Crab season gets under way

By Adam Spencer, The Triplicate December 16, 2013 06:13 pm

Opening buying price raised, but fishermen get less than they wanted

Del Norte Triplicate / Bryant Anderson Crab boats, above and below, head out of Crescent City Harbor on Thursday soon after an opening price for crab was agreed on.
Del Norte Triplicate / Bryant Anderson Crab boats, above and below, head out of Crescent City Harbor on Thursday soon after an opening price for crab was agreed on.
Ending a 12-day strike that kept boats at port, Northern California Dungeness crab fishermen from Crescent City to Fort Bragg started setting crab traps Thursday morning after the North Coast fleet and seafood buyers agreed on an opening price of $2.65 per pound.

The opening price is lower than the $3 per pound that the North Coast fleet had been asking for but higher than the $2.50 price that was originally offered by seafood distributors.

“It’s too bad we didn’t get closer to our three dollars, but we’ll go make the best of it for now,” said Randy Smith, a representative for the crab fleet in Crescent City, which has far more Dungeness crab landings than any other port in California. There is some disappointment among the fleet, he said, but he is “happy to go fishing.”

Just minutes after a 9 a.m. Thursday conference call between processors and the Northern California fishing fleet, dozens of crab vessels started to pour out of Crescent City Harbor.  By 10:30 a.m., only a few boats remained, with the rest racing to set pots in their favorite fishing grounds.

Oregon crab fishermen were  allowed to start setting traps on Friday with their season opening on Dec. 16.

Safe and hospitable weather conditions welcomed the fishermen with the Pacific offering lake-like conditions Thursday and Friday. The beginning of the season, when crab boats are top-heavy with crab traps stacked high, can be extremely dangerous in high seas. The West Coast’s Dungeness crab fishery has the highest fatalities per capita of any fishery on the West Coast — deadlier than the Discovery Channel’s “Deadliest Catch,” which films the Alaskan king crab fishery.

“The ocean is beautiful, the sun is shining, and you don’t get any better ocean conditions  than this,” said Richard Nehmer, owner of the fishing vessel Resolution in Crescent City.

The lights of Crescent City’s crab fleet decorated the Thursday night horizon as boats worked from dusk to dawn to get all of their traps set.

The $2.65 price was reached Wednesday night after three days of state-mediated negotiations between fishermen and seafood processors in Oregon. The price is 35 cents higher than last year and the highest price ever agreed upon for Oregon’s opening.

 Once Oregon fishery managers decided that Dungeness crab had enough meat content to start the season on Dec. 16, Northern California fishermen, whose season would have started Dec. 1 if not for the price dispute, recognized that their opening price would probably be determined by the negotiations mediated by the Oregon Dungeness Crab Commission.

“It is what it is. We really had no bearing,” Smith said.

Seafood buyers agreed to offer Northern California fishermen the same price to get the season started, according to Rick Harris, the general manager of processing on the West Coast for Pacific Seafood, which led the negotiations as the West Coast’s largest buyer of Dungeness.

Harris said that there was market concern about the profitability of selling Dungeness in frozen sections if bought above the initial offer of $2.50 a pound.

“As the market has remained stable, it has not been widely acceptable to increased pricing,” Harris said Thursday by email. “That is what makes buyers nervous above the $2.50 level. The compromise for the $2.65 is a combination of market concern and the volume of crab that is believed to be landed.”

After a few record years for Dungeness crab landings in what is known to be a cyclical fishery, and reports from recreational crabbers that the volume is low, fishermen and buyers are expecting a down year.

“There is a pretty strong coast-wide belief that landings will be down this year and with less crab in the market we hope the consumer will respond and pay a higher price for what we do produce,” Harris said.

Although it was still too early to tell how much volume will come out of the North Coast during this year’s crab season, initial indications looked bleak.

Kevin Wilson, manager of Norcal Seafood’s operations in Crescent City, was unloading the first haul of Dungeness just after 4 p.m. Friday.

“They’re not catching much,” Wilson said. “Sounds like it’s over before it started.”

Wilson said that almost all of the crab purchased by Norcal goes to the live market, first getting shipped to a  distribution center in Oakland, then onto markets far and wide that demand crab. A significant amount of crab often gets shipped to Las Vegas, Wilson said.

Prices paid to fishermen are likely to go up soon if this year’s crab catch continues to look meager, Wilson said.

To purchase fresh crab locally, contact or visit Albers Seafood in Crescent City Harbor or the new Crescent City Crab Shack in the former yellow Beacon Burger building off Anchor Way.

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