Fishermen's News - The Advocate for the Commercial Fisherman

Oregon Dungeness Crab Fishery Finishes with Another Stellar Year

California fishery pinched by early closure amid entanglement controversy

 

September 1, 2019

Al Gann and Curtis Gann aboard F/V Rachel II show how they retrieve crab pots as part of the Clatsop Commercial Fisheries Tour in Astoria, Oregon. Oregon crabbers had another good season, hauling in 18.7 million pounds valued at $66.8 million as of the end of July. But the season didn't start until January 15 due to low meat yields and in some places domoic acid concerns - a trend that fishery managers say could continue for the foreseeable future. Photo by Terry Dillman.

Forget about king crabs. Dungeness crabs are considered the kings of the Pacific Northwest.

Allegedly named after a small, unincorporated fishing community on the Strait of Juan de Fuca in Washington, dungies – with their slightly sweeter flavor and less "fishy" scent than either snow or king crabs – have been harvested commercially since the 1880s. The commercial fishery still thrives off the coasts of Oregon, California and Washington, despite a multiplex of vexing and mounting challenges.

Most years, crabbing is Oregon's most valuable fishery, and the 2019 season was again no exception. As of July, Oregon's fleet landed 18.7 million pounds worth $66.8 million, despite yet another delay to the start of the season due to underweight crabs and concerns about elevated domoic acid levels. Instead of the usual December 1 launch, the season began January 4, and even then, crabbers faced high wind, heavy swells, and uncertain prices.

Crabbers say they don't care about rain, but wind and swells dictate safety and determine how much they are willing to risk for that bottom line. As Tom "Squeak" Morrison (F/V Captain Ryan) who has plied the ocean for more than 40 years out of Astoria, puts it, "You're fishing for dollars, not just fish. You go where and when you can make a profit."

Price negotiations were unsuccessful, according to officials in the state agriculture department's Market Access and Certification Program, which mediates price discussions between fishing groups and processors. When this happens, fishermen generally negotiate individually processors and buyers. Market analysts note that the market itself – in terms of timing, supply and demand – often sets the price parameters.

Despite facing a delayed opening for the fifth consecutive year, Oregon crabbers made up for it by landing 11.4 million pounds in January, 5.4 million in February, and 1.2 million in March, after which landings dwindled, as they generally do in winding down toward season's end in August. Overall landings reached 18.7 million pounds at an average price of $3.57 per pound, as prices ranged from $3.16 per pound in January to $7.14 in May.

The effort marked a three-year stretch of higher-than-normal landings and a three-year cumulative record for to-the-vessel value, said Hugh Link, executive director of the Oregon Dungeness crab Commission (ODCC).

Crabbers landed 20.4 million pounds valued at $63 million in 2017, then eclipsed it with 23.1 million pounds that brought in a record $74.2 million in 2018. This year's catch fell below both of those seasons, yet netted $66.8 million. The past seven years have been kind to Oregon's crabbers, who 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. The record is 33.5 million pounds set in 2005, and the average is 16 million pounds per season during the past decade.

The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) issues about 423 permits for commercial crab fishing in Oregon. Crabbers head out in pursuit of their quarry (so iconic that legislators named the Dungeness as the state's official crustacean in 2009) from six main ports: Astoria, Garibaldi, Newport, Charleston, Port Orford, and Brookings. They use vessels ranging from small wooden dory boats with two-person crews to much larger vessels with four-person crews capable of fishing round-the-clock for extended periods of time.

"Crabbing is very expensive," said Brian Petersen, who fishes out of Astoria, Oregon aboard F/V Captain Raleigh, "You can spend $20,000 to $30,000 before ever dropping gear in the water. The crew starts to prep gear in September or October."

Petersen uses a four-person crew, because "crabbing is labor-intensive, and the crew works round-the-clock" to retrieve pots, add more bait, and drop them again at a different location throughout the season. Mink, squid and razor clams are used as bait, costing about $30,000 each season in bait alone. Typically, Petersen noted, they ply the waters off the coasts of Oregon and Washington from December or January (depending on when the season starts) until March.

