Wild, Wicked Start Hampers Dungeness Crab Season – Coronavirus outbreak ‘infects’ markets

By Terry Dillman

Tempestuous. Chaotic.

Those were the watchwords for the beginning of a wild and sometimes wicked Dungeness season for Pacific Coast crabbers.

Another delayed start due to concerns about whale entanglements in California and meat quality issues in Oregon and Washington, a dispute over opening price, stormy weather coinciding with massive January king tides (with more expected in February), a few vessel mishaps, and a fire that destroyed the ice house in a major Oregon crabbing port set the stage for what some optimistic crabbers say they still hope would settle into “as normal a season as possible.”

While delays due to concerns about crab meat quality and high levels of domoic acid have been common for the past three seasons, the 2019-2020 launch resembled anything but normal from the get-go.

In a somewhat fitting prelude to the season’s topsy-turvy opening, Oregon’s Dungeness crab fishermen found themselves entangled in a regulatory conundrum over whales, during four mostly civil, yet notably contentious meetings held in October 2019 centered on potential short-term measures approved by the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission (OFWC) in September 2019 to deal with a spike in the number of whale entanglements in crab fishing gear along the Pacific Coast during the past few years.

The Oregon sessions were a proactive response to what many crabbers consider draconian measures imposed on California’s fishery by state fishery managers stemming from the March 2019 settlement of a lawsuit initiated against the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CFWD) by Phoenix, Arizona-based Centers for Biological Diversity (CBD) in October 2017.

Caren Braby, manager of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) Marine Resources Program, said CBD’s attorneys based the lawsuit on a sharp rise in confirmed whale entanglements between 2013 and 2018, and that the CDFW allowed the fishery to remain “out of compliance by not mitigating entanglements.”

California’s commercial crab fishery operates from Morro Bay north to the Oregon border, split between central and northern management areas, with the Sonoma-Mendocino county line as the dividing marker. The commercial season in the central management area generally opens November 15 and ends June 30, while the northern section typically opens December 1 – the traditional opener for Oregon and Washington – and ends July 15.

After an opening delay until January 15 last season, CFWD officials scuttled the remainder of the season with a statewide fishery closure on April 15. The agreement also stipulates closing the crab fishery on April 1 in 2020 and 2021.

It requires CDFW to develop habitat conservation plans and monitor areas off the central and northern California coasts along the whales’ spring migration route to determine whether earlier closures are warranted. If NOAA officials identify more than 20 whales in an area, fishery managers must order an immediate closure.

Already facing this year’s April 1 closure, California crabbers endured a seven-day opening delay in the central management area. Operating on what they deemed “an abundance of caution,” fishery managers postponed the opening to November 22 after aerial surveys in September and November indicated “more whales than usual” near Point Reyes and Half Moon Bay. NOAA researchers said “a considerable number of whales” lingered in the area to feast on available prey while making their annual migration to breeding grounds off of the coast of Mexico and Costa Rica.

While keeping lines out of the water certainly reduces entanglement risk, fishery managers and crabbers believe other factors are involved, but until state managers obtain federal approval of an incidental take permit (ITP), the fishery is governed by the provisions of the legal settlement. Permit approval – now a joint effort with Oregon and Washington – would allow commercial crabbing to continue, even if it causes occasional loss of an endangered marine mammal, but the states, especially California at this time, must first have sufficient habitat conservation plans and fishery management rules in place. Any harassment of an endangered whale is considered an illegal “take” under the Endangered Species Act, and features heavy penalties unless NOAA Fisheries has issued an ITP – something Braby and Troy Buell, Oregon’s Fisheries Management Program leader, say the federal agency has never done for endangered whales.

Braby said that’s a motivating factor behind Oregon’s proactive attempt to set up mitigation measures and put a conservation plan in motion.

Many crabbers consider the matter a potential “life-or-death” issue for Oregon’s most lucrative fishery, and ODFW’s fishery managers are emphasizing the need to determine “risk reduction” measures to mitigate the entanglement issues, yet maintain the fishery’s economic viability.

Crabbers say whale entanglements are only one concern for the tri-state commercial Dungeness crab fisheries. Fishery managers and crabbers point to concerns about climate change, altered ocean conditions, algal blooms, and biotoxins, along with the usual factors, such as weather and the normal ebb-and-flow nature of crab populations. Mounting numbers of rules, regulations, and government edicts are also pinching the life out of the fishery and the crabbers, crewmembers, their families, and communities that depend on it.

Bottom line focus for crab fishery managers and fishermen is marketability, profitability, and sustainability.

Seasoned fisherman Bob Eder, owner and operator of the F/V Timmy Boy, said crabbers again find themselves in the position of having to do more “to remain viable businesses,” adding that “this fishery is going to change, anyway” due to numerous other factors. Fishery managers in Oregon have forged a proposal on recommended actions to deal with the whale entanglement issue. They’re scheduled to present those recommendations to the OFWC during their regular February meeting.

With the details of those additional potentially crippling limitations weighing on their minds, crabbers prepped for the season opener, which ended up being a topsy-turvy affair.

