Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Delay for ‘Dungies’: Crabbers ready but crabs aren’t

The commercial Dungeness crab season from Point Arena, California to the Washington-Canada border was put on hold until at least Dec. 15, due to recalcitrant crabs who failed their first two meat quality tests.

Officials from the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW), Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) and the California Department of Fish and Game (CDFG) announced the delay in Nov. 13 press releases. Kelly Corbett from the ODFW Marine Resources Program located at Oregon State University’s Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport said fishery managers from Washington, Oregon and California decided to delay the opening “to allow crab quality to improve.” Crabs in most test areas failed to meet the minimum preseason test criteria of at least 25 percent meat content (23 percent north of Cascade Head, Oregon) during initial testing.

As of FN’s press time, Corbett said results were in for Oregon from the third round of tests, but they were awaiting results from Washington and California before any determinations were made.

The delay applied to the entire Oregon and Washington coasts, as well as northern California (Mendocino, Humboldt and Del Norte counties).

Meanwhile, agency and industry officials say the season got a robust start in central California, with a wholesale price of $3 per pound and boats hauling in full loads after their first ventures out. They faced a temporary delay due to weather as winter storms ravaged the entire Pacific coastline shortly after the season opened. Harvest forecasts for California are lower than the 32 million pounds landed in California last season.

Crabbers say many of the larger commercial vessels did not make the journey from northern California or Oregon, despite the delay due to skimpy meat-to-body ratios.

Commercial crab harvest in Oregon’s bays and estuaries closed Dec. 1, but was set to re-open as soon as the commercial ocean fishery set sail. Recreational ocean crabbing was also delayed, but remained open in the bays and estuaries.

What effect the delay might have on harvest numbers is anybody’s guess.

As happened last year, crabbers said pushing back the start date could ease some of the tension normally associated with price negotiations between fishermen and processors. Those negotiations generally involve representatives from port crab marketing associations, seafood processing companies and the Oregon Department of Agriculture (ODA).

It also gave them a chance to glean more information, first providing what industry leaders deemed “a great opportunity” to spend at least an entire month observing what transpires from the central California Dungeness season and to find out what the next round of meat quality tests reveals before heading to the negotiation table.

Under normal circumstances, the central California Dungeness fishery opens just a fortnight prior to the Oregon coast season. While that gives some indication of how things might go for the fleet from Oregon, Washington and northern California, the extra two weeks this year – as it did last season – offered a chance to watch the effects in the marketplace and to get some initial answers to questions that are usually still open-ended when dickering about initial prices for Oregon crabbers, especially so close to the Thanksgiving holiday.

With additional market and meat quality information in hand, officials said there would likely be little left to negotiate except price.

Hugh Link, interim director of the Oregon Dungeness Crab Commission (ODCC), said the delay, while disappointing, would likely turn out best for everyone concerned, especially consumers, who would get better quality crabs as a result. Commission members appointed Link as interim director after Nick Furman announced his retirement at the end of September, the denouement of 22 years of service.

In a September 28 memo, Furman noted his October 1990 hiring as marketing director of a commodity commission “that, if the truth were known, was on the verge of being shut down by commissioners frustrated with the way things were going and not sure if there was anything they could do to change it.” While Furman acknowledged that some crabbers “think they would have been doing everyone a favor and saved the fleet a whole bunch of money in the process” had they shut down the commission, he points to many successes during the past two decades, and the value of its programs, projects and efforts.

“The ODCC is in good shape,” he stated. “It has an excellent working relationship with ODFW, the Oregon Department of Agriculture (ODA) and other state agencies. It is well known throughout the seafood industry, respected in the political arena, and has developed valuable connections in the culinary community. The relationships built up over the years in all these areas on behalf of the Oregon Dungeness crab industry couldn’t be stronger.”

