Oregon’s Dungeness Season a Success

By Terry Dillman
Record-high whole season price; outlook good for next season

Oregon’s Dungeness crab fishermen logged another good year
in terms of market value. The season ended August 14th with an estimated
harvest of about 14.2 million pounds and to-the-boat value of $42 million,
according to preliminary figures from the Oregon Department of Agriculture and
Oregon Dungeness Crab Commission (ODCC).
“The real story for this year is the overall average price
for the whole season,” said Nick Furman, the ODCC executive director.
The season began with the highest opening price ever at
$2.30 per pound and ended with the highest overall value ever: a record-high
to-the-boat price of $2.95 per pound. In 2011, 21.2 million pounds of Dungeness
crabs netted an overall value of $49 million for Oregon crabbers based on the
season average of $2.30 per pound, placing the fishery in the top 20 of
Oregon’s commodities.
Usually, the opening price is set for a short period, then
the market takes over. This year, through negotiations mediated by the Oregon
Department of Agriculture (ODA), fishermen’s associations and processors
settled on the highest-ever opening price $2.30 per pound, a deal reached by
agreeing to lock in that price for the first 22 days of the season rather the
usual three days.
Demand for live crab in Asia, particularly China, rose
higher than ever this season, with live market buyers offering as much as $1.20
more per pound than the negotiated price. Furman said fishermen never really
know how high the demand for live crab in Asia might be, and since live buyers
purchase far fewer crabs than processing plants, they are not a part of the
opening price negotiations.
The crabbing associations have negotiated opening price with
processing plants under ODA’s mediation for the past nine years in an attempt
to smooth out the bargaining process and get the season off and running without
crabbers striking to protest what they might consider as refusal by processors
to pay a fair price.
Dungeness crabs are a major part of the Pacific Northwest’s
seafood heritage, with commercial fishermen harvesting them along the Pacific
coast since the late 1800s. They range from central California to the Gulf of
The ocean crab season along the Oregon coast begins December
1st and continues through August 14th. Peak harvest occurs during the first
eight weeks of the season, with up to 75 percent of the annual production
landed during that time. Effort traditionally decreases in the spring as
fishermen gear up for other coastal fisheries, but fresh crab is available
throughout the summer as a small number of boats fish until the August closure.
The Dungeness crab fishery is naturally cyclical, depending
on ocean conditions, and crabbers say they expect a drop-off in landings after
a boom.
Dungeness crab is the most valuable “single-species” fishery
in Oregon. “Ex-vessel” value fluctuates yearly, based on the size of the
harvest and prevailing market conditions. During the most recent 10-year
period, Furman said the “to-the-boat” value ranged from $5 million to $49
million dollars.
Total production for the entire region (California to
Alaska) averages 42.5 million pounds annually.
The average Oregon catch is just above 10 million pounds.
According to the ODCC, harvests have fluctuated from a low of 3.2 million
pounds to record levels from 2003 to 2006, peaking at the 33.6 million pounds
in 2004, followed by 27.5 million pounds in 2005, valued at $44.6 million.
Furman said those harvests point to “healthy stocks and a sustainable
In 2006, the catch dropped by almost half to 15.1 million
pounds worth $32.9 million. Crabbers hauled 12.3 million pounds of Dungeness
crabs values at $29.3 million into Oregon ports in 2007, and 13 million pounds
in 2008.
The flow of crabs from pots to docks to markets hinges on
bringing in most of the annual catch during the first two months. The surge
helps processors, who depend on volume to feed hungry holiday markets.
Opening price is vital to the crabbers’ livelihoods.
Crabbers remain “at the mercy of” the markets, because they harvest a natural
resource. Natural cycles make crab populations boom and bust, and Furman said
historically high landings are both good and bad. Successive years of high
yields flood the market, pinching prices and leading to holdover inventories.
Fewer crabs, more money summed up the 2010-2011 season as
the 325-boat Oregon fleet hauled in 21.2 million pounds of the state’s official
crustacean – the fourth largest catch on record, exceeding 20 million pounds
for the fifth time in the past decade.
“The real story was the landed value of the catch,” said
Furman. “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,
making it the second most valuable Oregon crab season in history. Associated
processing activity upped the economic impact for the state’s coastal
communities from Astoria to Brookings to more than $100 million.
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 the ODA focuses on promoting Dungeness crab in as many key
markets as possible, including the international marketplace.
Oregon leads the way in Dungeness 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.
That is changing, Furman said, in part due to certification
by the Marine Stewardship Council as the only one of the West Coast Dungeness
crab fisheries (Oregon, Washington, California, Alaska, British Columbia) to
receive the designation for its good management practices, sustainable harvest
methods and neutral environmental impacts. The certification, he noted, opened
up additional marketplace opportunities for what is already the state’s most
valuable fishery, due to the growing trend among the retail, food service and
restaurant trade to offer products from sustainable fisheries certified by an
independent entity using a proven scientific process.
“This sets the Oregon Dungeness brand apart from all other
Dungeness in the marketplace,” Furman said. “Oregon has been harvesting
Dungeness crab for over a century. Landings this past decade have been off the
charts and nature continues to provide us with healthy stocks.”
But he is also fully aware of the fishery’s natural ups and
downs, and providing an outlook for the next season, the start of which is only
four months away, is iffy.
The impact of the live crab market in Asia is a potential
“It’s hard to say,” Furman noted. “If demand continues to be
strong, and Asia continues to want live Dungeness crab, it would bode well.
Historically, prices and markets are like a pendulum – when it swings high, it
typically swings back, and when it does, it typically comes crashing back.”
Much, of course, depends on production and harvest levels –
known in marketing circles as supply and demand. If production is down, it
generally drives up the price. Harvest dropped from 21.2 million pounds in 2011
to 14.2 million in 2012, but this year’s haul is still well above the average
of 10 to 12 million pounds. And the 2011 harvest was a bit less than the 2010
haul of 23 million pounds.
Furman said the fishery has gone through “some phenomenal
harvests” during the past decade, in which the fishery was “really at a peak”
with an average haul of 18.6 million pounds.
“At this point, it’s hard to tell whether we’re going back
up or back down,” he concluded. “This last decade threw us off our cycle as we
know it and put us in uncharted territory as far as highs and lows.”
Furman said crabbers would consider 2012 “a good season,”
and would like to see a repeat in 2013.

Terry Dillman can be reached at tdwordwright@gmail.com.