By Kent Gray

Triplicate staff writer

What promises to be a busy crab season got under way Monday when buyers and fishermen agreed on a price.

Forklift operators raced up and down a frenzied Citizens Dock yesterday hauling crab pots while hoist operators loaded fishing boats.

Pacific Choice finally agreed to $1.60 per pound, said Manager Michael Freels of Caito Fisheries while he helped load the fishing vessel, Banshee. Once they got a negotiated price, everyone agreed to go.

Freels said the boats began lining up Monday, and by Tuesday much of the boat basin was empty.

The negotiated price is close to what fishermen got last year, according to Pacific Choice Seafood. The complicated scenario for setting a price involves Pacific Choice, the major buyer on the West Coast, fishermen out of Newport, Ore., who own some of the larger boats, tribes that are allowed by law to jump ahead of the season and groups up and down the coast, like the Del Norte Fishermens Marketing Association.

There was a mixed reaction by fishermen to the agreed-upon price yesterday.

Im not really happy with it, said Windy DeWolf of the fishing vessel, Sunset. I guess you get what you get.

Owner Doug Pike of the Banshee was more optimistic. Yeah, its OK. It could have been lower but this is a starting point. It can only go up from here. Hopefully by the weekend it will be up to $2.

A price was also agreed upon in the Bay Area last week where fishermen accepted $1.88 per pound. Fishermen there began by asking for $2.25 per pound. A failure to agree on a price had kept crab-fishing boats moored in Bodega Bay, where the season opened on Nov. 15.

Dungeness season in Del Norte, Humboldt and Mendocino counties opens on the first Saturday preceding Dec. 1, or on Dec. 1 when it falls on a Saturday.

In Oregon, in an attempt to salvage a possible prize season, the crabbing fleet went to sea early Tuesday after deciding on a price with seafood buyers.

Many fishermen had hoped to get $1.75 per pound, but a $1.60 offer from a southern Oregon buyer was enough for them to decide to drop their pots.

Its amazing that the coast held together as much as it did, said Dale Beasley, president of the 500-member Columbia River Crab Fishermens Association. Crabbers are fiercely independent and theres only a limited supply of crabs out there.

Processors opened negotiations when the crabbing season began Dec. 1. They started with an offer of $1.25 a pound. By Friday, some were offering as much as $1.50.

Prices traditionally move upward as the season progresses and catch numbers taper off, but this years financial forecast is still sagging by at least 10 percent to 15 percent from last year, when the average price per pound in Oregon was $2.12. In Washington, the average price was $2.34.

Crabbers waited until Dec. 18 to fish last year but they werent waiting for better prices. The season was postponed because of soft shells and low meat content.

This year, the crab are big, full of meat and of excellent quality, said Nick Furman of the Oregon Dungeness Crab Commission. Juvenile populations also are in healthy abundance, signaling strong seasons to come.

Weather is another factor to be reckoned with during crab season. Tuesday, four people were thrown overboard off the coast of Newport, Ore. when their crabbing boat, the Nesiqa, capsized in 10-foot seas. Two other crab boats, two Coast Guard vessels and a helicopter are searching for the missing four. No names have been released.

Weather predictions may eventually improve, but the countrys sluggish economy is showing little promise for a better market.

Dungeness crab has always been considered a luxury item, said Doug Heater, local buyer for Bornstein Seafoods. White-tablecloth business has been way off for about the last three months.

Fresh crab is predicted to sell through the holidays, but Heater said demand is bound to slip in the coming weeks.

Another setback: Many processors also have an unusually large amount of left-over frozen stock, due to an unusually large catch in Canada and Alaska late last season.

Associated Press writers contributed to this report.