Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Crabbers Clawing for Profitable Season

Landings exceed expectations, but leave few fishermen satisfied

By Terry Dillman

Despite predictions of a possible “bust” in a twice-delayed season, Oregon’s Dungeness crabbers have landed about 17 million pounds of the official state crustacean since January.

In a news release sent out April 5, Hugh Link, executive director of the Oregon Dungeness Crab Commission (ODCC), said those landings already exceed the 2011-2012 haul of 14.2 million pounds, with plenty of time remaining until the season closes in August. It’s also well above the average annual harvest of about 12 million pounds during the past three decades, and not far behind the 20.2 million pound annual average hauled in during the past decade.

Kelly Corbett, commercial crab project leader for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW)’s Marine Resources Program, said the numbers are preliminary estimates, not yet official tallies. But they indicate a better overall season than originally expected, given the late start and poor early catches.

Dungeness crabs are found in commercial quantities from Alaska southward to just beyond San Francisco, California.

Dungeness season typically opens on December 1, but in mid-November, fishery managers from Washington, Oregon and California jointly 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. Crabs at all test sites must meet the criteria to be considered ideal for harvest.

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

Officials called for a second delay on December 10, when more tests indicated that crabs in Washington and northern California needed more time to fill out their shells. Regulations allow for delays off the Oregon and Washington coasts and California’s northern coast if tests show the crabs have soft shells or fail to reach meat quality standards. The delay extended to January 15 (the latest the season can open) in northern California after another round of tests revealed that crabs from Mendocino County northward still lacked enough meat for harvest.

Those restrictions don’t apply to the Dungeness crab season from Sonoma County, California southward, where the season opened November 15.

The season had 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, but results have varied elsewhere - an initial disappointment given an opening price of $2.30 per pound that matched last year’s record-setter.

Crabbers from Astoria to Coos Bay say quality is excellent, but early hauls were meager, with some pots coming up empty on the very first pull in what most say is a highly unusual circumstance. While first picks weren’t the greatest, things picked up for some, but not for others during the season’s first eight weeks, which is when crabbers and processors say most of the catch is landed.

“We had a pretty good season,” said Corey Rock, skipper of the F/V Kylie Lynn out of Newport, Oregon. “Overall, though, it was a down year for most everybody.”

Rock hauled in about 200,000 pounds of the official state crustacean, but noted that many others “were lucky to get half of that.” He pointed to the cyclical nature of the fishery, indicating that most crabbers expected a “normal year” – perhaps even fewer landings than last season as the cycle bottomed out.

The last time the season began this late was in 2005-2006, when it opened December 31, Link said. This year’s delay, he noted, while disappointing, would likely “turn out best for everyone concerned,” especially consumers, who would get better quality crabs as a result.

He expected high quality, if not high numbers.

Crabbers perspectives about landings varied from port to port, said Link. “Some say it’s down, some say it’s up,” he added. “It depends on who you talk to and where.”

Crabbers say quality everywhere is “as good as we ever see,” but numbers fluctuate, depending on location.

Crabbers like Rock and John Corbin – a 35-year veteran fisherman and member of the ODCC crabbing out of Astoria – are well aware of the cyclical nature of the Dungeness crab population, and they expect drop-offs in landings after a boom, and pragmatically ride the ups and downs of the crab population.

The Oregon Department of Agriculture (ODA) plays a pivotal role in supervising negotiations for the season-opening crab price, which is vital to 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.

That can change dramatically if the season is delayed.

Crabbers hoped for a repeat of last season’s market value, but with higher landings. They also knew anything could happen, considering the nature of the fishery and vagaries of the market, weather and other factors, including crab quality. Fishery leaders also note that successive high yield years can flood the market, pinching prices and leading to holdover inventories.

Even though initial landings seemed off for many, if not most crabbers, this year’s delay seemingly didn’t hurt demand or market value.

At the end of the first week of the season, Joe Thompson, who was hauling crabs into Newport aboard F/V Ranger, said the “small guys” were doing all right.