Furman said the ODCC has a firm financial foundation, with a commission of “committed individuals who take their role and responsibilities very seriously.” He said three recently appointed commissioners – Mike Retherford owner of F/V Winona J, Crystal Adams from Hallmark Fisheries, and Jake Postlewait from Oregon Coast Bank – represent “The next generation in this industry,” noting that their energy and fresh perspective “will serve the commission well for some time to come.”

He urged everyone to support Link as he took the helm as interim director.

Meanwhile, the stage was set for the annual state supervised crab price negotiations initiated 10 years ago to help stave off as much of the often contentious dickering as possible and provide face-to-face negotiations as “the best way to establish an opening price and get the fishery started in a safe and orderly fashion.”

Crabbers say they would love a repeat of last season’s market value and a higher landings, but being pragmatic, they say they also know anything could happen, considering the vagaries of the market, weather and other factors, including crab quality.

Stellar Results
Oregon’s 6,549 landings in 2011-2012 brought in 14.2 million pounds (4.1 million at Newport, 3.8 million at Charleston, 2.5 million in Astoria and 2.2 million in Brookings) from 318 vessels (down from 333 in 2010-11) with 112,400 pots, according to ODFW officials.

The haul was considerably lower than the 10-year average of 20.2 million pounds, but on par with the 2006-07, 2007-08 and 2008-09 seasons, and crabbers started with a negotiated price of $2.30 per pound – the highest ever, prices rose as high as $5 per pound (May), and the ex-vessel value reached more than $42.1 million based on a weighted average price of $2.95 per pound.

The season also started late in 2010-11 as representatives from five port crab marketing associations and seven seafood processing companies negotiated, emerging from the bargaining process with an opening price of $1.65 per pound, pending a request from processors for additional pre-season testing by ODFW to determine crab meat quality. Processors also wanted crabbers to wait until Dec. 12, rather than venture out on the traditional Dec. 1 opening date, and if they did, the negotiated price edged up to $1.675, which was still well below the 2009-2010 opening price of $1.75 per pound.

As it turned out, crabbers had a banner year value-wise as they caught fewer crabs than the previous season, but hauled in more money.

The season ended with the fourth largest catch on record, as the 325-boat Oregon fleet landed 21.2 million pounds and exceeded 20 million pounds for the fifth time in the past 10 seasons. While catch numbers were well above the average annual harvest of about 10 million to 12 million pounds during the past three decades – numbers nearer and dearer to the crabbers’ hearts and wallets made the season a more resounding success.

“The real story is the landed value of this season’s catch,” said Furman when announcing the results. “Strong demand in the marketplace pushed boat prices up, so although fishermen caught fewer crabs, they made more money.”

The to-the-boat harvest value reached almost $49 million, which Furman said was the second most valuable Oregon crab season in history. Associated processing activity upped the economic impact for Oregon’s coastal communities from Astoria to Brookings to more than $100 million.

It fell short of the $52.9 million commercial crabbers gleaned from the 2004-2005 season, but that amount derived from a record-setting harvest of 33.6 million pounds. The 2009 landings reached 23.1 million pounds (Newport again led the way with 6.8 million pounds, edging out Charleston’s 6.7 million and outdistancing Astoria’s take of 4.6 million), the third largest ever, but with a lower to-the-boat harvest value of $44.6 million, and overall economic impact of $90 million.

Crabbers are well aware of the cyclical nature of the Dungeness crab population, and they can expect drop-offs in landings after a boom.

Harvests reached record levels from 2003 to 2006, peaking with the 2004 haul, followed by landings of 27.5 million worth $44.6 million in 2005, before dropping to 15.1 million pounds valued at $32.9 million in 2006. In 2007, crabbers hauled 12.3 million pounds of Dungies worth $29.3 million into Oregon ports, and the 2008 effort netted about 13 million pounds, before the 2009 rebound.

Those natural boom-and-bust cycles, crabbers note, puts them “at the mercy of” the marketplace, and fishery leaders note that successive high yield years can flood the market, pinching prices and leading to holdover inventories.

