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Time to get crackin’: Crabbers wait to see if they’ll feel the pinch or prosper during the 2009 Dungeness season

Posted: Friday, Nov 6th, 2009

Nick Miller, left, and David Burch from the F/V Turning Point work on crab pots near the Port of Newport dock Wednesday morning. The 2009 Dungeness crab season should begin Dec. 1, with pre-soak scheduled for Nov. 28. A price negotiation session between processors and crabbers, mediated by the Oregon Department of Agriculture, is set for Nov. 18-19. Last year’s opening price was $1.60 per pound. (Photo by Terry Dillman)

The crabs are definitely ready.

With the Dec. 1 opening of the 2009 Dungeness crab season looming, things “are looking really good,” said Mitch Vance, shellfish project leader for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW)’s Marine Resources Program at Hatfield Marine Science Center. Quality tests in October and early November indicate the crabs are “really, really full of meat,” with crabs from Newport, Astoria, and Coos Bay areas meeting December criteria in October, and those from Port Orford and Brookings areas measuring up during a November retest, Vance noted.

The only remaining hurdle for the crustaceans themselves is to pass toxin testing by the Oregon Department of Agriculture (ODA)’s Food Safety Division.

Vance said ODA and ODFW had already closed the entire Oregon coast to recreational mussel harvesting due to elevated levels of paralytic shellfish toxins (PST). Crabs were collected from all port areas for testing.

Agency officials want to make sure the toxins haven’t affected crabs, which Vance said is unlikely. The tests are merely a precaution.

“We don’t expect any problems,” he said. “Mussels are filter feeders (and more prone to the toxins), while crabs are a little higher on the food chain.”

Hugh Link, assistant administrator of the Oregon Dungeness Crab Commission (ODCC), agreed. He said the lab should have all crabs for testing by today (Friday), and they expect the results by Tuesday, Nov. 10.

Haggling session

Link said a state-supervised price negotiation is scheduled for Wednesday and Thursday, Nov. 18-19, to determine an opening price processors would pay crabbers.

Last season’s starter price was $1.60 per pound. Under normal circumstances, such an offer - established after two meetings and numerous conference calls in an ODA-mediated bargaining process - might have received a resounding rejection, especially in the wake of the record $2-per-pound first week price offered in 2007. But in 2008, crabbers faced the imperfect storm of a crippled economy, an uncertain market, and projected average landings.

Opening price is vital to the crabbers’ livelihoods because most of the season’s landings occur within the first eight weeks of the season, and their costs, especially for fuel and insurance, continue to rise.

The average Oregon catch is just above 10 million pounds. The fishery is cyclical, and crabbers say they expect a drop-off in landings after a boom.

Harvests reached record levels from 2003 to 2006, peaking at 33.6-million pounds (24.6-million pounds in the first eight weeks) worth $52.8 million in 2004, followed by 27.5-million pounds in 2005, valued at $44.6 million. In 2006, their catch dropped by almost half to 15.1-million pounds worth $32.9 million. Crabbers hauled 12.3-million pounds of Dungeness crabs valued at $29.3 million into Oregon ports in 2007, and 13-million pounds in 2008.

Estimates for this season range from 11-million to 15-million pounds, depending on who’s talking. A number of variables can always skew those numbers.

In 2005, crabbers and processors were ready, but the crustaceans weren’t. Slow-maturing crabs delayed the season’s opening. In 2006, the crabs were ready, and the ODA and Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife had declared Dec. 1 as the official opening date. But crabbers and processors couldn’t agree on price, crab quality, or market perspective, and boats sat idle through a week of fair weather when they could have been out dropping pots. The fishermen crabbed about the processors’ initial offer of $1.40 per pound, and asked for $1.85 instead. ODA mediation efforts were unsuccessful. Processors hedged over meat quality as price haggling continued. They finally settled on $1.60 per pound.

By the time the price war ended, crabbers had missed a chance for a pre-soak, and fair weather gave way to wind, rain, and heavy seas.

The 2006 season also marked the first time for ODFW’s crab pot reallocation program, which limits the number of crab pots a fisherman can use - 200, 300, or 500 pots, based on the vessels’ crabbing history.

Perilous venture

So far, prospects look good for 2009, and fishing crews are getting ready for what is considered Oregon’s most dangerous fishery due mainly to the nasty winter weather fishing crews must often endure in December.

Another factor is the every-crabber-for-himself race to catch as many crabs as possible before other crabbers get there. ODCC numbers indicate that 75 to 80 percent of the catch is hauled in during the first two to eight weeks of the season. Some crabbers, anxious to get out early, take calculated risks with cantankerous weather as they ply the winter waves.

Nick Miller and David Burch from the F/V Turning Point took advantage of excellent weather Wednesday to work on stacks of crab pots piled high near the Port of Newport dock. They were in high spirits about the season, hoping for a good year, and anticipating the Saturday, Nov. 28, pre-soak.

Of the 433 limited-entry Oregon crab permit holders, Link said about 325 to 350 of them are active.

The harvest usually begins Dec. 1, when the crabs are hard-shelled, full of meat, and in their prime. The season closes Aug. 14 to minimize handling and allow post-molt, soft-shelled crabs to “fill out” undisturbed. Quality tests determine whether the crabs are meaty enough to harvest and sustain the population. Meat recovery rate - actual meat weight versus overall mean weight - must reach at least 23 percent along the Oregon coast north of Cascade Head, and 25 percent south of Cascade Head.

Vance said October quality tests for the 2009 season showed meat recovery percentages of 24.5, 25.3, and 28 percent at Astoria, Newport, and Coos Bay, respectively.

Dungeness crab is Oregon’s most valuable fishery, ranks among the top 15 of the state’s agricultural commodities, and remains vital to the economy of Oregon’s coastal communities.

In fact, Newport officially dubbed itself the “Dungeness Crab Capitol of the World,” registering the tagline as a trademark in 2007, and the legislature recently adopted it as the official state crustacean.

Terry Dillman is the assistant editor of the News-Times. Contact him at (541) 265-8571, ext 225, or terrydillman@newportnewstimes.com.

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