Crab season opener delayed

Colton Stites, with the F/V Pacific Rim II, puts identification numbers on crab pot buoys he repainted on Friday, in preparation for the start of the commercial Dungeness crab season. That same day, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife announced the start of the season is being delayed until at least Dec. 16 because of a low meat yield in crabs. Crab pots are stacked up along Newport’s Yaquina Bay, ready to be loaded onto fishing boats for the start of the commercial Dungeness crab season. (Photos by Steve Card)

Testing reveals low meat yield

Oregon Coast — The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife announced on Friday, Nov. 20, that the start of the commercial Dungeness crab season has been delayed until at least Dec. 16 for the entire Oregon coast, as testing shows crabs are too low in meat yield. The earliest the season could have gotten underway would have been Dec. 1, but it’s increasingly rare that the commercial crab season starts on time.

“I don’t think we’ve opened on time since 2014,” Troy Buell, ODFW state fisheries manager, said. 

Testing of crabs prior to the opening of the season usually starts around the second week in November at multiple spots along the entire coast, Buell said. “They’re not all exactly the same size or have the same number of individual stations per area, but we have eight test areas that we do. This year, we had three of them that didn’t quite meet the criteria — Port Orford, what we call Newport south and Astoria.”

Even when some of the crabs tested don’t meet the criteria for opening the season, ODFW has the ability to open just a portion of the coastal waters, but that wasn’t practical this year.

“We’d like to see — and the industry is on the same page — at least a third of the coast, if not more, to be able to open at a time,” Buell said. “Just the way these (initial findings) are distributed, there’s really not anywhere that that can happen.”

On a positive note, Buell believes crabs with low meat yield could be n indicator there are more of them. “We think there’s a relationship between how many crab are out there and how fast they fill out. The last season we were able to open on time was also a low volume season. When you get a high density of crab, they’re not able to get as much food and fill out as quickly.”

Buell said another reason it’s becoming more common for the start of the season to be delayed “is that we’ve tightened up the criteria to really provide a lot more confidence that the crab are ready for market.” ODFW used to conduct two tests and then set an opening date based on a projection of when they thought the crab would be ready. “That kind of projection method created a lot of uncertainty for industry about what was actually in the water when they were getting ready open,” he said. A number of years ago, they changed that criteria, “so basically you have to have a test that shows the crab are ready to go, instead of a projection.

“We knew that was going to lead to more delays, just by the nature of it, so I think that’s a big part of what happened,” Buell added. “It’s given the industry a lot more confidence in the quality of crab that are out there, but it’s also created the situation where we have delays almost every year.”

Buell was asked about moving the starting date to later in the year. “We’ve had those discussions with industry, of pushing that back and just not even trying for Dec. 1 anymore,” he said. “We did talk to folks about having either a Dec. 15 or Jan. 1 target for the opening day. In general, they still want to go crabbing on Dec. 1 if they can. And there’s a holiday market for Dungeness crab if they can get out there and get them in time, so they didn’t want to lose the potential for that.”

Crabs were also tested for domoic acid along the entire coast, and all samples were found to be safe for human consumption. However, due to elevated levels of domoic acid detected in razor clams in some areas, testing in Dungeness crabs will continue regularly north of Cape Perpetua.

“There was a harmful algal bloom that we detected in the last month or so, and it did spike domoic acid levels in razor clams (along the north coast). The storms have now broken that bloom up and the cells are dying, and there’s not a lot of domoic acid in the water,” Buell said. “So we’ve got our fingers crossed that it’s not going to make its way into the crab, but we’re going to still be continuing to test crab on the north coast for domoic acid, just to make sure.”

A second round of crab quality testing will occur after Thanksgiving, and results will be used to determine if the season should open Dec. 16, be further delayed, or be split into areas with different opening dates.

Commercial Dungeness crab is Oregon’s most valuable fishery. The 2019 season opening was delayed to Dec. 31 and still brought in the second highest ex-vessel value ever ($72.7 million) with just under 20 million pounds landed, about 12 percent above the 10-year average.

Oregon, California and Washington coordinate Dungeness crab quality testing and the commercial season opening dates. California and Washington also are delaying their commercial seasons to at least Dec. 16.

In conjunction with the delayed ocean commercial season, commercial harvest of Dungeness crab in Oregon bays that are currently open will close at 12:01 a.m. Dec. 1, but may reopen if the ocean commercial fishery opens in December.

Recreational Dungeness crab harvest in the ocean off Oregon opens Dec. 1 as scheduled in all areas. Recreational crab harvesting is currently open coastwide in bays and estuaries, and on beaches, docks, piers and jetties. Before heading out, recreational crabbers should always call the Shellfish Hotline (800-448-2474) or visit the ODA Recreational Shellfish Biotoxin Closures webpage at tinyurl.com/y54db5gz before crabbing.

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