Low prices keep crabbers in port

Ilwaco, Chinook and other Columbia ports are heaped with crab pots as fishermen and processors strive to come to agreement on a price per pound. Stormy weather this week also might have kept some boats at the dock. DAMIAN MULINIX photo

PENINSULA - Connoisseurs waiting to buy fresh Dungeness crab from local ocean waters will have to continue to wait, as the industry is on hold pending resolution of a price strike by fishermen.

Pacific Choice Seafoods, the largest buyer of seafood along the Pacific coastline, from Eureka, Calif., to the northern tip of Washington, initially set a price of $1.40 per pound for Dungeness crab when the season was set to start in northern California and southern Oregon on Dec. 1. Crabbers didn't like the price and decided to hold out for a higher mark, something closer to $1.60, or now $1.75.

The season in Washington, set to start on Dec. 10 this year due to an agreement with Native American tribes, has been delayed further by another drop in the offered price from buyers, now $1.25 per pound.

The main reason for the plummeting prices are record catches being brought in by fishermen in California crabbing grounds that have begun their season - most notably so far, a record-breaking crab crop in San Francisco. The bay-area fishermen, whose season started Nov. 15, brought in two million pounds of crab the first two days they were out.

Locally, the Quinault Indian Tribe, based out of Westport, has been crabbing since Dec. 1 and has already harvested in an estimated three times as much crab this year than they did all of last year.

And as of Tuesday, there are some local crabbers bringing in catches. Fishers on the Willapa Bay, who are not affiliated with the coastal fishermen, began bringing in crab Tuesday morning. Jim Stiebritz, who owns and operates Sunrise Seafoods at Port of Ilwaco, has been buying from Willapa crabbers for seven years.

"This is the best initial start I've ever seen," said Stiebritz. "I think the best opening day from the Willapa was 18,000 pounds. And so far this morning [as of 8 a.m. Tuesday], the boats have brought back in about 30,000 pounds, between five boats, and they are going back for more."

Stiebritz is paying the Willapa crabbers $1.40 per pound right now, but said he will make up the difference if the coast-wide price ends up being set higher than that amount.

At this point, all fishermen on the Pacific Coast (from Eureka to the Washington/Canadian border) are considered on strike. Representatives from fishing groups at each port along the Pacific are talking daily, via conference calls, debating what should be done next.

Stiebritz, who is also a commissioner for Port of Ilwaco, said fishermen are not the only ones losing money because of this impasse.

"If we lose the holiday market, that's probably 90 percent of your fresh market for the year," said Stiebritz. "Both the processors and the fishermen lose if they don't get into the holiday market."

Though the current status is causing stress within the industry, it hasn't affected Washington much yet. So far they have only missed about a week due to the late start to the season and current poor weather conditions. Stiebritz said there isn't much pressure to negotiate because of the stormy weather, since it is unsafe and many wouldn't be going out in such weather any way.

"As soon as the weather breaks, hopefully we'll come to a price and everybody will be fishing," said Stiebritz.

Dale Beasley, president of the Columbia River Crab Fishermen's Association, declined to comment for this story.

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