Pacific Northwest Crab Agreement Charts Course to Permanent Status
Congress-approved bill awaits president's signature
September 1, 2017
It's not etched in stone, but – with the pending stroke of a pen by President Donald J. Trump – the cooperative management agreement for the Dungeness crab fishery involving Oregon, Washington, and California would become permanent, providing more stable and consistent oversight for long-term sustainability of the fishery.
While commercial fishermen are accustomed to adversity, those who ply the ocean in Oregon's most lucrative fishery face a complex interaction of ocean, weather and market whims for a season scheduled to begin December 1 each year under normal circumstances.
While more complicated commercial fisheries are regulated under federal fisheries management plans overseen by regional management councils, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife 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. 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.
Dungeness crab populations can fluctuate immensely, depending on food availability and ocean conditions, and the catch, which tends to peak every 10 years, can fluctuate by millions of pounds. Yet the Pacific Coast fishery has maintained substantial, economically successful harvests for decades due in large part to what crabbers, agency and commodity officials, and others say is sound management.
Crabbers and fishery managers in all three states say cooperation and coordination among the Pacific Coast states is vital to achieve management and conservation objectives, and to oversee and make adjustments to the crabbing seasons as needed.
Under the Pacific States Marine Fisheries Commission's Dungeness crab Tri-State process, the state fish and wildlife agencies consult on issues related to the commercial Dungeness crab fishery. Through a memorandum of agreement, fishery oversight focuses collectively on Oregon, Washington and California state waters and 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 laws that limit 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, state officials were limited in their ability to enforce regulations against vessels registered under the laws of other states. So in 1996, Congress provided Washington, Oregon and California with interim authority to regulate the Dungeness crab fishery in 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 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 U.S. Representative Jaime Herrera Beutler (R-WA) introduced matching bipartisan bills in Congress to make the existing authority permanent. U.S. senators Ron Wyden (D-OR), Jeff Merkley (D-OR), Patty Murray (D-WA), Diane Feinstein (D-CA), and Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) co-sponsored the Cantwell bill. U.S. Representative Derek Kilmer (D-WA) co-sponsored Herrera Beutler's bill in the House.
Following the Money
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 annual incomes. Crabbing also provides the foundation for thousands of related maritime jobs, bringing millions of dollars to the Pacific Coast state economies each year.
According to Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife managers, Washington's crabbers harvest an average of 9.5 million pounds per season, bringing $61 million into the state's economy and helping to support more than 60,000 maritime-related jobs.
As of July 31, Oregon's crabbers had harvested 20.3 million pounds this season, despite a crabber strike that idled crab fleets from northern California to Washington until late January over a price disagreement with seafood processors. It put a firm exclamation point on what has been a far-from-typical three-year run for Oregon crabbers.
Hugh Link, executive director of the Oregon Dungeness crab Commission, said the 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 2015 catch of 8.2 million pounds (the first time since 2000 it fell below 10 million pounds), but shy 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 2014.
Despite the tempestuous start to the 2017 season – state health officials first delayed the traditional opening due to toxic amounts of domoic acid found in crabs during pre-season testing, followed by the crabbers strike - Link said it has been a record-shattering season in terms of to-the-boat value.
Oregon crabbers caught 1.5 million pounds in December (at $3 per pound), 11.9 million ($2.89) in January, 4.9 million ($2.95) in February, 960,865 ($3.65) in March, 650,888 ($4.92) in April, 301,379 ($5.55) in May, 141,568 ($5.06) in June, and 86,643 ($4.28) in July. Market analysts say prices to the crabbers rose as high as $5.75 per pound, and the average price of $4.04 per pound boosted to-the-boat value - which had already reached a record-setting $55.4 million in March - to an astronomical $82.1 million.
The 2017 season opened sporadically along the entire Pacific coast, with crabbers north of Cape Blanco initially shut out of the December 18 opener.
Just before Christmas, market analysts say 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. Other wholesale buyers and processors did the same.
Crabbers said that 25-cent differential makes 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. Even such a seemingly small drop in ex-vessel price can 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. After five negotiating sessions, they agreed – some quite reluctantly - to $2.875 per pound.
Unexpectedly perfect weather launched a harvest rush. That led to an overwhelming initial glut of crabs that 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 ease. Eventually, nature intervened with a series of storms that kept vessels at the docks, allowing processors and shippers the opportunity to catch up.
Meanwhile, legislators in Washington, Oregon and California sought to catch up by pushing to make the tri-state agreement permanent and stabilizing an important fishery management component.
This is not the first time legislators introduced this proposal. In 2015, a similar effort made it through the US House Natural Resources Committee, but stalled later in the process.
The Oregon Dungeness crab Commission and other fishery managers fully backed the idea. Link called 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. Commission 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.
"This legislation preserves an effective, science-based, management partnership between states, federal fishery managers and fishermen to sustainably manage our crab fishery," said Cantwell.
Dale Beasley, president of the Columbia River crab Fishermen's Association, said the crab fleet was more than willing to back the legislative effort. "The future of West Coast commercial fishing is anchored by Dungeness crab," he said, noting that the fishery "has added stability and vitality to coastal fish-dependent communities in the face of other struggling fisheries."
Other fishermen agree, pointing to the floundering salmon fishery as a prime example.
Randy Fisher, executive director of the Pacific States Marine Fisheries Commission, lauded the legislators' success "in preserving this valuable conservation and management program," noting the Pacific Coast states' "long history of successfully managing the West /coast's most valuable fishery."
The U.S. House of Representatives passed Herrera Beutler's bipartisan bill by a vote of 388-0. The U.S. Senate recently overwhelmingly approved Cantwell's corresponding bill.
All that remains is a signature from the president to seal the deal.