Crabby Crabbers? Delayed Dungeness?

The third time proved to be the charm for the opening of the
2012-2013 commercial Dungeness crab season in Oregon and Washington, but
whether or not crabbers find the circumstances charming depends on where they
The season finally opened December 31 after two fortnight
delays. Dungeness season typically opens on December 1, but in mid-November,
Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) officials joined those from the
Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) and the California Department
of Fish and Game (CDFG) in announcing the delay. Kelly Corbett from the ODFW
Marine Resources Program located at Oregon State University’s Hatfield Marine
Science Center in Newport said fishery managers from Washington, Oregon and
California decided to delay the opening “to allow crab quality to improve.”
Crabs in most test areas failed to meet the minimum preseason
test criteria of at least 25 percent meat content (23 percent north of Cascade
Head, Oregon) during initial testing. Crabs at all test sites must meet the
criteria to be considered ideal for harvest.
The delay applied to the entire Oregon and Washington
coasts, as well as northern California (Mendocino, Humboldt and Del Norte
counties). Officials called for a second delay on December 10, when more tests
indicated that crabs in Washington and northern California needed more time to
fill out their shells. Regulations allow for delays off the Oregon and
Washington coasts and California’s northern coast if tests show the crabs have
soft shells or fail to reach meat quality standards.
Those restrictions don’t apply to Dungeness crab season from
Sonoma County, California southward, where the commercial season opened
November 15. No matter what, delays can never extend past January 15 (the
latest the season can open), which is what happened in northern California.
Dungeness crab season north of Sonoma County won’t open
until mid-January after the latest test results from the fishing grounds
revealed that crabs from Mendocino County northward still lacked enough meat
for harvest. CDFG environmental scientists Christy Juhasz and Carrie Wilson
said the crabs “are not yet mature and won’t be ready for harvest by the
delayed opening date of Dec. 31.” They expect the crabs to fill out before the
season finally opens there.
Meanwhile, agency and industry officials said the season got
off to a robust start in central California, with a wholesale price of $3 per
pound and boats hauling in full loads after their first ventures out.
Delayed Reactions
Despite the delays, crabbers said many of the larger
commercial vessels did not make the journey southward from northern California
or Oregon, despite the delay due to skimpy meat-to-body ratios.
What effect the delay might have on harvest numbers is
anybody’s guess.
The last time the season was delayed this late was in
2005-2006, when it opened December 31, said Hugh Link, interim administrator of
the Oregon Dungeness Crab Commission (ODCC). The delay, he noted, while
disappointing, would likely turn out best for everyone concerned, especially
consumers, who would get better quality crabs as a result.
He said it’s “too early to tell” how the season is going,
because they have yet to receive preliminary numbers from the Oregon Department
of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW). He expects high quality, if not high numbers.
Crabber’s perspectives about landings vary from port to
port, said Link. “Some say it’s down, some say it’s up,” he noted. “It depends
on who you talk to and where.”
Crabbers say quality everywhere is “as good as we ever see,”
but numbers fluctuate from fairly low in Coos Bay, Astoria and Brookings to
about the same in places like Newport and Charleston. Crabbers are well aware
of the cyclical nature of the Dungeness crab population, and they expect
drop-offs in landings after a boom, and pragmatically ride the ups and downs of
the crab population rollercoaster.
One number that stands out is the opening price of $2.30 per
pound, which matched last year’s record-setting opener.
The opening price is set for the first 24 hours. Market
conditions then dictate how much the stellar official state crustacean is
Price negotiations between fishermen and processors
generally involve representatives from port crab marketing associations,
seafood processing companies and the Oregon Department of Agriculture (ODA).
This year’s delay gave them a chance to glean more
information, first providing what industry leaders deemed “a great opportunity”
to spend at least an entire month observing what transpires from the central
California Dungeness season, which under normal circumstances, opens just a
fortnight prior to the Oregon coast season. While that gives some indication of
how things might go for the fleets from Oregon, Washington and northern
California, the extra time offered a chance to watch the effects in the marketplace
and get some initial answers to questions that are usually still open-ended
when dickering about initial prices for crabbers, especially so close to the
end-of-year holiday season.