"Crabbing starts close to the shoreline, then moves out as needed," he said, noting that they're generally one to five miles offshore at the beginning, but move out as far as 30 miles by the time the season winds down.

Petersen called Dungeness crabbing "a progressive fishery," but crabbers are facing what many of them perceive as regressive – even oppressive – rules and mandates that are pinching the life out of the fishery and the crabbers, crew members, their families, and communities that depend on it. Crabbers say the failure of price negotiations has become a trend during the past three or four years, adding another layer of uncertainty to the emerging and escalating effects of climate change, state and federal regulations, and other factors that make things even more challenging in what is already a risky, daunting business.

Veteran crabber John Corbin, who chairs the ODCC, said concerns about low meat yields and heightened domoic acid levels in some areas led to the latest-ever start date in northern California, Oregon and Washington in 2018.

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. It took another seven days for price negotiations before crabbing actually began from Cape Blanco north to the Oregon/Washington border, and the area south of Cape Blanco didn't open until February 7.

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, let alone 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.

Just ask northern California crabbers. While Oregon crabbers have managed to weather the delays and related issues relatively unscathed, at least so far, their California counterparts haven't.

Northern California's crab fishery had clawed back from the brink in 2017 and 2018, landing 11.4 million and 14.97 million pounds, respectively, after being nearly scuttled by back-to-back-to-back poor showings from 2014 to 2016 that resulted in a federally-declared disaster. 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. Crabbers were recovering "bit by bit, little by little," and last season's catch boosted their recovery hopes. Unfortunately, many used up savings and other resources trying to keep their livelihood afloat, and although the fishery finally received federal disaster funds in June 2019, fishery managers and crabbers say it won't be enough to mitigate the actual losses.

The federal aid package featured $22.8 million of direct payments to crabbers and seafood processors - $14.5 million designated for the state's 570 Dungeness crab permit holders paid according to the number of crab pots they had permits for during the 2015-16 season. Those payments ranged from $14,938 (175 pots) to $42,680 (500 pots).

Fishery managers say the funds are like a drop in the ocean compared to the estimated $110 million the fishery lost.

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

Not this year.

After having their opener again delayed until January 15, California crabbers were "blindsided" by another whammy on March 26, when CDFW Director Chuck Bonham announced the statewide closure of the crab fishery on April 15 – two to three months earlier than normal.

Whale entanglement litigation initiated in 2017 against CDFW by the Phoenix, Arizona-based Centers for Biological Diversity snagged them unexpectedly.

CBD filed the lawsuit in October 2017, claiming the agency failed to prevent crabbing fleet gear (crabbers deploy 174,025 pots in coastal waters each season) from entangling and killing endangered humpback and blue whales, and leatherback sea turtles. The filing pointed to a spike in confirmed whale entanglements that began in 2014. Federal officials identified 23 entanglements by crab gear in 2016: 19 humpback whales, two blue whales, one killer whale and one leatherback sea turtle. In 2018, at least 45 whale entanglements were confirmed in Pacific Northwest waters, with 35 of them off the California coast.

The settlement also stipulates closing the crab fishery on April 1 in 2020 and 2021, and requires CDFW to develop habitat conservation plans and monitor areas off the central and northern California coasts where whales feed in the spring along their migration route to determine whether earlier closures are warranted. If NOAA officials identify more than 20 whales in an area, Bonham would have to order an immediate closure.

Fishery closures would not apply to crabbers who use rope-less gear – a technique that fishery managers say is still in the experimental stage.

The settlement requires crabbers and others using set fishing gear in California to mark all of their gear, and CDFW leaders to quickly get a federal conservation plan and permit in place. Agency officials said it is the first time ever for the agency to seek a federal permit to protect endangered species. Noah Oppenheim, executive director of Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations said the organization was part of the negotiations as an "intervener" to represent the interests of the crabbing fleet. He said the settlement avoided the possibility of something even worse - a court injunction that "would have ended fishing entirely until we have the federal permit."

Fishery managers say crabbing is the simplest fishery in terms of species and equipment. Yet despite the successes, 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.

