The Tri-State Dungeness Crab Committee, which oversees the northern California, Oregon and Washington Dungeness crab fisheries, opened the season between Cape Arago, Ore., and Klipsan Beach, Wash., after a month-long delay. At 8 a.m. on January 1, 73 hours before the opening, Dungeness crab pots finally splashed into the water off the coast of Oregon and southern Washington.
“They can start to pull pots at 9 a.m. on Jan. 4,” says Troy Buell, the fisheries management program leader at the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. “But I don’t know about the weather.”
On Jan. 3, Newport, Ore., crab fisherman Mike Retherford headed out. “We’re leaving now because the bar is going to be pretty bad by morning,” he says. “The swell is building.”
Retherford set his 500 traps and is looking for an overdue payday that has been hard on smaller operations and crew.
“We deal with the delay the same as we always do these last couple, three years,” says Retherford.
Crab management off the Pacific Coast relies on testing the meat percentage of the crabs. When the average weights of edible meat hits 23 percent of the crab’s weight (for crab testing points between Cascade Head and Klipsan Beach) and 25 percent (for crabs at testing points south of Cascade Head to Cape Arago), the season opens.
But this year, early tests for Oregon and southern Washington came back short of the mark. The presence of domoic acid, which causes paralytic shellfish poisoning, in areas of northern California and southern Oregon further delayed those openings until mid-January. To add to these problems, weather delayed testing in Washington.
“A few years ago, this all would have been unusual,” says Buell. “But it’s not unusual for the past few years.”
According to Buell, a changing marine environment and changes in testing protocols have led to more delays. “We used to do two tests and project when they would be OK, but now we need to see the crab with 23 percent,” says Buell. “We work with the fishermen,” says Buell. “The tri-state committee, which has six fishermen from each state, establishes the preseason testing protocol.”
With the season open, price becomes Retherford’s and other fishermen’s concern. “We agreed on $2.75 a pound,” Retherford says. But he expects that to go up. “About 70 percent of the crab is caught in the first two weeks,” he says, noting that landing 100 thousand dollars worth of crab in a day is not unusual. “Last year the average price was $3.20 a pound.”
But for many small boats in Newport, the delay lasted at least another day. “None of the small boats can get over the bar,” said an observer.
Buell points out that in spite of the financial difficulties the delays impose on fishermen, the overall picture looks good. “Last year we had the highest value ever recorded, $74 million worth of crab for the season.”