“The small guys are doing OK,” said Joe Thompson, who is
hauling Dungies into Newport aboard 
“The delay didn’t really hurt.”
At the end of the first week of January, Thompson said he
had hauled in about 10,000 pounds of crabs, and planned to head out for more.
Prices rose from the opening $2.30 per pound to $2.50 per pound rather quickly,
and by the time he brought in his third haul of 3,000 pounds, his buyer was
offering $2.70.
“Each time, it goes higher,” Thompson noted.
Crabbers say they would love a repeat of last season’s
market value, but with higher landings. They also know anything could happen,
considering the vagaries of the market, weather and other factors, including
crab quality.
Demand this year is as high as ever, which could bode well
for the bottom line, even if landings are normal or somewhat below average.
“No one is being turned down, so they (buyers and
processors) must think they can sell it,” Link said. “It’s a different market
when you miss Christmas, but things have changed. The influence of live buyers
may take up any slack.”
Catching Value
Oregon’s 6,549 landings in 2011-2012 brought in 14.2 million
pounds (4.1 million at Newport, 3.8 million at Charleston, 2.5 million in
Astoria and 2.2 million in Brookings) from 318 vessels (down from 333 in
2010-11) with 112,400 pots, according to ODFW officials.
The haul was considerably lower than the 10-year average of
20.2 million pounds, but on par with the 2006-07, 2007-08 and 2008-09 seasons,
and crabbers started with a negotiated price of $2.30 per pound – the highest
ever. Prices rose as high as $5 per pound (May), and the ex-vessel value
reached more than $42.1 million based on a weighted average price of $2.95 per
Link said it translated into at least an $84 million boost
to Oregon’s economy, factoring in processing plants, trucking companies, marine
stores and other support industries involved.
The season also started late in 2010-11 as representatives
from five port crab marketing associations and seven seafood processing
companies negotiated, emerging from the bargaining process with an opening
price of $1.65 per pound, pending a request from processors for additional
pre-season testing by ODFW to determine crab meat quality. Processors also
wanted crabbers to wait until Dec. 12, rather than venture out on traditional
Dec. 1 opening date, and if they did, the negotiated price edged up to $1.675,
which was still well below the 2009-2010 opening price of $1.75 per pound.
As it turned out, crabbers had a banner year value-wise as
they caught fewer crabs than the previous season, but hauled in more money.
The season ended with the fourth largest catch on record, as
the 325-boat Oregon fleet landed 21.2 million pounds and exceeded 20 million
pounds for the fifth time in the past 10 seasons. While catch numbers were well
above the average annual harvest of about 10 million to 12 million pounds
during the past three decades – numbers nearer and dearer to the crabbers’
hearts and wallets made the season a more resounding success.
“Strong demand in the marketplace pushed boat prices up, so
although fishermen caught fewer crabs, they made more money,” noted Link.
The to-the-boat harvest value reached almost $49 million –
the second most valuable Oregon crab season in history. Associated processing
activity upped the economic impact for Oregon’s coastal communities from
Astoria to Brookings to more than $100 million.
It fell short of the $52.9 million commercial crabbers
gleaned from the 2004-2005 season, but that amount derived from a
record-setting harvest of 33.6 million pounds. The 2009 landings reached 23.1
million pounds (Newport again led the way with 6.8 million pounds, edging out
Charleston’s 6.7 million and outdistancing Astoria’s take of 4.6 million), the
third largest ever, but with a lower to-the-boat harvest value of $44.6
million, and overall economic impact of $90 million.
Harvests reached record levels from 2003 to 2006, peaking
with the 2004 haul, followed by landings of 27.5 million worth $44.6 million in
2005, before dropping to 15.1 million pounds valued at $32.9 million in 2006.
In 2007, crabbers hauled 12.3 million pounds of Dungies worth $29.3 million
into Oregon ports, and the 2008 effort netted about 13 million pounds, before
the 2009 rebound.