The bottom line focus, they note, is always a combination of marketability, profitability, and sustainability.

Crabbers and fishery managers note it's impossible to get weather, climate, and ocean currents to work the way they would want them to. So they have to pursue other methods of mitigating the effects of everything trying to scuttle their livelihoods – and the effects of their livelihoods on the ocean ecosystem.

In California, the state's legislature in 2008 mandated the creation of the California Dungeness crab 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. The task force makes recommendations to state agencies and oversight committees about management measures, among them trap limits, harvest allocation, season opener changes, and fleet size reduction. Other state legislation authorizes CDFW director Chuck Bonham to restrict or even close commercial crab fishing in areas where there is heightened risk of entanglement. In September 2015, CDFW established a working group featuring commercial and recreational fishermen, environmental groups, state and federal agencies and the Marine Mammal Disentanglement Network. The group works to determine best management practices, new technologies, and risk assessment programs to reduce entanglement risks.

Oregon Sea Grant started a collaborative Oregon Whale Entanglement Working Group (OWEWG) in May, 2017 "to develop and prioritize options for short- and long-term modifications to gear and fishery practices to reduce the risk of whale entanglements in Dungeness crab gear and other fixed gear fisheries." Collaborating with NOAA, California and Washington officials, the crab fishery, and the Oregon State University Marine Mammal Institute, the group aims "to minimize risks of whale entanglements in fishing gear." The effort includes seeking funding for finer scale whale surveys "to learn more about the timing and habitat use of whales off the Oregon coast."

ODFW is currently developing a package of management measures derived from OWEWG's efforts that would likely include additional buoy tags and reducing pot numbers in the water during spring and summer months.

The ODCC voted unanimously in October 2018 to fund a multi-year study to prevent whale entanglements off the Oregon Coast.

The board approved $44,820 to support the project in its first year, along with a letter of support for the study seeking additional funding from federal grants to sustain the three year study. The overall study – projected to cost about $300,000 – will help ultimately identify areas and times of high and low whale entanglement risk.

"None of us wants to entangle a whale, and I'm sure the whales feel the same way," said John Corbin, noting that the fishery had already taken steps to reduce ecosystem impact by creating a limited entry system in 1996, followed by pot limits in 2006 to reduce the amount of crab gear in the ocean. "We also try to disentangle whales whenever possible. We have whale entanglement teams, and they have successfully untangled many of them."

Finally, ODFW's Post-Season Derelict Gear Recovery Program established in 2014 weighed anchor in August with a temporary order that eliminated two-week post-season "clean-up" period, meaning that crabbers had to pull all of their gear out of the water by August 14, the traditional end of the season. Caren Braby, the program manager, said the agency also removed the cap on the amount of derelict gear that commercially licensed and permitted vessels can retrieve.

In 2018, 858 crab pots were removed from Oregon's offshore waters.

"Fishermen are pretty good about policing each other's gear," said Brian Petersen, noting that in a typical year, he might lose 26 to 40 pots.

Challenges arise on land, as well as at sea.

Petersen pointed to the dramatic confrontation over House Bill 2020 – Oregon's proposed statewide cap-and-trade bill designed to fend off the effects of climate change through reduction of carbon emissions. Among other things, the bill would have added an estimated fuel tax of 23 to 35 cents per gallon tax in 2021, and outlawed the continued use of certain types of diesel engines.

"Every engine on my boat is diesel – and they're older ones," he said, noting that it would likely cost him $400,000 to refit or replace those engines.

Major protests by farmers, fishermen and others, including vehicular convoys to the state Capitol, drew national attention. Mercifully for fishermen and others opposed to what they viewed as draconian measures that threatened their livelihoods, the bill died after Senate Republicans staged a walkout to prevent a quorum and a vote on it after it passed through the House in a state legislature featuring a Democratic majority.

"We don't need something else weighing us down," said Petersen, noting that fishermen are more than willing to work with researchers and scientists to reduce their environmental imprint. "Faced with choices you can't afford, you have to make decisions. If they passed it, we'd move to Washington."

 
 

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