Oregon’s Crabbers Riding Market Value Wave

Quality good, landings down slightly, ex-vessel value at record high

By Terry Dillman

As the mid-August end of the 2014 Dungeness crab season
loomed on the horizon, Oregon crabbers reflected on what many of them
considered comparatively “dingy” dungy landings that still netted record
to-the-boat value thanks to a record-setting opening price that soared early,
then settled in at a level that maintained the fishery’s sterling value as the
state’s top single species commercial fishery.

Hugh Link, executive director of the Oregon Dungeness Crab
Commission (ODCC), said landings reached 14.4 million pounds, with most of the
state’s signature crustaceans hauled in, as usual, during the first eight weeks
of another delayed season that began in mid-December. Those landings were
almost 4 million pounds below the 2013 haul and nearly 6 million less than the
10-year average of 20.2 million pounds.
“That said, our value to the crabbers was the highest on
record at $49.7 million,” Link noted. It translates into at least a $100
million boost to Oregon’s economy and coastal communities, factoring in the
processing plants, trucking companies, marine stores and other support
industries involved.
As always, whether or not the season was a success depends on
who’s talking.
Oregon crabbers from Astoria to Coos Bay said quality was
excellent, but hauls were meager for some, fair-to-middling for some, and
excellent for others.
Link said quality everywhere was “as good as we ever see,”
but numbers as usual fluctuated, depending on location. Crabbers are well aware
of the cyclical nature of the Dungeness crab population, and they expect
drop-offs in landings after booms, and pragmatically ride the ups-and-downs of
the crab population. They are individual business owners all chasing after the
same highly valuable but limited resource, Link noted, yet they also work
together to promote the fishery and keep it viable.
ODCC represents 423 limited entry crab permit holders, who
fish primarily within 10 miles of Oregon’s coast. Not all are active, but
anywhere from 330 to 400 of them ply the waters each season in search of prized
Dungeness crabs. Link said some also have permits to fish for “dungies” in
either Washington or California waters, or both.
Those natural boom-and-bust cycles, crabbers note, put them
at the mercy of the marketplace, and fishery leaders say that successive high
yield years can flood the market, pinching prices and leading to holdover
So they have turned their attention to diversifying marketing
efforts to help offset those drawbacks.
Crabs – live, frozen, or processed in various forms – are
shipped around the world, but the United States remains the main market,
although Link and others say that is slowly changing. 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 that includes ODCC and
the Oregon Department of Agriculture (ODA) focuses 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, Korea and China.
ODA officials also play a pivotal role by supervising
negotiations for the season-opening crab price, which is vital to the crabbers’
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.
Fishery managers say Oregon has consistently led the way in
Dungeness crab production since it began along the Pacific coast in 1848, and
boasts a 12 million pound average catch per season during the past 25 years.
Since 1995, the fishery has operated under a limited entry
permit system that capped the number of vessels allowed to ply the coastal
waters for dungies. Crab pot limits were introduced in 2006, with a three-tier
system of 200, 300 and 500 pots based on historical catch records. Fishery
managers say the management strategies have helped scale back
overcapitalization and prevent overfishing. Other non-regulatory limits are
adversely affecting the lucrative industry, most notably the rising cost of
putting a boat and crew on the water.
Yet they persevere. Why? It’s a way of life, say the
crabbers, and many make a pretty good living. This year’s bottom line tells the
The season began with the highest-ever negotiated opening
price of $2.65 per pound. “That didn’t last long,” said Link.
In fact, the opening price didn’t hold long enough for
fishermen to bring the first haul back into port. By then, the price had
already reached $2.75 per pound and climbing. “Then it went to $3, then to
$3.50,” Link noted. “At one point, some of the bigger companies were paying up
to $4 a pound.”
Price negotiations between fishermen and processors generally
involve representatives from port crab marketing associations, seafood
processing companies and ODA. The opening price is set for the first 24 hours.
Market conditions then dictate how much the stellar crustacean is worth.
Analysts say landings in central California play a key role
in determining prices along the entire coast.
“The San Francisco Bay area used to be considered a boutique
fishery, and weren’t a huge player in the market,” Link explained. “Now
California has taken the reins, and it impacts the market.”
The 2011 haul in central California was 19 million pounds,
and the state’s overall landings reached 27 million pounds. In 2012, central
California landed 16 million pounds, and the overall state haul reached 31
million pounds. Usually, Newport, Astoria and Charleston dominate the landings
in Oregon. But recently Brookings in southern Oregon led the way, which coincided
with the boost in California landings, prompting Link to quip about the
Dungeness crabs “heading south for the winter.” This year was seemingly
business-as-usual, as Newport landings topped all other Oregon ports, with 5.1
million pounds worth $18 million to the crabbers.
Landings in California ebbed somewhat this year. Combined
with high demand from China’s live crab market, it buoyed prices across the
board, and continued a price trend that began in 2012.
Despite predictions of a possible “bust” in a twice-delayed
season, Oregon’s crabbers landed 18.1 million pounds in 2013, exceeding the
2012 haul of 14.2 million pounds, well above the average annual harvest of
about 12 million pounds during the past three decades, and not far behind the
20.2 million pound annual average hauled in during the past decade.
But the big story in 2012, 2013 and again this year is market
price. Prices in 2012 and 2013 rose rather quickly from a record opener of
$2.30 per pound, going as high as $4 or more in some markets before settling in
to a weighted average around $3 per pound. Average price for 2014 ended up at
$3.46 per pound. Fishery managers and crabbers said demand remained high, which
boded well for the bottom line, despite lower than desired landings. Analysts
said high demand and good market prices translated into excellent years for
to-the-boat value.
A quick comparison of past seasons illustrates the
difference: 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 in 2010-11; 14.2 million pounds at $2.95 for
“I don’t have a crystal ball to help predict the future,”
said Link.

What he does have is trends, charts, and records of a fishery
that is, despite its ups and downs, thriving. For now, it’s the most valuable
single species fishery in Oregon, and based on those trends, charts and
records, it’s likely to remain so in the near future.