A quick look at the past eight seasons shows 33.7 million
pounds harvested in 2004-05 with an average weighted price of $1.57 per pound,
followed by 27.5 million pounds at $1.57 in 2005-06; 15.1 million pounds at
$2.18 in 2006-07; 12.3 million pounds at $2.39 in 2007-08; 12.9 million pounds
at $2 in 2008-09; 23.2 million pounds at $1.93 in 2009-10; 21.3 million pounds
at $2.0 in 2010-11; and 14.2 million pounds at $2.95 last season.
Those natural boom-and-bust cycles, crabbers note, put them
at the mercy of the marketplace, and fishery leaders note that successive high yield
years can flood the market, pinching prices and leading to holdover
They have turned their attention to marketing efforts to
help offset those drawbacks.
To Market, To Market
ODCC represents 433 limited entry crab permit holders, who
fish primarily within 10 miles of Oregon’s coast. Those who go out are all
vying for a piece of that market.
Oregon leads the way in Dungeness crab production, with
harvested crabs sold live, whole fresh or frozen, or as picked meat, legs and
Products are shipped around the world, although the United
States remains the main market. Analysts say strong marketing and promotion
efforts have heightened the image of Dungeness crab, creating demand that is
transforming it from primarily a regional favorite to a more nationwide appeal
in restaurants and other seafood outlets, including supermarket chains.
An industry marketing partnership with ODA is focused on
promoting Dungeness crab in as many key markets as possible, including
internationally. ODA officials, ODCC, fishermen and processors have
collaborated to successfully introduce Dungies to many markets, including Japan
and Korea.
ODA also plays a pivotal role by supervising negotiations
for the season-opening crab price, which is vital to the crabbers’ livelihoods.
Even with a set opening price, crabbers remain at the mercy of the markets, and
the flow of crabs from pots to boats to docks to markets still hinges on
bringing in most of the annual catch during the first two months, providing a
surge that benefits processors, who depend on volume to meet holiday market
That changes dramatically if the season is delayed.
They are working to change the marketing scenario, Link
said, and part of the effort involved obtaining certification by the Marine
Stewardship Council (MSC), a designation the fishery earned in 2010 – one of
only three crab fisheries worldwide and the only one of the West Coast
Dungeness crab fisheries (Oregon, Washington, California, Alaska, British
Columbia) to do so – based on good management practices, sustainable harvest
methods and neutral environmental impacts. MSC is the world’s leading independent
certification program for sustainable fisheries, with science-based
environmental standards and methodology, and a certification process that
focuses on three principles: health of the fishery stock, fishery management,
and the effects of the fishery on the overall ecosystem. The evaluation uses a
number of performance measures and individual guidelines to determine
Fishery leaders believe the MSC certification could provide
a definite economic boost for what is already the state’s most valuable
fishery, due to a growing trend in the retail, food service, and restaurant
trade to offer products from sustainable fisheries certified by an independent
entity using a proven scientific process. In fact, some wholesalers and
retailers are committing to – sometime in the not-too-distant future – selling
only certified seafood, so having the MSC blue label on Dungeness crab should
translate into future successful marketing venues.
Additional Sampling
ODFW officials said they would continue dockside and at-sea
sampling this season to enhance data gathered from the on-going added sampling
during pre-season testing to help them learn more about the fishery and the
Starting in 2010, they began sampling some of the pots in
each test string “to document the quantity and species composition of all
species caught in the pots,” including female and non-legal male Dungeness
crabs. In 2010 and 2011, 302 pots were sampled and more than 8,000 crabs
measured. Preliminary results showed the highest by-catch was non-legal
Dungeness males, followed by Dungy females, other invertebrates such as sea
urchins or octopi, and several fish species.
“Even though by-catch rates in the fishery are thought to be
low, they are not well-documented,” then annual ODFW Dungeness fishery
newsletter noted. “Documentation of by-catch rates is a key component of all
sustainable fisheries, and as such is a condition of the Oregon Dungeness crab
fishery’s MSC certification.” ODFW will provide a summary report from the 2010,
2011 and 2012 season samplings for the second annual MSC fishery audit set for
February 2013.
Meanwhile, Link and Oregon’s crabbers await the first hard
numbers from this season’s landings, which weren’t available as of press time.