Officials Delay Commercial Dungeness Crab Harvest

By Terry Dillman

December 2011

The commercial Dungeness crab season from Point Arena, Calif., to the Washington-Canada border is on hold until at least Dec. 15, due to recalcitrant crabs who failed their first two meat quality tests.

Officials from the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) announced the delay in a Nov. 10 press release.

Commercial crab harvest in Oregon’s bays and estuaries closed on Dec. 1, but will reopen as soon as the commercial ocean fishery sets sail. Recreational ocean crabbing is also delayed, but remains open in the bays and estuaries.

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 early November testing. The next round of testing was expected in late November or early December.

What effect the delay might have on harvest numbers is anybody’s guess.

“I don’t know if I’ve ever guessed right,” said Nick Furman, executive director of the Oregon Dungeness Crab Commission (ODCC) when asked to predict potential landings. “(The crabs) are on their own schedule. I’m cautiously optimistic.”

Furman said pushing back the start date should, however, ease some of the tension normally associated with price negotiations between fishermen and processors. Those negotiations, involving representatives from port crab marketing associations, seafood processing companies and the Oregon Department of Agriculture (ODA), were scheduled to start Nov. 16.

But Furman said everyone agreed that “it makes no sense to rush” the negotiations. “We decided it’s probably best to delay them to keep them in sync with the delayed opening,” he noted.

It also gives them a chance to glean more information, first providing what Furman deemed “a great opportunity” to spend at least an entire month observing what transpires from the central California Dungeness season, which opened Nov. 15, and to find out what the next round of meat quality tests reveals before heading to the negotiation table.

Under normal circumstances, the central California Dungeness fishery opens just a fortnight prior to the Oregon coast season. While that gives some indication of how things might go for the fleet from Oregon, Washington and northern California, the extra two weeks this year offers a chance to watch the effects in the marketplace and to get some initial answers to questions that are usually still open-ended when dickering about initial prices for Oregon crabbers, especially so close to the Thanksgiving holiday.

With the additional market and meat quality information in hand, Furman said, “There shouldn’t be much more to talk about except price. Everybody is looking forward to a good year.”

Crabbers say they would love a repeat of last season or better, but being pragmatic, they say they also know anything could happen, considering the vagaries of the market, weather and other factors, including crab quality.

Stellar Results
The season also started late last year 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 Aug. 14 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.

Newport’s fleet helped the city live up to its designation as “The Dungeness Crab Capital of the World” by delivering 7.5 million pounds of crabs to the port’s seafood processors. Charleston’s fleet hauled in 5.3 million pounds, followed by Astoria with landings of 4.3 million pounds. While those were excellent numbers – 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.

“The real story is the landed value of this season’s catch,” said Furman when announcing the results in September. “Strong demand in the marketplace pushed boat prices up, so although fishermen caught fewer crabs, they made more money.”

The to-the-boat harvest value reached almost $49 million, which Furman said was 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.

Furman said crabbers are well aware of the cyclical nature of the Dungeness crab population, and they can expect drop-offs in landings after a boom. 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.

Those natural boom-and-bust cycles, crabbers note, puts them “at the mercy of” the marketplace, and Furman has said that successive high yield years can flood the market, pinching prices and leading to holdover inventories.

Fishery leaders 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 sections. 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 demand.

They are working to change that, Furman 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 certification.

“This sets the Oregon Dungeness brand apart from all other Dungeness in the marketplace,” Furman noted at the time. “This simply substantiates what we and a lot of other people have known all along – this is a well-managed, sustainably-harvested, environmentally-neutral fishery that just happens to also produce a wonderful gourmet product.”

Along those lines, they are following in the wake of two other unique Oregon fisheries. Oregon’s pink shrimp fishery received its initial MSC certification in 2007 and is currently immersing itself in the recertification process, and virtually all Oregon albacore tuna is MSC-certified.

“Oregon has been harvesting Dungeness crab for over a century,” Furman noted. “Landings this past decade have been off the charts, and nature continues to provide us with healthy stocks. But to attain MSC certification, we made some modifications and conducted additional scientific research to prove our sustainability.”

The next step, he noted, is creating consumer awareness and demand for the brand.

Furman believes 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. He sees it as a big step in the right direction, as more consumers demand seafood from fisheries that can prove their harvest and management practices meet high standards for sustainability.

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.

For now, crabbers say they are simply focused on the pending new season, and looking forward to getting gear in the water whenever they get the green light.