement

My thanks and appreciation to the many individuals who contributed their valuable knowledge and insight on the different segments of the northeastern live aquatics industry. This report would not have been possible without their assistance.

References

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Biography

John W. Ewart is an aquaculture specialist with the University of Delaware Sea Grant Marine Advisory Service. His background includes commercial fisheries, shellfish research and production and technology transfer and training. He operates the Delaware Aquaculture Resource Center at the College of Marine Studies in Lewes, Delaware. His other professional interests include development of Internet information services and improving the northeastern regional aquaculture extension network.