Fishermen's News - The Advocate for the Commercial Fisherman

Oregon Fishermen Face Potentially Daunting Economic Shortfall

Unknown crab season follows poor salmon and tuna seasons


April 1, 2018

Crew members of the F/V Timmy Boy offload crab on January 29 as Oregon crabbers finally took advantage of a small break in the weather to start the long-delayed harvest. Captain Bob Eder said they had hauled in 100,000 pounds, and were heading back out for more as soon as the hold was empty. This is the latest start ever to the Dungeness crab season in Oregon, Washington and California. Photo by Terry Dillman.

Cautiously optimistic.

That's how many Oregon Dungeness crab fishermen described their feelings as the 2017-2018 season finally weighed anchor during the last week of January, a record 58 days after its traditional starting time. Cautious optimism is all many of them feel in the wake of a downtrend in Oregon's prime fisheries for the 2017 season.

Since 2014, multiple natural disasters have devastated the region's fisheries and coastal economies, leading to closures in Pacific Coast commercial, recreational and tribal fisheries and creating significant economic hardships for fishing-dependent communities.

"Many Oregon fishermen go after the big three: salmon, tuna and Dungeness crabs," said Nancy Fitzpatrick, executive director of Oregon's salmon and albacore tuna commissions. "They don't expect all three fisheries to be in the tank at once."

With salmon and tuna down, the crab season's unfortunate delay and lower-than-hoped-for prices have created a triple whammy for fishermen with those fisheries as their main sources of income.

salmon proved an absolute disaster in Oregon, as commercial fishermen hauled in just 266,878 pounds, according to Fitzpatrick. That followed in the wake of a less-than-stellar 2016 season, when fishermen landed just 518,000 pounds. Fitzpatrick said this season's catch is barely half of the 499,000 pounds in 2006, when the fishery was last declared a disaster. State officials and fishery managers are trying to get the feds to declare a disaster, but had heard nothing yet as of press time.

"There is no reason it shouldn't be declared a disaster," Fitzpatrick noted.

Next season's outlook isn't cheery, either. Fishermen were scheduled to learn the details during the salmon industry's annual forum in Newport on February 27 (just after Fishermen's News press time).

Albacore tuna season was so-so. Prices were good, but catch was feeble. Wayne Heikkila, executive director of the Western Fishboat Owners Association, said landings were about 30 to 40 percent of normal. He said scarce food sources and warmer water scattered the tuna as they sought colder water and food.

Oregon pink shrimp season –another revenue enhancer for some – was also skimpier than usual.

Jeff Boardman, president of M.Y. Fisheries and skipper of the F/V Miss Yvonne, said the season started quickly, but ended slow. "Prices were down at the beginning, and almost where we ended the year before after catches dropped and supplies went down," he noted.

With the lackluster showings in the other critical Oregon fisheries, delays to the commercial crab season put fishermen in a bind. Concerns about low meat yields and elevated domoic acid levels in some areas delayed the start in northern California, Oregon and Washington. Nasty weather and prolonged price negotiations with processors created additional delays. Such delays impact fishermen, especially those with smaller boats. Costs for maintenance, fuel and other necessary expenditures continue to rise, and every day idling in port means no product and no money coming to cover those costs.

Processors initially offered $2.30 per pound – well below last year's $2.89 beginning offer. Fishermen deemed the price-point too low. Negotiations eventually pushed ex-vessel prices to $2.75 per pound, but marker analysts say prices have fluctuated, and fishermen were reporting price drops in some areas as crabs flooded the market.

John Corbin, who chairs the Oregon Dungeness crab Commission, said fishermen and processors were reporting good quality crabs – full of sweet meat. Some dealers and processors are calling it the best quality they've seen in years. Market analysts say some crabs were selling to dealers for about $4 per pound, and retailing at about $8.99 per pound for live crabs. Still, prices have failed to evolve into their traditional rise. Analysts say so much crab reaching the markets all at once blunted the normally anticipated price bumps. Some sales have been made for $3 per pound or slightly higher, but most have hovered at or near the opening price.

Overall landings were still unknown, and fishermen were reporting variable success. Bob Eder - skipper of the F/V Timmy Boy out of Newport, Oregon – ventured out the first day possible (January 28) and landed 100,000 pounds in his first two loads, and they were preparing to head out for another load, despite unruly weather and rough ocean conditions.

"This is when everyone works," he said. "This is the simplest fishery we do in terms of species and equipment."

Yet it often seems the most complex when trying to get the season underway, especially the past few years.

Crabbers in central and southern California – in particular Bodega Bay, San Francisco, Half Moon Bay – where the season opened November 15 were wrapping up as those in northern California, Oregon, and /Washington were gearing up. To-the-boat prices there reached as high as $6 per pound, which made the smaller loads they were hauling in worth the effort. But market analysts say prices dropped dramatically to as low as $3 as landings dwindled. Overall, central California crabbers say they sold fewer crabs – almost two-thirds less than the previous season – but got paid well.

Elsewhere, the situation is much different and more complicated.

Geoffrey Molfino, owner of Living Pacific Seafoods LLC, based in Newport, Oregon, Cari Brandberg, and Marshall Tasa transfer crabs for transport to Living Pacific's processing facility.

Things weren't looking good in Washington, according to the Washington Dungeness crab Association. Catches and prices were both reported as being uncommonly low. Usually, Washington commercial crabbers benefit from a price differential at this point in the season, but with their state landings lower than Oregon and California coupled with lower ex-vessel prices, the Washington fleet is at a disadvantage. With the timing of the season so far off in Oregon and northern California, market analysts say Washington crabbers also lost out on normally good prices in live sales to China.

One final degradation occurred for Oregon crabbers when test results in mid-February revealed elevated levels of domoic acid in crabs along the state's southern coast. Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife and Oregon Department of Agriculture officials designated the area from Cape Blanco to the Oregon-California border as a biotoxin management zone, requiring evisceration of crabs caught off the southern coast as a public health precaution until further notice. On top of that, state officials also ordered a recall for whole or live crab harvested from Gold Beach to the Oregon-California border from February 13-15.

How this will all play out remains a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. Still Oregon's crabbers, as fishermen often do, remained cautiously optimistic.


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