Oregon's Crab Fishery Stays the Course
Oregon's crabbers experienced simultaneous lows and highs last season, bringing in a much lower than average 8.3 million pounds of Dungeness crabs offset by record-shattering prices that peaked at $8.23 per pound and finished with an average of $4.12 per pound.
At the outset, this season seemed almost literally dead in the water.
Hugh Link, executive director of the Oregon Dungeness crab Commission, said the crabs themselves were in excellent shape, meeting or exceeding meat fill quality standards.
Corey Rock, owner and captain of F/V Kylie Lynn out of Newport, Oregon, said everyone was ready to weigh anchor, with vessel decks stacked with crab pots, engines tuned, crews raring to go. While the season extends until August 14, Rock said they land most of their overall catch during the initial 8 to 12 weeks, normally a time when holiday-related market demand is exceptionally high.
This season, they missed the boat completely for the holiday market.
State fishery and public health officials in Oregon, Washington and California delayed the commercial Dungeness crab season, and this time the culprit wasn't haggling over opening price between processors and fishermen or inferior meat quality, as in years past. Instead, concerns about potentially deadly levels of domoic acid – a natural neurotoxin generated by algae blooms and absorbed by shellfish and other marine life – delayed the lucrative fishery's opener until January 4.
Delays are nothing new to commercial fishermen, but this delay – even in Oregon – "was unprecedented," said Link. While not unprecedented, the results, he and others noted, are remarkable, given the circumstances.
A monster haul of 9.8 million pounds in January, followed by 2.7 million pounds in February, and another 1.1 million pounds in March and April before tapering off in May made the wait worthwhile. By then, California were just starting to venture out, their effort put on hold until May 12 – a delay that some fishery managers and fishermen say could have financially devastated the Oregon and Washington fleets.
Oregon crabbers ended up getting an average price of $3.58 per pound for a 13.7 million-pound haul valued at $49.2 million.
Fishery managers say Oregon has consistently led the way in Dungeness crab production since it began along the Pacific coast in 1848, and boasts a 12 million pound average catch per season during the past 25 years. Dungeness is the most valuable single-species fishery in Oregon, according to the ODCC and the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.
ODFW officials credit a decades-old management method for making the Dungeness fishery "truly sustainable."
The pursuit of Oregon's signature crustacean is one of the nation's few remaining state-managed fisheries. While other more complicated fisheries are regulated under Federal Fisheries Management Plans by regional management councils, ODFW manages the Dungeness crab fishery using a simple system featuring, among other things, three vital "S" directives:
Size. Sex. Season.
Crabbers take only mature male crabs, and only those measuring at least 6-¼ inches across the back of the shell are harvested. Undersized males and all females are returned to the ocean, where they continue the mating cycle to maintain healthy stocks and future harvests. The annual harvest usually begins December 1 each year, when crabs are hard-shelled, full of meat, and in their prime. The season finishes August 14 to minimize handling and allow the post molt, soft-shelled crabs to "fill out" undisturbed.
ODCC represents 423 limited entry crab permit holders, who fish primarily within 10 miles of Oregon's coast. Anywhere from 330 to 400 of them ply the waters each season in search of prized crabs. 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 have helped scale back overcapitalization and prevent overfishing. Other non-regulatory limits also adversely affect the lucrative industry, most notably the rising cost of putting a boat and crew on the water.
Rock said fishermen are well aware of the ebb-and-flow of the Dungeness crab population, and they pragmatically ride those natural ups and downs. They are also accustomed to the price haggling with processors, and the vagaries of market demand and weather. They are individual business owners all chasing after the same highly valuable but limited resource, Link added, yet they also work together to promote the fishery and keep it viable.
The natural boom-and-bust cycles put crabbers at the mercy of the marketplace, and fishery managers and market analysts say that successive high yield years can flood the market, pinching prices and leading to holdover inventories.
So they have diversified marketing efforts to somewhat offset those drawbacks.
Crabs – live, frozen, or processed in various forms - are shipped around the world, but 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 that includes ODCC and the Oregon Department of Agriculture focuses 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, Korea and China, where live Dungeness crabs can fetch as much as $30 per pound.
Price negotiations between fishermen and processors generally involve representatives from port crab marketing associations, seafood processing companies and ODA. The opening price is set for the first 24 hours. Market conditions then dictate how much the stellar crustacean is worth. 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 demand.
Market analysts say prices often rise steadily throughout the season, a simple reflection of supply and demand as landings dwindle and demand stays steady. High demand and good market prices translate into excellent years for to-the-vessel value.
Usually, landings in central California play a key role in determining prices along the entire Pacific coast.
This season, analysts noted, delay-driven differences in opening dates in the three West Coast fisheries "created ripples in the market price." crab prices in Oregon and Washington "crashed for a time" after California Dungeness flooded the market in May, but "rebounded nicely."
Fishery managers, crabbers, and marketers said demand remained high, despite the domoic acid contamination issue. Some fishermen and fishery managers say they believe the relatively low supply of Dungeness versus demand "insulates the industry from the worst effects" of periodic toxin problems. It doesn't, however, protect the fishery or fishermen from the other variables that determine their livelihoods.
Yet they persevere. It's a way of life, say the crabbers, and many make a pretty good living. This year's bottom line tells the tale.
"I don't have a crystal ball to predict the future," said Link. He does, however, have trends, charts, and the on-going records of an Oregon fishery that, despite its ups and downs and a finicky ocean, is still thriving.