Fishermen's News - The Advocate for the Commercial Fisherman

Delays and Domoic Woes Didn't Ding Dungies


September 1, 2018

Northern California crabbers saw landings well above normal, according to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. Photo courtesy of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Commercial Dungeness crab fishing is a risky, daunting business, and the emerging and escalating effects of climate change, state and federal regulations, and other factors have made things even more challenging, especially the past few years.

The 2018 season was no exception.

Veteran crabber John Corbin, who chairs the Oregon Dungeness crab Commission (ODCC), said concerns about low meat yields and high domoic acid levels in some areas led to the latest-ever start date in northern California, Oregon and Washington. It also marked the first time in the history of the tri-state fishery "where the fleets in all three states were kept at dock until January 15," Corbin noted.

Nasty weather and prolonged price negotiations with processors created additional delays.

Bob Eder, captain of the F/V Timmy Boy based in Newport, Oregon, said they couldn't venture out until January 28, and even then seas were rough as the weather remained unruly.

Such delays affect fishermen, especially those with smaller boats. With rising costs for maintenance, fuel and other necessary expenditures, every day idling in port means no product and no money to cover those costs or make a profit. The effect ripples through coastal communities, adversely impacting processors, wholesalers, retailers, restaurants and other marine-connected businesses. It also tears at the social fabric of fishing communities, especially the families who depend on the sea for a living.

In spite of everything, Oregon's crab fishery earned a record ex-vessel value for the second straight season, and Northern California crabbers were immersed in a great season, with landings well above normal, according to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW).

As of July, Oregon's Dungeness crab fishermen had landed more than 23 million pounds, eclipsing last season's haul of 20.4 million and easily besting the 10-year average of 16 million, said Hugh Link, ODCC's executive director. Crabbers more than made up for the extremely late start by landing 18.5 million pounds during the first six weeks – 4.7 million in January, followed by 13.8 million in February. After bringing in another 3.3 million pounds in March, landings dwindled, as they generally do in winding down toward season's end in August.

Market analysts said average price per pound for the season as of July was $3.21, with a low of $2.82 in January and a high of $6.95 in April.

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 market analysts say prices have fluctuated since, with fishermen reporting initial price drops in some areas when crab flooded the market. Quality factors into the equation, as fishermen and processors said crab were full of sweet meat, with some dealers and processors calling it the best quality they've seen in years.

Corbin said the ex-vessel value already exceeds $67 million, the highest ever, besting the $63 million take in 2017.

California Dreamin'

Northern California's fishery has scuttled back from the brink after a federally-declared disaster deriving from back-to-back-to-back poor showings from 2014 to 2016.

CDFW officials reported that as of July, crabbers had landed 14.3 million pounds, continuing a rebound that started last season and comparing favorably with previous highs since 2006, when northern California crabbers landed 17.8 million pounds valued at $30 million. Annual landings dropped below 10 million pounds until 2010, when fishermen brought in 13.6 million pounds valued at $26 million. The fishery's best years from the past decade were 2012 and 2013, with landings of 15.9 million and 16.7 million pounds valued at $51.4 million and $42.8 million, respectively.

Then disaster struck.

Landings dropped to 6.6 million in 2014 valued at $21.5 million, before plunging to 3.5 million pounds worth $12.1 million in 2015, and 3.9 million pounds in 2016 worth $11.3 million.

California's commercial fishery, which operates from Morro Bay north to the Oregon border, is split between central and northern management areas, with the Sonoma-Mendocino county line as the dividing marker. Sara Worden with the DFW Marine Region says the central management area commercial season generally opens November 15 and ends June 30, while the northern section typically opens December 1 – the usual opener for Oregon and Washington – and ends July 15.

"Efforts to open the season in the northern management area are coordinated between California, Oregon, and Washington through the Coastal Dungeness crab Tri-State Commission," Worden notes in a CDFW supplemental report she wrote about the fishery. "All three states carry out a crab meat quality test to ensure that crab are ready for harvest by the target opening date, and will delay the season opener if they are not."

In 2008, the state's legislature passed a statute mandating the creation of the California Dungeness crab Task Force, dubbed as "a grassroots collaborative approach to managing the Dungeness crab fishery."

The task force – administered by the state's Ocean Protection Council and consisting of fishermen, crab processors, and non-voting members from state agencies and non-government organizations – makes recommendations to state agencies and oversight committees about management measures, among them trap limits, harvest allocation, season opener changes, and fleet size reduction.

