Oregon Crab Season Looks Good
Landings already above 10-year average, earnings at record high
May 1, 2017
Oregon's commercial fishermen are accustomed to adversity.
Even the circumstances of this year's Pacific coast Dungeness crab fishery – mimicking a storm-wracked ocean by tossing one big piece of flotsam after another at crabbers and forcing them to make a few unpalatable course changes – failed to dampen their spirits as they eventually went "full speed ahead" toward what is already a record-setting season for to-the-boat value.
Size, Sex, Season
While more complicated commercial fisheries are regulated under federal fisheries management plans, overseen by regional management councils, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) manages the Dungeness crab fishery – one of the few remaining state-managed fisheries in the nation – using a simple system based on size, sex and season. Only mature male crab measuring at least 6.25 inches across the shell are harvested and all females are released. Commercial crabbing along the Oregon coast usually begins December 1, when crabs are at their prime, hard-shelled and full of meat, and closes August 14 to allow the post-molt, soft-shelled crabs to "fill out" and harden undisturbed. Peak harvest usually occurs during the first eight weeks of the season, with crabbers landing 80 percent or more of the annual catch. Effort traditionally drops off during the spring months as crabbers gear up for other coastal fisheries, but a small number of vessels ply the ocean until the August closure, providing fresh crab to consumers throughout the summer.
Anything But Typical
Fishery managers and crabbers say the past three seasons have proven anything but typical.
Hugh Link, executive director of the Oregon Dungeness Crab Commission (ODCC), said the 2015-2016 season didn't fully begin until January 4 due to elevated levels of domoic acid, a neurotoxin created by algae blooms and absorbed by crabs and other marine species, in crabs along the southern coast. Landings, however, reached 14.2 million pounds – well above the 2014-2015 catch of 8.2 million pounds (the first time since 2000 below 10 million pounds), but below the 10-year average of 16.8 million.
Market analysts say last year's average price per pound peaked at $5.06 in March and ended at $3.60 for entire season – second highest on the books behind the $4.12 for 2013-2014.
Despite a tempestuous start to the 2016-2017 season, crabbers landed 15.4 million pounds by mid-February, and according to the most recent numbers available from ODFW and ODCC, the catch has already reached 18.4 million pounds. Crabbers caught 1.5 million pounds in December (at $3 per pound), 11.8 million ($2.89) in January, 4.8 million ($2.95) in February, and 229, 902 ($3.18) in March.
Link said prices to the crabbers rose as high as $5.75 per pound, and the average overall price of $3.01 puts the to-the-boat value at $55.4 million – a new record with five months remaining in the season.
Fishery managers note that this season began with a déjà vu moment as state health officials again delayed the traditional December 1 opening due to excessive levels of domoic acid.
Fishery managers note that in the early 1990s, 2003 and 2004, when Dungeness crabs tested positive for domoic acid, fishermen harvested anyway. While razor clams and mussels hold the poison in their meat, crabs only store it in the guts, or "butter" as it's known. To protect consumers, crabs were eviscerated by Oregon Department of Agriculture-licensed processors to eliminate the biotoxin before they went to market.
Asia's entry into the Oregon Dungeness market changed everything.
John Corbin, a crabber out of Astoria who chairs the ODCC, says about 40 percent of Oregon live crabs were sent to China during the past few years. Because the market is so lucrative, crabbers decided they'd rather wait to start crabbing, even though it means missing the biggest Dungeness sales season in the domestic market. Crabbers and state officials are also concerned about public safety and perception.
This season opened sporadically along the entire Pacific coast, with crabbers north of Cape Blanco initially shut out from the December 18 opener elsewhere in Oregon.
Just before Christmas, Pacific Choice Seafood in Eureka, California, owned by Oregon-based Pacific Seafood, reneged on the opening negotiated price of $3 per pound, instead offering $2.75 to local fishermen, said Ken Bates, vice president of the Humboldt Fishermen's Marketing Association. Other wholesale buyers and processors did the same.
