ILWACO — The commercial Dungeness crab season officially commenced over the weekend, ending a delay that stalled an early December start.

Commercial fishermen were eager to get the season started after a price agreement of $3 per pound was reached with processors Saturday, Dec. 28. The price followed an initial offer of $2.75, the same opening amount as last season.

Ports abuzz

By afternoon Saturday, local port docks were bustling with hopeful fishermen making final season preparations before heading to sea Sunday.

“Just the excitement of it. There’s no quotas, may the best man win,” said F/V Nordic Fox captain Cub Jansen, 29, when asked about the appeal of the commercial Dungeness crab fishery.

“It’s one of the last things you can do where hard work can really reward you.”

Jansen, with crew Dru Rowe, Larry Bell, Mitch Clark and Raj Clark, was among several commercial skippers crabbing out of the Port of Ilwaco for the first time. The location of the port, with easy access to crabbing grounds on both sides of the Columbia, was the biggest draw, said Jansen, who has dual permits to fish 1,000 pots in Oregon and Washington.

“It’s more logistically sound for us to fish both sides of the river versus being in Westport where I have to run 50 miles to get down here. We can turn right or left and be at both area fishing spots just like that,” he said.

The first few weeks of the commercial crab season are a grueling test of endurance. The hard work truly begins once the fishing grounds are reached, where hundreds of pots, each weighing more than 200 pounds, must be baited and set in order.

“The workload is heavy and it’s a lot of long hours and not a lot of sleep,” Jansen said. “The weather can be tough, too.”

Crabbers reported relatively good offshore conditions while setting pots over the weekend, especially compared to last year, when the season opened to rougher January seas. The Pacific got rougher on Tuesday, with a gale warning in effect. Combined seas were forecast to build to 20 feet Tuesday night and remain in the high teens through Friday.

The excitement and potential payoff of the fishery draws vessels from as far as Alaska. The Ilwaco-based F/V Rocky B was among several local and visiting crews loading hundreds of pounds of tuna collars for bait on Sunday morning.

“Tuna is really common — it’s nice and oily,” said F/V Chandalar deckand Jonathan Kingslend as he stuffed bag after bag with fist-sized frozen tuna bits. Kingslend was flanked by fellow crew James Sitz, Ted Thynes and newcomer Reid Broughton, who was crabbing commercially for the first time.

“I’ve been doing other fisheries my whole life, but crabbing is a big money maker, so I had to get in on it,” Broughton said.

Money vs. danger

Coastal economies benefit from a successful commercial crab season, which fetched more than $80 million in ex-vessel value between Oregon and Washington last season, bolstering communities from Westport to Brookings.

With conditions worsening offshore, the first fresh locally caught crab of the season are anticipated to arrive later this week or early next week, depending on the weather, according to local processors.

Fishery regulators said in mid-December that pots could be brought up starting at 9 a.m. on Dec. 31, but rough conditions might have kept smaller vessels in port.

The ability of larger out-of-area boats to operate in taller seas has been a perennial sore point among smaller Columbia River-based operations.

Luke Whittaker is a staff writer for Coast River Business Journal and the Chinook Observer. Contact him at 360-642-8181 or lwhittaker@crbizjournal.com.

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