Prices rose from the record-tying opener of $2.30 per pound to $2.50 per pound rather quickly, and by the time Thompson brought in his third haul of 3,000 pounds, his buyer was offering $2.70.
“Each time, it goes higher,” he noted.

Demand this year is as high as ever, Link agreed, which boded well for the bottom line, even if landings ended up somewhat below average.

“No one is being turned down, so they (buyers and processors) must think they can sell it,” he noted in January. “It’s a different market when you miss Christmas, but things have changed. The influence of live buyers may take up any slack.”

They haven’t.

“The export market for live crab has cooled down somewhat, after a big expansion last year that pushed the ‘boat price’ of Dungeness up to previously unseen levels as the season progressed and landings decreased,” Link stated in April. “Fortunately, the domestic market seems to be holding its own as word about the culinary merits of the West Coast’s favorite shellfish continues to resonate around the country.”

He pointed to Bon Appetit magazine, which recently ranked Dungeness crab at number 20 on their list of 25 “food trends” for 2013, dubbing it “The King of Crustaceans”.

“Sorry, Maine lobsters, Carolina blue crabs and Georgia shrimp, but Dungeness crab rules the crustacean kingdom. Chefs across America have caught on, tossing it with pasta, piling it on grilled toast, even smoking it,” Andrew Knowlton noted in the January issue.

Analysts say demand remains high and market prices are good, which should mean another excellent year in to-the-boat value.

Landing Value

ODCC represents about 350 limited entry crab permit holders, who fish primarily within 10 miles of Oregon’s coast. Washington has 228 licensed commercial crabbers, with about 200 of them active in the fishery, say Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife officials. California’s fleet currently has about 190 active vessels, according to stats from the California Fish and Game Department.

Those who go out are all vying for a piece of the market in this highly competitive fishery.

Oregon, however, 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 more nationwide appeal in restaurants and other seafood outlets, including supermarket chains.

An industry marketing partnership with the Oregon Department of Agriculture (ODA) focuses 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 live markets in Japan, Korea and China.

They are working to change the marketing scenario, Link said, and part of the effort involved obtaining the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) certification 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. The certification process focuses on three principles: health of the fishery stock, fishery management, and the effects of the fishery on the overall ecosystem.

Oregon’s 6,549 landings last season 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.

Link said it translated into at least an $84 million boost to Oregon’s economy, factoring in processing plants, trucking companies, marine stores and other support industries involved.

The season also started almost two weeks late in 2010-11 as representatives from five port crab marketing associations and seven seafood processing companies negotiated the delay to start of with an opening price of $1.675 per pound – 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 fleet landed 21.2 million pounds and exceeded 20 million pounds for the fifth time in the past 10 seasons.

“Strong demand in the marketplace pushed boat prices up, so although fishermen caught fewer crabs, they made more money,” noted Link.

The to-the-boat harvest value reached almost $49 million – 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.

A quick look at the past eight seasons shows 33.7 million pounds harvested in 2004-05 with an average weighted price of $1.57 per pound, followed by 27.5 million pounds at $1.57 in 2005-06; 15.1 million pounds at $2.18 in 2006-07; 12.3 million pounds at $2.39 in 2007-08; 12.9 million pounds at $2 in 2008-09; 23.2 million pounds at $1.93 in 2009-10; 21.3 million pounds at $2 in 2010-11; and 14.2 million pounds at $2.95 last season.

So far, this season’s haul is worth more than $43 million dollars to crabbers from Astoria to Brookings. Link said fishermen in Brookings are leading the way and “for the first time in years,” with landings of 4.7 million pounds worth $12.1 million dollars to the fleet in that southern Oregon coastal community. Newport, Astoria and Charleston, respectively, follow Brookings in terms of landings and catch-value.

Link said the haul shows that Oregon’s Dungeness fishery “certainly lives up to the fishery’s well-earned reputation for healthy stocks and significant economic contributions to Oregon’s coastal economies.”  

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