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Here’s why the West Coast Dungeness crab season has been delayed

crab.jpg
Arya Surowidjojo
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OPB
A crab pot with caught Dungeness crab inside, off the port of Port Orford.

Oregon’s most valuable commercial fishery, Dungeness crab, will have its season delayed from its traditional Dec. 1 start date because of low meat yields.

Testing shows the crabs in some ocean areas off the West Coast don’t have enough meat in them to satisfy the commercial market.

In some areas, testing also showed elevated levels of the naturally occurring toxin domoic acid, which can make the crabs unsafe to eat.

Carin Braby, marine resources program manager with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, said officials will continue to test for meat yield and domoic acid in the coming weeks, and the results will determine whether the season needs to be delayed beyond Dec. 16. Right now, she said, some parts of the Oregon coast still have biotoxins from a big biotoxin event this fall, and other areas have crabs with low meat fill.

“So, even though some small parts of Oregon might be ready to open, we’re going to be conservative and delay a couple of weeks, test again, and see when we can open the fishery,” Braby said.

ODFW conducts tests out of six major crabbing ports in partnership with the Oregon Dungeness Crab Commission and the Oregon Department of Agriculture. Oregon, California and Washington coordinate on commercial season opening dates, and the other states will also be delaying their crab season until at least Dec. 16.

Last year, Oregon’s Dungeness crab season opened on time and delivered a record-setting $90 million in crab thanks to unusually high prices. Braby said the average value of Oregon’s crab landings is typically $50-60 million.

“This year we don’t anticipate the price being so high,” Braby said. “But there is a snow crab closure in the Gulf of Alaska, and that could increase the value of Dungeness crab this season.”

Hugh Link, the outgoing director of the Oregon Dungeness Crab Commission, said it’s better for everyone involved in the industry if the meat yield is high before fishing begins.

“We like to wait until they’re ready with the best possible meat fill before we open up the season,” he said. “It’s a win-win-win for everybody, the fishermen, the processors and the consumer.”

Braby said phytoplankton blooms happen every year, but now they are often accompanied by harmful algal blooms that produce the domoic acid toxin.

“The research that’s been done on those suggests that we will see that more and more with climate change,” she said. “The warmer conditions and the acidified water will promote the harmful algal bloom species and the toxin production. It’s going to get incrementally worse.

Link said the problem of domoic acid has been growing over the past 10 years, and he’s hoping ongoing research by marine biologist Francis Chan at Oregon State University will shed new light on the impacts of climate change on the crab fishery.

Chan was recently awarded $4.2 million to study how the fishing industry can prepare for future ocean conditions with multiple stressors affecting Dungeness crab including ocean acidification, low oxygen conditions, marine heatwaves, rising ocean temperatures and harmful algal blooms.

“We know that the climate is changing, and it is impacting our marine resources,” Chan said in a statement. “This work is all about how we can best position the Dungeness crab fishery to be more resilient to these changes. At the conclusion of this work, we hope to have answers to help fishermen and managers get to a climate-ready fishery.”

High levels of domoic acid recently triggered the closure of recreational crabbing in bays and estuaries on the southern coast of Oregon from just north of Winchester Bay to the California border. Domoic acid levels have also closed razor clamming statewide.

Alex Manderson, shellfish specialist with the Oregon Department of Agriculture, said the state will need two weeks of crab tests showing safe levels of domoic acid before it can open the crabbing season.

“We have had a number of crab delays and closures in the last few years,” he said. “It’s almost become expected. We do have a biotoxin closure on the South Coast. We will be resampling and hopefully that will clean up.”

Copyright 2022 Oregon Public Broadcasting. To see more, visit Oregon Public Broadcasting.

A graph from the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife shows the amount of Dungeness crab landed in Oregon historically and the value to the commercial boats.
Courtesy of Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife /
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A graph from the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife shows the amount of Dungeness crab landed in Oregon historically and the value to the commercial boats.