In an open letter to Caren Braby, the Marine Resources Program manager for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, Dungeness crab fishers from Astoria to Port Orford lambasted the decision made by the Department to delay the opening of the Dungeness crab season along the entire Oregon coast.

The letter alleged that the decision flies in the face of the revised Tri-State Protocol, established to ensure that the Dungeness crab fishery remains sustainable and that the fishing communities of Washington, Oregon, and California continue to capitalize on this economic resource. 

The letter, presented by captains Perry Kanury Bordeaux of Newport and Levi Cherry of Garibaldi, and bearing signatures from Dungeness crab permit holders who either own or operate fishing vessels that are 58 feet or less length, outlines in detail the struggles that have been imposed upon them as small vessel owners, upon consumers, and upon both the pelagic and benthic ecosystems by the unnecessary and extensive delay of the Dungeness crab season. 

It also calls upon the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife to make use of the revisions that allow for partial crab openers on the Oregon coast, revisions which fishers fought hard for, and points to the lack of transparency on the part of the Department in their decisions this season to not implement the accepted protocol. 

While the commercial Dungeness crab season is scheduled to open each year on Dec. 1, delays have become the rule rather than the exception, with the 2021-2022 season being the first in years to open on time. These delays became the driving force behind the allowance of partial crab openers, as it became apparent that this was going to be an ongoing issue for both the Department and the industry. The major causes for the delays are low meat recovery, and the presence of unacceptable levels of domoic acid. 

Between late October and early November each year, in accordance with the Tri-State Protocol, the first round of test fishing begins on the North Pacific coast. Under observation and using a series of regulated procedures, crabs are brought in from each fishing zone. They are then weighed, cooked, picked, and weighed once more. From this process an average percentage of meat content in the crab is gathered for each fishing zone. If it is lower than the acceptable percentage established for that zone, fishing is delayed, and another round of testing is scheduled.

Testing for domoic acid is also done at this time. The toxin, which is produced by algae, is harmful and potentially fatal to humans if they consume contaminated shellfish. Any fishing zone found to have crab with domoic acid levels above the closure limits during testing will remain closed, along with the adjacent zone to the north and the one to south, and test fishing will continue until the crab are no longer “hot,” or contaminated. An evisceration order can also be established in order to open fishing areas while simultaneously ensuring that the toxin is removed in processing and the meat remains safe. 

The revised Tri-State Protocol not only allows for fishing zones to be established and opened in the state of Oregon should a portion of the coast present with both high meat content and low domoic acid while other areas remain closed due to unacceptable levels of either, but it dictates that they “will” be,  It is with this particular revision that Oregon Dungeness crab fishers have taken issue in their open letter.

The entire state has remained closed to crabbing for a month and a half while a large stretch of the Oregon coast yielded crab with meat content that was well above target levels on the first round of testing, and that area increased on the second round of testing. A small portion of the southern coast with high domoic acid levels could have been opened under an evisceration order and using traceability measures already in place, as has been done in previous years. 

The hardships that have been imposed on crab fishers as a result of these delays, according to the letter, cannot be overstated. Economically, this delay has caused, and will continue to cause, extensive damage to the entire fleet and to small vessel owners in particular. Crab fishers, who represent a significant portion of the coastal community, have been forced to wait weeks longer for a paycheck. 

The higher prices that come from non-cannery markets during the holiday season and Chinese New Year have passed, leaving small vessel fishers no choice but to sell to the canneries for a lower price. This creates inequity in the fishery as places like the live market are where smaller vessels tend to make their money. While they might reach hold capacity at 10,000 pounds, larger vessels are bringing in upwards of 100,000 pounds and don’t mind taking the lower price offered at the cannery. They are looking to pack and offload huge volume as quickly as possible so they can turn around and do it all over again.

Economic inequity is not the only imbalance that has been created by this delay. The season opener and most crucial and productive first weeks have now been pushed into January and February. These are typically the worst weather months on the North Pacific Ocean. 

While larger boats can safely navigate these heavy seas and fill their holds time and again, small vessels will be forced to wait for ever-shrinking weather windows. 

Captains will have to make decisions between taking the extra risk, and not getting their share of the crab and the money that they rely on to get their families and businesses through the winter. As Oregon coast author, Lori Tobias, wrote of seeing the lights of the Dungeness crab fleet at night, it’s not “if, but when” the next boat, and her crew, will be lost.

The most intense weeks of crabbing will now encroach upon the molting season, as well. During this time fishers typically see greater mortality rates in the crab. While a portion of the fleet has typically stacked their pots out by this time, that will likely not be the case this year. In addition, there will be more gear in the water when the population of migratory whales increases on the Oregon coast in February and March. 

While fixed gear fisheries have been under fire in recent years for whale entanglement, and have been forced to make changes to their gear, and even remove it, the letter argues that the decisions made this season by Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife have in fact put these mammals in even greater danger.

An open letter was the next logical step for the fishers, however the spirit of the letter was not merely to induce the Department to open part of the coast. It was written for these crab fishers to be heard, and for their plight to be understood when decisions are being made that directly impact their lives and livelihoods.

It was written as a question, as to why the policies so clearly outlined, and set as precedent in previous years, have been set aside. Lastly, it was written in the spirit of transparency, and with the hope of creating a more open line of communication and understanding between all concerned parties in the future. 

Have you listened to this article via the audio player above?

If so, send us your feedback around what we can do to improve this feature or further develop it. If not, check it out and let us know what you think via email or on social media.

Kathryn Gill is originally from Maine, but she has spent the last three years working as a deckhand out of Newport, Oregon fishing for Dungeness crab, Chinook salmon, and albacore tuna. She also participates in the Bristol Bay sockeye salmon fishery. 

Join the Conversation