Unexpected Incidents
Two incidents rocked the port community of Charleston, Oregon just as crabbing season geared up.

A malfunctioning compressor motor at the Charleston Marina Complex ice house ignited a catastrophic fire on December 20, 2019 that completely gutted the structure and spewed ammonia fumes into the air, according to officials from the Coos County Sheriff’s Office. Officials from the International Port of Coos Bay said port maintenance staff members were making daily rounds of marina facilities when they spotted flames in the ice plant building, and “immediately followed all emergency response protocols to de-energize the electricity and evacuate the building and immediate area.”

Port staff went door-to-door and boat-to-boat to make sure everyone in the complex was safe. Fishermen said the roaring fire threatened to consume nearby fishing vessels, but never reached them.

“Under the guidance of local authorities, Port staff determined that the best course of action was to let the fire run its course,” a release from port officials stated. Port CEO John Burns said they realize the fire “is devastating for the fisherman who rely on the facility for ice.”

Port staff worked out a short-term plan to obtain commercial-grade ice to serve the Charleston fishing fleet, while planning for the construction of a new ice plant.

Charleston Marina is home to Oregon’s third-largest commercial fishing hub, where the fishing industry is a vital part of the regional economy. According to ODFW, landings of fish and shellfish in 2018 reached 25 million pounds valued at more than $34 million.

In early February, officials from the Oregon International Port of Coos Bay announced that they were “aggressively” pursuing replacement of the ice plant, while also seeking short-term solutions to provide commercial grade flake ice to the fishing fleet.

Leasing equipment, they noted, was not an option because the units required to produce the type of ice required by the fleet are only available for purchase. Temporary systems were proving to be “cost prohibitive” and lacked the capacity needed “to transition to a long-term solution.” Time frames for installation were similar for almost all systems, whether short- or long-term, so port officials said they were “focusing on expediting” the permanent fix, while still looking for interim solutions. If possible, they want to replace the former ice plant with a facility “that has a greater ice manufacturing capacity.”

They have already selected an engineering firm and primary contractor, and engineering and design work has begun.

Less than a week after the ice plant fire, the 40-foot F/V Darean Rose – freshly refueled and moving through the Charleston harbor – struck a sand bar, capsized, and quickly sank on December 26.

Reports from US Coast Guard Station Coos Bay stated that one crewmember “was able to jump in the water and swim to shore.” Three others were trapped inside the wheelhouse, and the situation might have turned tragic if not for the heroic efforts of Curtis Green, who witnessed the “freak accident” from the dock at his family’s business, Russell’s Marine Fuel & Supply.

Green, who took a hammer and jumped into the icy water to attempt a rescue, told Coast Guard officials that the wheelhouse was quickly filling with water, and it seemingly “took forever” to reach the vessel. Attempts to break the glass using the hammer failed. He then found a piece of the boat’s downrigger that had broken loose and used it to crack the glass. When the vessel shifted, he lost the hammer, so he used his hand to break through, then pulled the crew members out one at a time and got them safely to the dock.

Delays, Storms and King Tides
Unruly winter seas already make the Dungeness crab fishery one of the most dangerous occupations of all. King tides make things worse.

Marine researchers note that king tides occur a few times each year when the earth is closest to the moon and sun, and the combined gravitational forces raise waves to as much as four feet higher than average high tide. The first round of king tides arrived January 10-12, not long after crabbers were able to head out to haul in pots. Combined with stormy weather, king tides generated nasty waves along the coast that made seafaring navigation challenging at best.

Fishermen say that, among other things, delaying the start of the season enhances the chances of facing more hazardous ocean conditions.

Under normal circumstances, the commercial Dungeness crab season begins December 1 and continues through August 14, but peak harvest occurs during the first eight weeks of the season.

Veteran crabber John Corbin, a member of the Oregon Dungeness Crab Commission (ODCC), said such delays can adversely affect fishermen, especially those with smaller boats. Every day idling in port means no product and no money to cover operation costs, let alone make a profit. The effect ripples through coastal communities, adversely impacting processors, wholesalers, retailers, restaurants and other marine-connected businesses. It also tears at the social fabric of fishing communities, especially those families who depend on the sea for a living.

For the third straight year, fishery managers delayed the season opening, needing three rounds of tests before crab meat yields reached required levels.

The Dungeness crab fishery is Oregon’s most valuable single-species fishery. Annual ex-vessel value fluctuates based on the size of the harvest and prevailing market conditions.

Oregon’s yearly harvest has fluctuated from 3.2 million pounds to more than 33 million pounds, with average landings about 16 million pounds. Concerns about low meat yields and heightened domoic acid levels in some areas led to the latest-ever start date (January 15) in 2018-2019. Yet Oregon crabbers harvested 18.7 million pounds of crabs valued at $66.7 million, the second highest to-the-boat value ever. Two years ago, despite another delay, crabbers landed 23.1 million pounds at a highest-ever value of $74 million.

Unfortunately, delays can lead to other far less palatable consequences.

Another trio of fortunate crabbers were alive and in good condition after their January 14 rescue from the 38-foot F/V Pacific Miner near the tip of the jetty at Coos Bay, Oregon.

