No agreement yet on crab prices

The F/V Little Joe sits at the dock loaded with crab pots as price negotiations continue to drag on two weeks after the official opening of the commercial Dungeness crab season. (Photo by Jeremy Burke)

OREGON COAST — Two weeks after the season was set to open on Dec. 16, Oregon crabbers are still sitting at the dock waiting for a price before heading out to sea.

The California season is likewise delayed by price negotiations, while the Washington season has been delayed until at least Jan. 15 due to high domoic acid levels.

With no price agreement in sight, many would pin the price hang-up on the largest processor in the area, Pacific Seafood, but after a period of silence, the company has asserted it’s only one of many processors that contribute to determining the price, which is especially difficult this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The notion that Pacific Seafood is holding up the Dungeness season is absurd,” Jon Steinman, vice president of processing for Pacific Seafood, said in a statement to the News-Times. “We are one of many other major buyers on the West Coast. We have to do the best we can for our customers, our fishermen and our team members who are counting on us to run a good business and be here for this season and years to come. We can’t speak for the dozens of other processors along the coast — whether they are buying or not, or when, or why— you would have to ask them.”

While not directly involved, Lori Steel, executive director of the West Coast Seafood Processors Association, said that as of Wednesday, negotiations were still ongoing behind closed doors, and a price could be decided at any time. Pacific Seafood is one of the companies that falls under the association’s umbrella.

“The companies I represent are working hard to get this going and find an agreement among the fishermen they buy from,” Steel said. “We’re all hopeful to see fishermen on the water as soon as possible.”

Steel said the pandemic has been a huge source of uncertainty this year and has disrupted every part of the supply chain for the crab industry. She estimates that the government closures have caused restaurant and food service demand for crab to fall 70 percent, and other restrictions on employment have led to a labor shortage.

“People who don’t work in the industry need to understand that we’re a struggling industry right now, and the pandemic is putting unprecedented pressure on us from the harvesters all the way up the supply chain,” Steel said. “We’re doing the best we can, and it’s just been a tough year. We want to see this resolved and have our guys packing crab in the plants as soon as possible.”

Additionally, crab prices are negotiated region by region, with crabbers negotiating collectively with individual processors. In Oregon, negotiations are sometimes overseen by the Department of Agriculture, but only if enough processors agree to come to the table, which did not happen this year. 

Many processors are waiting to see what others do before they commit to a price, often looking to larger companies like Pacific Seafood to be the trend setters.

Taunette Dixon, co-president of Newport Fisherman’s Wives and owner of the F/V Tauny-Ann, said there have been no major developments for local crabbers, but she was able to confirm negotiations are still ongoing.

Tim Novotny, communications manager for the Oregon Dungeness Crab Commission, said even he is waiting patiently for a price to be decided. He noted that even if a final price were reached by Jan. 1, stormy weather forecasts for the next week may end up being too prohibitive for local crabbers to get to work.

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