Until recently, meat quality was the only potential impediment to opening the season on time. But from 2014 to 2016, an unusually persistent mass of warm water that some folks dubbed "the blob" spread through the eastern Pacific Ocean. Marine researchers say a strong El Nino in 2015 exacerbated the situation by spawning a massive algal bloom, which, in turn, generated "historic levels" of domoic acid, a neurotoxin with adverse effects on human health. Marine scientists say crab meat and viscera sponge up the neurotoxin, which can build up to dangerous levels, making the crab meat unsafe for human consumption.

Worden said the 2016 season opener delay marked "the first delay in the fishery's history caused by high domoic acid concentrations."

The delay lasted six months, decimating the livelihoods of fishermen who depend on crabbing for much, if not most, of their income. Fishery managers say crabbers lost $48 million in revenue, prompting California state and federal lawmakers to request a federal disaster declaration, which US Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker tendered in January 2017. That set the stage for Congress to authorize the release of federal funds to alleviate some of the economic hardship.

That didn't happen until February 2018.

"Fisheries failures are a different sort of disaster," Noah Oppenheim, former executive director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations, said during the push to expedite the release of the funds. "They are not acute, they don't wipe out entire neighborhoods, but they do wipe out entire coastal communities slowly, as they wither on the vine."

Fishery managers say persistent degradation of ocean conditions generated by climate change and other factors lead to persistent declines in fisheries and the coastal communities that rely on them.

The California crab fishery will divvy up $25.8 million, part of a $200 million Congressional appropriation for nine Pacific Coast fishery disaster areas and states affected by 2017 hurricanes. The Pacific States Marine Fisheries Commission and CDFW will determine how and when to distribute those funds.

Crabbers say they're recovering "bit by bit, little by little," and this season's catch will certainly help them recover. Still, many used up savings and other resources trying to keep their livelihood afloat, and for more than a few, disaster funds would provide a much-needed boost.

Simple, Yet Complex

Oregon crabber Bob Eder calls crabbing "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 during the past few years. Yet Oregon's crabbers have fared better over time, including the past few seasons, and the Dungeness fishery remains the state's most valuable in terms of ex-vessel revenue.

Oregon crabbers landed 14.3 million pounds in 2012, 18.2 million in 2013, 14.4 million in 2014, and 14.2 million in 2016. The only glitch in that stretch was in 2015, when the catch dropped to 8.2 million pounds.

Despite the success, concerns about climate change, ocean conditions, algal blooms, and biotoxins linger, along with all the usual factors, such as weather and the normal ebb-and-flow nature of crab populations. Fishery managers are looking at new ways to deal with the on-going threat from domoic acid, especially after samples showed elevated levels south of Cape Blanco after the season opened in 2017, prompting a recall and evisceration order for the affected area from the Oregon Department of Agriculture and Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW).

"This was the first in-season biotoxin event detected in the history of the Oregon Dungeness crab fishery," said Kelly Corbett, ODFW's Commercial crab Project leader.

Fishery managers put together new rules to mitigate the impacts of future biotoxin issues, creating a management framework that "improves traceability of crab through the market chain to protect public health, as well as confidence in seafood market safety and quality," and "provides certainty" for the crab fishery on curtailing the harvest by "allowing more flexibility" for where and how closures occur if toxin levels spike.

Oregon's fishery leaders are also taking another step toward quality assurance. Or rather a step back.

In 2010, Oregon's Dungeness fishery earned certification from the international Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), recognizing the fishery as a well-managed, sustainable resource. At the time, it was one of only three crab fisheries worldwide, and the only one of the Pacific coast Dungeness fisheries (Oregon, Washington, California, Alaska, British Columbia) to receive MSC certification.

In 2015, the ODCC let the certification lapse. Executive Director Hugh Link said the commissioners felt they weren't getting market value from the MSC label at that time.

A memorandum of agreement signed in March between ODCC and The Fishin' Company – a major buyer of Dungeness crab based in Munhall, Pennsylvania – put the fishery back on course to regain MSC certification. Fishin' Company is providing financial resources and personnel, while Portland, Oregon-based ForSea Solutions is providing technical consulting for the project.

Oregon's crab fishery earned a record ex-vessel value for the second straight season. Photo courtesy of the Oregon Crab Commission.

"The Oregon Dungeness crab fishery is committed to a sustainable fishery through proven methods of management," said Justin Baugh, Fishin' Company's director of sustainability. "They are focused on continuous improvement through science-based research, and we believe the ODCC should be recognized for this."

Natalia Novikova, founder of ForSea Solutions, said she looked forward to working with the fishery leaders "to showcase their sustainable fishing practices and help them achieve this certification milestone."

Link said they wanted to complete the process and "prove once again" that Oregon has "a truly well-managed, sustainable fishery."

But the real bottom line is marketability and profitability.

"Several large retail stores are now making arrangements to only source seafood with a sustainability label," Link noted. In an ever-risky business like crabbing, it could provide a much-needed anchor.


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