According to official reports, the crew of a Coast Guard helicopter on a routine training mission spotted the vessel and reported it to Sector North Bend Command Center, which launched air and boat crews to search for the three-man crew in the water, not realizing they were trapped in the engine room of the overturned boat. Officials later learned that a huge wave capsized and rolled the vessel in the middle of the harbor. Instead of being swept out to sea, it snagged on the jetty rocks with the crew inside, hanging onto the engine block for warmth and hoping they didn’t run out of air.

Local firefighters from Hauser Rural Fire Department and North Bay Fire District, who were assisting Coast Guard personnel, heard pounding on the hull and muffled shouts. Hauser Fire Chief Jerry Wharton said it took 20 minutes of cutting in the frigid water to get them out, safe and sound, after being trapped for nearly three hours.

Deal or No Deal

The failure of price negotiations has also become a trend during the past few years, adding yet another layer of uncertainty to this already risky, daunting business.

“We’re waiting and ready to go,” said Kris Morgan aboard the F/V Pacific on December 27, the day before crabbers were allowed to venture out and set their pots. “They’re still dickering over price.”

Fishermen said processors initially wanted an open ticket, meaning they could pay whatever they deemed appropriate price at the time of delivery. Crabbers were having none of it, saying that set-up could lead to virtual piracy. Crabbers wanted an opening price of $3.25 per pound. Processors countered with $2.75, but fishermen said they would wait for “a more realistic offer given current market conditions.”

Market analysts note that prices vary as the season progresses, but fishermen rely on opening prices as a focal point during the season’s busiest time – the first eight weeks. As the season progresses, supply dwindles, and demand stays the same or rises, they say it makes “a huge difference in market price.”

Historically, crabbers have shown that they’re willing to go on strike, if necessary, to get what they believe is a fair opening price. This time, after lengthy negotiations that went down to the wire, processors and crabbers settled on $3 per pound.

That suited crabbers like Morgan, who has worked on various fishing vessels for the past 10 years. He said he was ready to get out on the ocean to help set F/V Pacific’s 500 pots so they “could catch as much as we can as fast as we can.”

Despite the delays, price haggling, wicked weather and waves, and near-tragedies, the ODCC reported that, as of mid-March, state crabbers had already landed a bit more than 18 million pounds – 13 million pounds in January alone – at an average price of $3.55 per pound.

Unfortunately, another more ominous threat that emerged in January took its toll.

Coronavirus Infects Fresh Market
Just when it seemed like the Pacific Northwest Dungeness crab fishery would rebound well from the delays and the tempestuous sea, the outbreak of coronavirus, with its origin in China, emerged. Market analysts say China stopped all imports of live animals, including live crab, which generally brings top dollar in Asian markets, especially during the month-long Chinese New Year celebration.

Those restrictions seriously pinched the crab fishery’s market potential, which was already reeling from the tariffs imposed by the federal government in 2018 on seafood exports to China.

Tariffs were recently lowered, and market analysts, processors, and crabbers said the live market was going well, with rising demand and prices, when it struck the coronavirus reef. As a result, commercial crabbers say they’re earning less overall, noting that good live prices early in the season dropped to cooked price levels – about $1 to $2 less per pound – since the coronavirus outbreak.

Market analysts and crabbers say the price difference between live and cooked crab varies, depending on volume of landings and market demand. In 2017, live Dungeness earned crabbers as much as $10 per pound from importers in China. The 50 percent tariff imposed in 2018 cut heavily into export price offers.

Dungeness crab that would have gone to China or elsewhere mostly ended up with local and regional processors, retailers, and restaurants. However, crabbers said the coronavirus pandemic also shivered the timbers of a good, if less lucrative, market alternative as the nation hunkered down to ride out the viral storm.

Protecting the Surf Turf
Despite all the obstacles, crabbers must crab – it’s their livelihood, and ODCC officials are determined to protect that way of life in any way possible. Part of that involves ocean “real estate” – the prime fishing grounds that are threatened by a growing number of other uses and potential uses.

In January, Hugh Link, the commission’s executive director, and Tim Novotny joined the West Coast advisory committee of the Responsible Offshore Development Alliance (RODA) – dubbed as “a coalition of fishing industry associations and companies working to improve the compatibility of new offshore development with their businesses.” RODA aims to “work on behalf of fishermen with regulators, offshore developers, science experts, and others to coordinate science and policy approaches to proposed ocean development in a way that minimizes conflicts with existing traditional and historic fishing.”

The looming probability of offshore wind development in United States territorial seas prompted RODA’s formation.

The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) has already identified three areas off the California coast (Humboldt in the north, where the strongest wind speeds are found, along with Morro Bay and Diablo Canyon off the central coast) for offshore wind development. BOEM has also initiated a process for siting offshore wind projects off of Oregon’s coast. These potential wind projects add another layer of complexity in the growing list of competitors for ocean territory that encroach on traditional fishing grounds.

Faced with the vagaries within the Dungeness fishery itself, crabbers and the ODCC simply want to make sure they don’t get pinched even more by pressure from outside sources in the years ahead.