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Domoic Danger Delays Dungeness


The F/V Norma M makes its way out of Yaquina Bay harbor at Newport, Oregon in this photo from a previous Dungeness crabbing season. The 2016 season was ready to weigh anchor in full January 1 after a delay caused by concerns over domoic acid levels in the crab but was further delayed by a coastwide "tie-up" over prices. Photo from Oregon Coast Visitors Association.

For the second straight year, Oregon's fishermen endured a frustrating delay in the Dungeness crab season as concerns about potentially deadly levels of domoic acid in the highly-sought crustaceans again prompted state and industry officials to belay the start of the state's most lucrative fishery.

Under normal conditions, the 2016 season would have set sail December 1, but nature's continuing discontent – most notably a steady-as-she-goes trend of warmer ocean water – again spawned widespread algae blooms and their domoic acid by-product. Marine science researchers say the microscopic algae thrive and produce more toxin in warmer temperatures.

As they did last year, when the season remained on hold along the entire Oregon coast until January 4, fishery managers opted to err on the side of public precaution. The concerns are real and necessary, they say.

Public health is the primary concern, said Caren Braby, manager of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife's Marine Resource Program. "Oregon's commercial crab industry and the department place a high priority on making sure that seafood consumers can be confident that they are buying a safe, high-quality and sustainable product when they purchase Oregon Dungeness crab," she noted.

Hugh Link, executive director of the Oregon Dungeness crab Commission, and Susan Chambers, deputy director of the West Coast seafood Processors Association, agreed. Chambers said the WCSPA and its members fully supported the state's decision, as did the crabbers, according to Link.

"When we put crab on the market, we want to be able to say, without a doubt, that everything is completely clean and ready to eat," he said. "Everyone wins when we have high quality crab. No one wants something that is questionable."

Domoic acid is a natural neurotoxin generated by algae blooms and absorbed by shellfish and other marine life. Public health officials say it can cause minor to severe illness, and symptoms can appear up to 24 hours after eating toxic seafood. Mild poisoning can cause dizziness, headaches, abdominal cramps, vomiting and diarrhea, and the symptoms can persist for several days. Severe cases can led to permanent short-term memory loss, coma, seizures, and death. Cooking or freezing shellfish won't eliminate the toxin.

Braby said ODFW spent the past year developing a biotoxin monitoring plan, which outlines procedures when they test for biotoxins like domoic acid, and specifies "what we do when we find that they have high levels."

Delayed openers have been the rule in five of the past six years. Slow meat recovery rates or price negotiations are the usual culprits. Fishermen say 2015 was the first time they could remember that toxin levels delayed both commercial and recreational harvests for the Pacific coast's signature crustaceans. And 2016 marks the first time anyone can recall to have the season waylaid by two consecutive years of deadly toxin levels.

Link was in Newport attending a price negotiation session with processors and Oregon Department of Agriculture officials when word arrived about the delay decision. Those negotiations were put on hold until fishery managers could determine a start date.

Once belayed, the season's start depends on a test-by-test decision process. Delays remain in effect until neurotoxin levels in the crabs no longer pose a safety risk. Under federal food and drug administration guidelines, crabs must show no critical elevated levels of domoic acid for two consecutive tests to allow harvesting. Each test is at least seven days apart, and takes several days to complete.

Based on test results and consultations with the Oregon Department of Agriculture, the state's commercial Dungeness crab industry, and Washington and California departments of fish and wildlife, ODFW initially delayed the commercial crab season along the entire Oregon coast until at least December 16. Crabbers were able to venture off Oregon's southern coast from Cape Blanco (near Port Orford) to the Oregon/California border December 17.

Four days later, Kelly Corbett, ODFW's commercial crab project leader, and Troy Buell, the state fishery manager, announced that the commercial crabbing season north of Cape Blanco to the Oregon/Washington border would open January 1, with a 73-hour presoak beginning December 29, and hold inspections were scheduled for December 31.

As of FN's press time, vessels were prepared to pursue a late Christmas gift, and hoping for an impressive haul to start the new year – preferably one similar to the 2015 season, when the Oregon fleet landed 14.2 million pounds worth a record-setting $51 million in to-the-boat value. Crabbers hauled in 9.8 million pounds in January at an average price of $3.12 per pound, 2.7 million pounds in February (at $4.73), almost 700,000 pounds in March ($5.06), 440,000 in April ($4.29), 253,000 in May ($4.16), 116,000 in June ($4.28), 94,000 in July ($4.29), and 75,000 in August ($4.29). Most of the landings were in Astoria (4.4 million pounds), Newport (4.2 million), and Charleston (2.8 million). Average price for the 2015 season reached $3.61 per pound.

Oregon crabbers hauled in 14.4 million pounds valued at $50 million in 2013 and 18.1 million pounds that fetched $48.7 million in 2012. Their 2014 effort yielded just 8.3 million pounds, gleaning just $33.7 million.

They're hoping for more of the same this season, despite another prolonged delay, and market analysts say they might get it, depending on the interplay of several factors.

Oregon has 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 30 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. In 2006, crab pot limits introduced a three-tier system of 200, 300 and 500 pots, based on historical catch records.

Fishery managers say those management strategies helped scale back overcapitalization and prevent overfishing.

Still, 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 the drawbacks. Market analysts say Dungeness prices depend almost exclusively on supply, but market strength relies on maintaining all market segments: live, fresh whole cooked, frozen whole cooked, frozen sections, and crabmeat.

Prices were up in Oregon and Washington in 2015 primarily due to the domoic acid closure in California, where all Dungeness crab sold last year were from Oregon and Washington. The California fishery is open this season, although it began two weeks late – December 1 instead of November 15, and the overall market is shrinking, with less going to China and "fewer sales outside the traditional Pacific coast markets."

Even so, analysts say Dungeness crab is still selling "near the top" of its historical price range

Crabbers and seafood processor representatives participating in the state-supervised crab price negotiations for the 2016 season agreed on an opening price of $3 per pound. The ODA-supervised negotiations involved representatives from five seafood processors and four marketing associations. Season opening price negotiations for the rest of the coast resumed when state managers set the beginning date north of Cape Blanco.

ODFW meat quality tests indicate that crab quality is excellent. Link said the crabs themselves are "more than ready. We are looking forward to getting them to the market."

Crabbers are more than ready, too.

Idling at the docks awaiting the outcome of additional tests is far from ideal for anxious fishermen, especially those hoping to offset yet another sluggish salmon season with lucrative crab landings. While public health is also a prime concern for them, getting quality crabs to market is their ultimate aim.

Oregon's Dungeness crab fishermen hope to bring in as many crabs as possible after idling at the docks during a delay to the season's start for the fifth time in the past six years. Photo courtesy of Creative Commons.

Corey Rock (F/V Kylie Lynn) and Chris Retherford (F/V Excalibur), who ply their trade out of Newport, are among the 355 active Oregon crabbers raring to weigh anchor. Most of them fish primarily within 10 miles of Oregon's coast, but some also have permits to fish for dungies in either Washington or California waters, or in both. While the season lasts until August 14, experienced fishermen like Rock and Retherford say they land most of their overall catch during the first month or two, regardless of start date. Normally, they're out there when holiday-related market demand is exceptionally high.

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.

Still, Dungeness crab remains Oregon's most valuable single species fishery, and fishermen and state managers say they work well together to make sure the best quality crab reaches the markets.

Whether the season starts late or on time, crabbing is vital not only to the men and women who work on the fishing vessels, but to the seaside communities they call home.


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