Pots sit as crab price is debated

By Adam Spencer, The Triplicate December 03, 2013 10:54 am

Harbor is staying quiet as neither side is budging so far

Seafood distributors are not budging from their initial price offer of $2.50 per pound for Dungeness crab, and Northern California’s crab fishing fleet isn’t backing down either.

A strike that has kept ports idle from Crescent City to Fort Bragg — boat crews could have started setting traps on Thanksgiving — continued Monday.

“Mostly we just don’t feel that $2.50 is a fair offer,” said Rick Shepherd, president of the Del Norte Fishermen’s Marketing Association. “All other crabs were being sold for $3 and Oregon is not fishing.”

Oregon and Washington fishery managers have delayed the opening of the commercial Dungeness season until at least Dec. 16 due to low meat content.

Bill Forkner, owner of a crabbing vessel and board member of the Salmon Trollers Marketing Association in Fort Bragg, said that if Oregon’s season is delayed another two weeks, Northern California fishermen will have “a little bargaining power.” If Oregon opens on Dec. 16 as currently scheduled, “things won’t look good for us,” Forkner said.

Another conference call among the crab fleet is scheduled for 4 p.m. today to decide if the strike will continue.

Forkner remembers seasons 15 years ago that opened at $2.50 per pound — the same as this year’s offer. Meanwhile, the price of going out to catch crabs has gone up, including fees for the implementation of a state crab trap limit program this year, which raised Forkner’s fees from $289 a year to just shy of $3,000.

Some fishermen are also anticipating a quiet crab season.

“We’re heading into a down-cycle with the crab right now. We’ve had a few good years in a row,” Forkner said. “ That’s kind of our fear this year is that we don’t have a lot of crab and we want to get paid for what we have.”

But Joe Caito, president of Caito Fisheries, one of the largest seafood distributors in Northern California, said that there could be plenty of crabs and buyers are simply offering what they feel matches the market.

“Nobody knows how many crabs are out there and we won’t know until we start, and you have to start reasonable,” Caito said. “There’s a price point that you can sell your product for.”

Since more and more crab is going to the frozen market, which sells for cheaper than the fresh market, buyers have to offer a price “based on what we think we can get for our frozen product,” Caito said. “There’s a lot of competition for frozen. Crab comes from all over the place — not just California.”

When frozen, West Coast Dungeness competes with other crab and lobster products that are much lower priced, Caito said, and there’s plenty of volume on the East Coast.

The combined landings of North American lobster from the United States and Canada in 2012 were more than 250 million pounds.

Buyers could pay $3 a pound if it was primarily going to the fresh market, but “fresh crab sales are practically nil right now,” Caito said, adding that after Thanksgiving, “sales pretty much stopped.”

Everyone involved with the Dungeness crab industry would probably agree on one thing: the beginning of crab season is, as Caito puts it, “stressful.”

Hundreds of workers employed by crab processors are out of work until the price dispute is settled. Caito employs around 400 workers at processing plants during the peak of season.

Fishermen have to maintain a mental preparedness for the little- to no-sleep frenzy that sets in during the first two weeks of Dungeness fishing. 

But price disputes are nothing new to the industry, and the last two Northern California crab seasons didn’t start until Jan. 15 anyway due to low meat content found during crab tests.

Caito likened it to pitching in the seventh game of the World Series. The pressure that comes with the build-up before that first pitch is almost immeasurable, but then it starts and it’s business as usual.

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