Pacific County crab slow to put on meat this year

Dungeness crab are a crucially important cash crop on the Washington and Oregon coast.

LONG BEACH — Dungeness crab in Long Beach Peninsula waters remain far too soft to harvest — bad news for the traditional Dec. 1 opening date. They are putting on meat at a slightly faster pace than last year, however.

Samples gathered by Oct. 23 in the Long Beach test area had a meat-recovery rate of 20.9 percent, compared to 19.9 percent in 2017 and 23 percent in 2016. Samples from the Westport area collected on or before Oct. 24 had a recovery rate of 19.7 percent, compared to 20.2 percent in 2017 and 22.9 in 2016.

A test conducted by the Quinault Indian Nation (off Westport and Point Grenville) had a pick-out rate of 19.8 percent, compared to 16.5 percent in 2017, according to an Oct. 25 report by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

All areas must be at or above 23 percent before a season can commence under terms of the Tri-State protocol that governs crabbing in the waters of Washington, Oregon and California.

More problematic for a timely start to the season, Washington coast crab are especially slow to harden this year.

In Long Beach waters, only 0.9 percent of sampled crab were in the highest 1A shell grade, down from 11.5 percent at about the same point in 2017 and 47 percent in 2016. Another 14.3 percent of Long Beach crab were in the next-best shell grade of 1B, down from 23.2 percent in 2017 and 27.3 percent in 2016.

Grade II crab are unmarketable — meaning there was some flex in both body and legs — and 84.8 percent of Long Beach crab were in that grade as of Oct. 23, compared to 65.3 in 2017 and 25.7 in 2016.

Off Westport as of Oct. 24, 4.2 percent were grade 1A, 24.8 percent were 1B and 71 percent were grade II, compared to percentages of 4.6, 15.3 and 80.1 in 2017 and 42.5, 44.4 and 13 percent in 2016.

Recent seasons have faced delays due to the presence in crab of the marine toxin domoic acid, which crab ingest from clams and other things they eat. This year, no domoic testing will be conducted on crab until November. Tests on Washington razor clams this autumn have found little cause for concern. Domoic levels currently are too high in crab viscera or guts tested from Northern California and on the south Oregon coast. Closing or delaying crab seasons due to viscera tests is controversial within the fleet, with many saying only meat should be considered.

Season starts also are delayed by the crab being too soft, and due to price negotiations with processors. All these factors mean the Dec. 1 start date is a theoretical target that is only occasionally achieved.

Standard WDFW coastal Dungeness crab testing fishing protocol was followed to obtain the October results. Crabs were collected from three stations at each area; strings of pots were set at 15, 30, and 45 fathoms at each station. All legal sized male crab caught were included in the meat recovery sample. While aboard the charter vessels, WDFW staff collected shell condition data from the same crab collected from all depths and stations.

Only WDFW exercised the option per the Tri-State Agreement with Oregon and California to conduct an October test. Oregon and California plan tests in November.

The first required round of testing per the Tri-State Agreement will be completed by mid-November. WDFW expects to include northern Washington test stations at that time.

Harvesting crab before they are at their best results in a lower price. This has a major impact on profits for the entire season, since around three-quarters of crab are caught in each season’s opening weeks.

Dungeness crab typically are the most valuable fishery in Washington and Oregon.

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