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Crabby Crabbers? Delayed Dungeness?

Late start could put crimp in catch, but not in value

 
Crewmembers from F/V Ranger unload Dungeness crabs.

Terry Dillman

Crewmembers from F/V Ranger unload Dungeness crabs at the port dock in Newport, Oregon. With the season opening delayed by a full month because meat quality failed to meet required standards, crabbers finally ventured out December 31, so far with mixed success. Most say they expect an average year, despite missing the initial holiday season market. Demand is good and opening price matched last season’s record of $2.30 per pound.

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 fish.

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 worth.

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 i>F/V Ranger. “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 pound.

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 inventories.

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 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.

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 certification.

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 crabs.

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.