OREGON COAST — It’s still early in the season, but the first of this season’s Dungeness crabs offloaded at the docks in Newport’s Yaquina Bay have been good quality product.
“Everybody’s been really happy with the quality of the crab,” said Tim Novotny, communications manager for the Oregon Dungeness Crab Commission. However, the weather has had an impact on the fishery in its early days.
“We had all that great weather in the early part of December, and then they finally get out and the weather changes,” said Novotny. “But one of the nice things is the product that has been coming in, people have been raving about it.”
Novotny said the crabbers were getting a price of $3 per pound at the start of the season, “and that, to my knowledge, is where it’s still at, but it could start to vary at this point depending on how much is coming in and which processor they’re talking to and what their business needs are, and so forth.”
In terms of the numbers of crabs being landed, it’s still too early in the season for a clear picture of that. Crabbers just started pulling pots about a week ago.
“We don’t have much info on it yet because the season just opened,” said Troy Buell, state fisheries manager for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, which tracks the fishery statistics. “It’s been kind of stormy these first few days, so there’s not really any indication of what the season’s going to look like just yet. Rumor has it that it’s not very good off of Brookings on the south coast, maybe somewhat normal on the rest of the coast, but that’s somewhat speculative at this point.”
Buell said they should have a pretty good idea regarding what type of year it will be after three or four weeks.
“We have a really good idea after six to eight weeks,” he added. “Typically, we get about 80 percent of the year’s landings in the first eight weeks.”
Buell also said testing of crabs for the presence of domoic acid will be ongoing. Domoic acid is a marine biotoxin that can temporarily build up in crabs, making them hazardous for humans to eat. However, all testing to date has shown the crabs are safe for human consumption.
“ODA (Oregon Department of Agriculture) is going to be testing any areas where they sampled razor clams with elevated levels of domoic acid, so that’s most of the south half of the coast right now,” said Buell. “They’ll be doing that approximately every two weeks.”
High winds and heavy rains have been a factor for the crab boats in the first week of the season, and forecasters are calling for more of the same over the next few days. Weather like this is what makes crabbing a particularly dangerous fishery, and Coast Guard personnel along the coast are keeping a close watch over the boats that are out there.
“We’re more proactive, certainly, during crab season,” said Chief Warrant Officer Tom Molloy, commander of Coast Guard Station Yaquina Bay in Newport. “One is because when crab boats, on dump day, go out, they have all those crab pots stacked high, and that changes their center of gravity and their stability characteristics. When we see them getting underway, we try to maintain a pretty close relationship with them. All of us have our contacts in the fleet.
“We’ve done probably 30 hours of SAR (search and rescue) so far,” added Molloy. “We did a tow the other day that took six-and-a-half hours to get the guy in, and we did another tow and brought the guy across the bar, and it was right before sunset … we had to get him in before the weather deteriorated more. And we did a bunch of bar standbys until about 2 o’clock in the morning. Those guys want to come in, and it’s about 18 feet (wave height) at the buoy … they want to come in and go out.”
Also at the start of the crab season, the Coast Guard increases the watch from its lookout tower located next to the Yaquina Bay Lighthouse.
“Especially during the beginning of the season and when we have rougher seas and there’s boats coming and going, I stick them up there for 24 hours,” said Molloy. “For the first week, from dump day to haul day, we’ll have them up there. Right now, they’re not up there 24 hours a day. I pull them down at sunset when we start to see a diminishing number of lights on the horizon.
“They don’t necessarily need to ask us for something,” Molloy said of the Coast Guard’s role of helping the fishing fleet. “They just need to ask us for a standby or call us and say, ‘Hey, what’s the bar report?’” If the Coast Guard doesn’t have the latest bar conditions, “we’re going to get underway and go out there and get it, because I’d rather be out there getting a bar report when they cross than have them use information that’s hours old and probably not accurate,” he said.
And the local fishermen appreciate the fact that the Coast Guard has their back.
“There’s no doubt (the commercial fishermen) like what we’re doing,” said Molloy, “and we make sure that we’re changing our practices up to meet their needs.”