COLUMBIA PACIFIC - Columbia River Dungeness crab fishermen and processors reached an agreement on pricing Friday, sending fishermen out after a month of waiting for the crab to meet quality requirements and after an added week of price negotiations.

"We got out and started getting gear in the water," said John Corbin, a crab fisherman out of Warrenton, Ore., although he added that the bad weather today has brought the fleet back into port.

Some fishermen are already harvesting crab, said Doug Heater, sales manager at Bornstein Seafoods, who said the Astoria plant landed crab Sunday night and this morning.

"We do have really good quality crab," he said, adding that the volume was good in some places, but less than expected in others. "With one day under our belt, it's impossible to predict" the volume for the season, he said.

The Astoria facility hired 50 people today to process the crab, he said, and workers are cooking the crab to be on shelves Tuesday, if not this evening.

The starting price that the fishermen are getting for Dungeness is $1.35 a pound.

"We'd always like to have more," said Corbin. "Our expenses are up so high this year and $1.35 is going to be cutting it pretty close." However, the fishermen and processors agreed to start at that price.

Price agreements were also reached in Newport and Coos Bay, although Heater said there were still concerns about quality and price in Crescent City, Calif.

The season already has been delayed for weeks.

"This is a pretty big day for us because we've been sitting here for so long," said Al Pazar of Florence, Ore., chairman of the Oregon Dungeness Crab Commission, on Friday.

He said Newport crabbers and processors had agreed on an opening price of $1.35 a pound, about 12 cents a pound less than the average paid last year.

Depending on volumes caught, demand and other factors, the price could shift significantly as the season progresses.

Price negotiations overseen by the state broke down last month, and representatives of fishermen and processors have met intermittently.

As time went on, Pazar said, it became clear that worldwide market conditions wouldn't support the opening price that crab fishermen sought.

Underweight crabs, rough weather and the price per pound have kept 400-plus vessels in port since Dec. 1, the traditional opening of crab season on the Oregon Coast.

"Everybody's been on edge because we're five weeks into the season, and nobody's caught any crab or bought any crab," said Nick Furman, executive director of the crab commission.

Washington fishermen landed a record 25 million pounds of crab in the 2004-05 season. The average is about 9.5 million pounds.

One of the most important commercial fisheries in Washington, the commercial Dungeness crab fishery has an average (1990-2002) ex-vessel value of approximately $19.9 million, according to the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. There are 228 Washington coastal commercial Dungeness crab license holders with approximately 200 fishers who are active participants in this highly competitive fishery.

Oregon fishermen caught a record 33.7 million pounds of Dungeness crab last year. Last year's average price fell from $1.65 a pound the year before and from a high of $2.12 a pound in 2001.

Crabbers had hoped to get $1.50 a pound this year, particularly with a sharp increase in the cost of diesel fuel. Furman said bait and insurance also cost more this year.

"Nobody is expecting the same kind of production this year as last year," Furman said.

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