Smaller crabs and bad weather are delaying the start of crabbing for Washington and Oregon, but fishermen seem to be optimistic after last year’s record-breaking season.
Fishermen could start setting up their Dungeness crab gear Jan. 1 — a month later than usual — because crab were under the legal size and molted late. That means the loss of the lucrative Christmas market. And even then they couldn’t start pulling traps on Friday, when stormy weekend weather kept some crabbers from harvesting their catch.
Steve Manewal, manager of the South Bend Products processing plant in Chinook, didn’t start receiving crab shipments until Saturday afternoon.
“People want to work; the boats want to work; and their crews need money,” Manewal said, adding that he’s confident enough crabs will be caught despite the delay. “Crabs aren’t like salmon; they aren’t going to go up the river and spawn.”
In the southern third of Oregon Coast and parts of California, the season remains delayed because crabs haven’t met weight requirements yet (about a quarter of the crab’s weight has to be meat before fisherman can set gear), said Troy Buell, state fishery management program leader for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.
Crabbing season also saw a delay last year for the same reason, but Buell said Oregon still saw the highest crab value ever. ODFW tallied more than 20 million pounds of crab harvested last year, a standard amount, that was valued at $74.2 million at Oregon ports, exceeding the annual average by over $30 million.
In Washington, the 2017-2018 crab season brought in $12 million in the Columbia River area and $171 million statewide, according to the Pacific Fisheries Information Network.
Dungeness crabbing season usually begins in December and ends in September. The 2018 season started late due to the crab molting process taking longer than expected.
“We’re not sure why. Sometimes that’s an indication that you’re going to have a very strong season,” Dan Ayres, coastal shellfish manager for the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife, said in a commercial fishery publication last year.
Generally, about 75 percent of crab is landed during the first two months of the season. Much of the catch is frozen by processors who will later pull crab out of the freezer during the year, process it and remove the meat, then put it on the market.
“This is an important fishery to each of our states,” Ayers said. “Economically in Washington, it’s the largest commercial fishery that we manage in value of the product that’s landed.”
Based on preseason and early testing, the volume of crab seems to be about the same as last year, Buell said, but the ODFW won’t have price data until the second week of January.
Manewal said South Bend Products — which sells crab meat picked from shells as opposed to whole or sectioned crab — is selling its crab for $2.75 a pound, the same price as the start of last year’s season. He said he believes other commercial crab fisheries up and down the coast are also selling for a similar price to last year.
“Normally, prices are lower at the start, then trickle up and are down again when (fishermen) get to the last of the crab,” Manewal said.
But it’s still too early in the season to tell if prices will follow the same trend this year. The first month or so of the season is a good indicator, though.
“I think it’s going to be a decent season, but as far as how much crab is there and how much they’re getting paid for it, it’s still too early to tell,” Buell said.
Manewell said the crab condition is “okay, but not great” starting the season — he said they seem to be smaller than average and even smaller than last year.
He’s not concerned, though, because the average size is different for each year. While that might affect prices for sellers of whole cooked crab, Manewal said, South Bend sales are more stable because they only sell the meat.
Most crab fisherman aren’t on quota systems, Manewal said, so each season is unique.
In Oregon, the season runs until Aug. 14. Washington crabbers can continue until Sept. 15.