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Dungeness Crab Landings Exceed Last Season

Crab commission opts out of MSC program

 

March 1, 2016



As of February 1, Oregon crabbers had already surpassed last season’s total landings.

Hugh Link, executive director of the Oregon Dungeness Crab Commission, said fishermen had hauled in far more than the 8.3 million pounds landed in 2015.

Market analysts say prices have fluctuated, starting out low partly because the fishery missed peak holiday demand after a month-long delay in opening the season due to toxic levels of domoic acid found during meat quality tests. While crabbers are making good hauls off the Oregon and Washington coasts, California crabbers were idling as domoic acid levels remained high, and monitoring lagged, with test results taking longer than expected.

“We were lucky,” Link noted. “Our needs got high priority for testing, and we got results in two days. California had the Chipotle issue and other priorities, and test result turnaround time has been two weeks.”

While some California-based crabbers have permits to fish in Oregon or Washington waters, or both, many don’t, and the continued delay there gives Oregon crabbers a boost. Fishery managers say Oregon has consistently led the way in Dungeness crab production since it began along the Pacific coast in 1848, with an average catch per season of 12 million pounds 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 helped scale back overcapitalization and prevent overfishing. Other non-regulatory limits adversely affect the lucrative industry, most notably the rising cost of putting a boat and crew on the water. Crabbers say natural boom-and-bust cycles in crab populations put them at the mercy of the marketplace, and market analysts say that successive high yield years can flood the market, pinch prices and lead to holdover inventories.

Diversified marketing efforts help offset those drawbacks.

Analysts say strong marketing and promotion efforts have heightened the Dungeness crab image, creating demand to gradually transform it from a primarily regional favorite to a more nationwide appeal in restaurants and other seafood outlets, including supermarket chains. While the United States remains the main market, industry marketing partnerships with the crab commission and the Oregon Department of Agriculture focuses on promoting Dungeness crab in as many key markets as possible internationally. Crabs – live, frozen, or processed in various forms - are shipped around the world. Agency officials, fishermen and processors have collaborated to successfully introduce dungies to many markets, including Japan, Korea and China, where they can fetch as much as $15 to $20 per pound.

In 2009, the Marine Stewardship Council certified the fishery - 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. Fishery leaders thought the certification, in addition to possibly staving off more stringent regulations, would open up additional marketplace opportunities, based on the growing trend among the retail, food service and restaurant trade to offer products from certified sustainable fisheries.

In 2015, members of the crab commission decided to let the certification expire in November, and not pursue a new assessment and five-year recertification.

Unlike the Oregon pink shrimp fishery, in which the MSC certification and label is a key component of sales to Europe, the crab commissioners noted they did not get enough market value from the label, especially with recent strong sales in traditional West Coast markets and Asia. “We just did not see the necessity of the label to move product,” Link said, noting that retailers are equally willing to purchase Dungeness crabs from either certified or non-certified fisheries.

Another major reason for leaving the program is the cost of new requirements for revision of the MSC standard.

The prior standard required fishery managers to identify a limit reference point - conditions under which the fishery might have low enough stock levels to trigger changes in management to compensate. The new standard changes that requirement to a target reference point: determining the size needed for consideration as a healthy stock. Link said this could lead to spending money on a stock assessment, not just for Oregon, but California and Washington – something that has never been part of Dungeness crab management.

With the crab commission funded by a 1 percent assessment on the landed value of the fishery to pay for marketing and research to improve the fishery, funding is tight. The fishery spent seven years completing the first MSC process, but initial optimism waned as crabbers told fishery managers they have seen no value or return from having the label. Most, if not all, opposed recertification.

Link said the MSC standard is based on global best practices, but the Dungeness crab fishery is already highly selective: managed by size, sex, and season, and harvesting only large males.

“We need to spend our money on our own research priorities, rather than meeting the requirements of the MSC assessment process,” said Link.

Key concerns are bycatch reduction, and taking steps to avoid catching molting or soft shell crabs. That means looking at different types of bait; learning better ways to predict or define areas where crabs are molting or have soft shells; or different sizes of escape panels in crab pots.

Practices that reduce catch and mortality of molting crabs and smaller males and females can have positive impacts on crab populations, and ultimately the crabbers’ catches and bottom lines.

 
 

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