While two bits might not seem like much, Corbin, Bates and others said it could make a huge difference for about 1,200 fishing vessels along the Pacific Coast, representing 4,500 or more families who depend on the crab fishery, as well as the workers at processing plants and others who also depend on fishermen bringing crab to process and deliver. Costs for bait, equipment, insurance, fuel and maintenance have all risen. A small drop in ex-vessel price could translate into a hefty income loss – something especially difficult for smaller operators.
In response, crabbers from California to the Canadian border went on an 11-day strike.
"We have unity on the coast and we're in this for the long haul," Corbin said, noting along with many others that they were simply demanding a fair wage.
After five negotiating sessions, they agreed to a price of $2.875 per pound. Crabbers had mixed feelings about the settlement, some calling it an effective compromise, others saying it was still unfair.
None had much time to reflect, because unexpectedly perfect weather led to a rush to harvest. That led to an overwhelming initial glut of crabs stacked in totes, stored in live tanks, and aboard vessels, because processors couldn't keep up. Crabbers say some waited more than two days to unload, aided by a cold snap that moved across Oregon, Washington and northern California. Not even a short closure of a 65-mile stretch of Oregon's southern coast from Coos Bay to Heceta Head at the beginning of February could stem the tide of crabs. Eventually, nature intervened with a series of storms that kept vessels at the docks, allowing processors and shippers a chance to catch up.
Agreement on the Horizon
Dungeness crab populations often fluctuate widely, depending on food availability and ocean conditions, yet the Pacific Coast fishery has maintained substantial, economically-successful harvests for decades due in large part to what observers say is sound management.
While basic fisheries management has remained stable, fishery managers in the three Pacific Coast states agree on the need for interstate cooperation in managing and making adjustments to the crabbing season. Under the Pacific States Marine Fisheries Commission's Dungeness Crab Tri-State process, the three state fish and wildlife agencies consult on issues related to the commercial Dungeness crab fishery. Under a memorandum of agreement, fishery oversight focuses collectively on Oregon, Washington and California state waters and the adjacent federal exclusive economic zone (EEZ) waters. A related tribal fishery operates under court order in ocean areas designated as "usual and accustomed" tribal areas. The state and tribal governments enforce limits on crab size and sex for legal harvest, season opening and closing dates, and areas and periods of time when harvesting is limited to tribal fishermen. All three states have also enacted laws creating limited entry into the fishery under a permit system that keeps non-permitted vessels from landing crab in state waters.
Because the fishery extends into the EEZ, the states are limited in their ability to enforce regulations against vessels registered under the laws of other states.
In 1996, Congress provided Washington, Oregon and California with interim authority to regulate the Dungeness crab fishery in the adjacent federal waters off each state. Vessels must obtain permits from the states before crabbing there. The states coordinate their activities through the Tri-State Dungeness Crab Commission under the aegis of the Pacific States Marine Fisheries Commission.
Since its enactment, the interim authority has received several multi-year extensions, but the long-standing agreement expired at the end of September 2016, without reauthorization or replacement.
In January 2017, US Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA) and US Representative Jaime Herrera Beutler (R-WA) introduced matching bipartisan bills in Congress to make the existing authority permanent. Pointing to the strike that idled the crab fleets from northern California to Washington until late January over a price disagreement with seafood processors, they said they wanted to provide some "much-needed stability" in sustainably managing the fishery.
Crabbing is Oregon's most lucrative single-species fishery, and many commercial crabbers in all three states depend on the fishery for a sizeable portion of their incomes. Crabbing also provides the foundation for thousands of related jobs, and lands millions of dollars in the state economies each year.
"This legislation preserves an effective, science-based, management partnership between states, federal fishery managers and fishermen to sustainably manage our crab fishery," said Cantwell.
This is not the first time either one has introduced this legislation. In 2015, a similar effort made it through the US House Natural Resources Committee, but stalled later in the process.
Hugh Link said the ODCC fully backs the idea, calling it a logical next step for the fishery, especially in Oregon, where several years ago, it achieved certification from the international Marine Stewardship Council as a highly sustainable fishery. ODCC members ultimately decided to let the designation expire, because the certification had served its purpose, and harvesters and consumers were confident about the fishery's management and sustainability.
On January 30, the US House of Representatives passed Herrera Beutler's bipartisan bill by a vote of 388-0. As of press time, the Senate had not yet voted.