They have turned their attention to marketing efforts to help offset those drawbacks.

To Market, To Market
ODCC represents 433 limited entry crab permit holders, who fish primarily within 10 miles of Oregon’s coast. Those who go out are all vying for a piece of that market.

Oregon leads the way in Dungeness crab production, with harvested crabs sold live, whole fresh or frozen, or as picked meat, legs and sections. Products are shipped around the world, although the United States remains the main market.

Analysts say strong marketing and promotion efforts have heightened the image of Dungeness crab, creating demand that is transforming it from primarily a regional favorite to a more nationwide appeal in restaurants and other seafood outlets, including supermarket chains.

An industry marketing partnership with ODA is focused on promoting Dungeness crab in as many key markets as possible, including internationally. ODA officials, ODCC, fishermen and processors have collaborated to successfully introduce Dungies to many markets, including Japan and Korea.

ODA also plays a pivotal role by supervising negotiations for the season-opening crab price, which is vital to the crabbers’ livelihoods. Even with a set opening price, crabbers remain at the mercy of the markets, and the flow of crabs from pots to boats to docks to markets still hinges on bringing in most of the annual catch during the first two months, providing a surge that benefits processors, who depend on volume to meet holiday market demand.

They are working to change that, Furman said, and part of the effort involved obtaining certification by the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), a designation the fishery earned in 2010 – one of only three crab fisheries worldwide and the only one of the West Coast Dungeness crab fisheries (Oregon, Washington, California, Alaska, British Columbia) to do so – based on good management practices, sustainable harvest methods and neutral environmental impacts. MSC is the world’s leading independent certification program for sustainable fisheries, with science-based environmental standards and methodology, and a certification process that focuses on three principles: health of the fishery stock, fishery management, and the effects of the fishery on the overall ecosystem. The evaluation uses a number of performance measures and individual guidelines to determine certification.

“This sets the Oregon Dungeness brand apart from all other Dungeness in the marketplace,” Furman noted at the time. “This simply substantiates what we and a lot of other people have known all along – this is a well-managed, sustainably-harvested, environmentally-neutral fishery that just happens to also produce a wonderful gourmet product.”

The next step is creating consumer awareness and demand for the brand.

Fishery leaders believe the MSC certification could provide a definite economic boost for what is already the state’s most valuable fishery, due to a growing trend in the retail, food service, and restaurant trade to offer products from sustainable fisheries certified by an independent entity using a proven scientific process. He sees it as a big step in the right direction, as more consumers demand seafood from fisheries that can prove their harvest and management practices meet high standards for sustainability.

In fact, some wholesalers and retailers are committing to – sometime in the not-too-distant future – selling only certified seafood, so having the MSC blue label on Dungeness crab should translate into future successful marketing venues.

Additional Sampling
ODFW officials said they would continue dockside and at-sea sampling this season to enhance data gathered from the on-going added sampling during preseason testing to help them learn more about the fishery and the crabs. Starting in 2010, they began sampling some of the pots in each test string “to document the quantity and species composition of all species caught in the pots,” including female and non-legal male Dungeness crabs. In 2010 and 2011, 302 pots were sampled and more than 8,000 crabs measured. Preliminary results showed the highest by-catch was non-legal Dungeness males, followed by Dungy females, other invertebrates such as sea urchins or octopuses, and several fish species.

“Even though by-catch rates in the fishery are thought to be low, they are not well-documented,” the annual ODFW Dungeness fishery newsletter noted. “Documentation of by-catch rates is a key component of all sustainable fisheries, and as such is a condition of the Oregon Dungeness crab fishery’s MSC certification.” ODFW will provide a summary report from the 2010, 2011 and 2012 season samplings for the second annual MSC fishery audit set for February 2013.

For now, crabbers say they are simply focused on the pending new season, and looking forward to getting gear in the water whenever they get the green light, most likely Dec. 12.

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