ILWACO — Local commercial Dungeness crab fishermen overcame challenging weather conditions over the weekend in delivering their first catch of the season.
Washington and Oregon crabbers set gear during the three-day “soak” period over the New Year’s holiday under blue skies, but then faced stormy weather leading up to the official opening of the fishery on Friday.
Hauling up pots and bringing them back to port requires herculean efforts by crabbers, who often work multiple 20-hour-plus days to start the season. Some crabbers encountered estimated 30-foot breakers coming back across the Columbia River bar over the weekend. Intense conditions are also predicted this week, with a gale warning throughout the day Wednesday along with 20-foot seas.
The first boats trickled into at local ports Saturday and Sunday with more arriving Monday as weather improved. The fishing vessel Kaisha Lenae was first back to Ilwaco Landing, and the Leigh High was first to Ilwaco Fish Co.
“It wasn’t all rainbows and butterflies,” said Buck & Ann captain Dennis Rice, who delivered a vessel “plugged” with an estimated 35,000 pounds of Dungeness crab Monday, Dec. 7 at Ilwaco Landing. Rice, 36, of Ocean Park, said they endured 60-mile-per-hour winds and rough seas for several hours over the weekend while fishing with crew Logan Fischer, Wayne Harris, Granville Vandermeulen and Josh Gover.
“We got the s**t kicked out of us,” Rice said. “We were on the beach and just kind of jogged back and forth until it got nice enough to haul gear again.”
The rough seas and weather are typical for January, Rice said, now in his 17th year of fishing.
“It was slow crabbing but we still did good. Not all that great of numbers on the first pick — probably had a lot to due with weather.”
In spite of the slower start, Rice was eager to return to sea.
“As soon as it’s offloaded we’re leaving, right before the next storm,” he said. “We have another storm approaching in a day and a half or so. We’re going to go turn as much gear as we can until it blows like hell.”
A majority of the entire year’s harvest of crab typically occurs in about the first six weeks of the commercial season, making it essential that vessels and crews go out in sometimes hazardous conditions. The Dungeness crab fishery is considered among the most dangerous occupations in the U.S.
The fishery was closed in Oregon south of Cape Arago due to elevated levels of the marine toxin domoic acid in crab guts, but could open this week pending the result of additional tests.
Despite an ongoing federal government shutdown, the Coast Guard continues to monitor the fleet. Rescue crews responded to two commercial boats in distress before fishermen even began pulling gear. One boat they rescued had lost its rudder 17 miles off the Columbia River entrance.
Price and market
Industry leaders settled on a price of $2.75 per pound to get the fleet on the water, said Rex Leach, a fisherman based out of Charleston and Coos Bay, who has been involved in price negotiations for many years. It’s a dime less than the opening price last year, but up from a starting offer of around $2.30.
“And then we’ll let market forces take over,” Leach said.
The price per pound typically starts to go up a week or so after the fishery opens. In recent years, though, fishermen have not seen this early jump. Still, prices later in the season have come in higher than at the beginning.
Tariffs, or not?
Industry leaders have also wondered what the tariff war with China could mean for the sale of live crab to that country. Trade negotiations are ongoing, but the live crab market to China is particularly lucrative for the West Coast crabbing industry. The Oregon Dungeness Crab Commission — which in effect also represents Ilwaco/Chinook crabbers — reports China has bought 40 percent of the catch in previous years.
“It’s a big one,” said Tim Novotny, a spokesman for the commission.
“We haven’t been impacted by the tariffs yet,” but the news certainly made “everyone’s ears perk up,” he said.
For now, buyers are still gearing up to receive live crab and fishermen expect to get about 50 to 60 cents more over the base per pound price.
The fishery brought in a $74 million ex-vessel value last season after the start was delayed due to a combination of low meat yield, contentious price negotiations and bad weather.
Commercial fishermen landed 23.1 million pounds into Oregon and 12.4 million pounds into Washington state last season.