Crabbers to sail into storm

PHOTO BY SHELBY WOLFE/Newport News-Times | A fisherman aboard the Two Sisters loads crab pots onto the boat at Port of Newport on Wednesday, Jan. 2.

NEWPORT — Fishermen face high seas and uncertain prices as they set out Friday, Jan. 4, for the opening day of Dungeness crab season.

“The weather’s been terrible but we hope to be processing by Friday night,” reported John Moody, manager of Pacific Seafood Group’s plant in Newport.

A score of vessels left port under sunny skies Tuesday to drop pots for the “pre-soak,” enabling fishermen to land crab at the opening bell. But 50-55 mph gusts and 20-foot swells that were predicted to arrive Thursday night could mean further holdups for some boats.

“Fishermen could care less about rain — it’s the wind and swells that dictate to us what we’re going to do,” remarked fisherman John Corbin, chairman of the Oregon Crab Commission.

Driven by growing domestic and Far East markets, Oregon crab fishermen landed over 23 million pounds of Dungeness crab in 2017, well above the 10-year average of 16 million pounds. Newport accounted for 7.4 million pounds worth $22.8 million, according to Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife figures.

Negotiations over a universal crab price were unsuccessful, according to a spokesman for the state Market Access and Certification Program, which oversees talks between fishermen’s groups and processors. As a result, fishermen will haggle directly with buyers. Last year’s season average was $3.22 per pound, though buyers seeking live crab for China paid up to $9.50 lb. for late-season crab in 2017.

“For the last three or four years we haven’t been able to come up with an agreement, so the fishermen negotiate individually with their processors,” Corbin explained. “Sometimes the market is an open ticket that sets itself.”

According to the crab commission, a marketing agency, China purchased 40 percent of the Oregon crab catch in 2017.

About 400 permits for commercial crab fishing in Oregon are issued by ODFW. Besides Newport, Dungeness crab are processed in Astoria, Warrenton, Coos Bay, Brookings, Port Orford and Garibaldi. In 2017, vessels ranging in size from 20-ft. dory boats to 100-foot ships landed crab worth $74 million at the dock.

The Dec. 1 opener was delayed last month by the ODFW over short-lived signs of domoic acid and low meat volumes in southern Oregon crab samples, as well as pockets of light crab off the north coast. Coming off of the fourth consecutive delayed season, Corbin said the historic December kickoff for crab season could become a distant memory amid tighter regulations and marketing pressures.

“In the old days when I started 49 years ago crab fishing was wide open,” asserted Corbin, who said fishermen work closely with regulators to assure a top-notch commodity. “We adjust ourselves to make sure the product is the best it can be, safe and of great quality.”

Corbin said adverse weather to start is unlikely to stop the crab fleet entirely.

“The amount of weather any fisherman can take is dependent on the amount of crab coming up in the pot, and we’ll put up with a lot at the beginning of the season,” he said. “As the season drops off, though, 35-35 knot winds become unbearable.”

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