Waiting on shrimp

Fishermen prepare for transition into new season

NEWPORT — At sea, patience is the motto of Brad Crisp, captain of the F/V Lady Kaye, an 80-foot Newport-based trawler that specializes in landing pink shrimp and Dungeness crab off the ocean floor.

With the crab season beginning to wane, Crisp admits he’s getting a little fidgety when docked, as the vessel and his two-man crew prepare for the upcoming shrimp season at the Port of Newport’s International Terminal.

When the Ted Gibson-owned vessel is dropping pots in search of crab, it remains offshore for 24 hours at a time, while shrimping is primarily a four-day exercise during daylight hours only.

The crab season is scheduled annually to begin on the first day of December, but lengthy delays have occurred during the last three years because of the presence of domoic acid, a biotoxin that settles in the crustacean’s guts.

Delays in the pink shrimp season have also occurred over the last three years, including an expected month or two this year because of lengthy price negotiations and the need to allow more time for the tiny creatures to mature.

Plus, stormy weather and rough seas loomed over the last few days. A few boats in search of crab ventured out Monday night after a calm, warm day, but wind and rain returned Tuesday and continued through the week.

Switching gear

The shrimp season annually opens on April 1, “but we didn’t get to shrimping until late May last year and that could happen again this year. But it does give us some time to switch our gear over from crab to shrimp.”

Then wait, and wait some more.

Crisp said he and his crew are now ready to go fishing after they completed that three-day transition over the weekend, but after 31 years (20 in Newport) of fishing West Coast waters he has acquired a degree of tolerance.

“It’s too early to tell and I won’t speculate,” he said in response to what the upcoming season holds. “Last year the season was supposed to open on April 1, but we didn’t get shrimp until late May.”

Crisp is hesitant to prognosticate because the landings of pink shrimp — harvested off the Oregon coast since 1957 — have decreased dramatically during the last two years.

There was a highly productive five-year stretch that ended in 2015 with 53 million pounds landed, and an annual average of 30 million pounds over the last 30 years.

But according to the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW), El Niño conditions offshore led to a decreased harvest of 37 million pounds in 2016 and 23.1 million pounds last year.

ODFW cautions that the abundance of pink shrimp — which have a four-year lifespan — is difficult to predict year-to-year because larvae that survive depend on oceanographic conditions in the year they are born.

The Oregon shrimping fleet of 64 vessels made 754 individual trips last year, centered primarily on the southern areas of the stock.

However, more than 8 million pounds were delivered to the Port of Newport, compared to 8.3 million pounds for boats that call the Port of Charleston home.

A solid boat

The Lady Kaye is a double-rigged shrimper that tows two small-meshed (1 ½-inch), 90-foot-long nets just above the ocean floor in search of small, pink cocktail shrimp that will be sold to Pacific Shrimp.

“Some boats drag for bottom fish, too, but not us,” Crisp said. “Our catch capacity is 100,000 pounds of shrimp and we usually average 80 to 90 thousand pounds per trip.”

The rugged, steel vessel usually fishes 20-to-25 miles offshore, he said, “with an average range of 60 to 120 fathoms. We usually go out for four days at a time.”

Shrimping occurs strictly during daylight hours because pink shrimp are bottom dwellers, except at night when they migrate upward to feed.

When full, the nets are hoisted by the vessel’s steel, twin outriggers, which are located on both sides of the pilothouse’s stern.

The shrimp are then emptied onto a hopper and a sorting machine before traveling along a conveyor belt into a large hold full of ice.

“There are a lot of moving parts,” Crisp said, “but it’s a simple process because the submerged ‘doors’ on each side of the net spreads it open so it can be emptied onboard.”

Like other shrimpers, Crisp believes the use of LEDs (light emitting diode) fishing lights and nets with BRDs (bycatch reduction devices) have nearly eliminated the accidental harvest of bottomfish.

“All I can say is that we’re ready to go,” Crisp said before jumping into a pickup with other fishermen bound for lunch.

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