Oregon Dungeness season 2016: How toxic waters could benefit crab lovers – OregonLive.com
John Corbin, like most Oregon crabbers, had seen his livelihood put on hold after a toxic algae bloom shut down the West Coast’s entire shellfish industry. After months of waiting, the state department of agriculture gave the green light for Dungeness season on Jan. 1.
Then, bad weather hit.
Corbin, the current president of the Oregon Dungeness Crab Commision, finally got his two boats out of Astoria to lay pots on the Pacific Ocean floor. The crabber, with nearly four decades of experience, says his first pulls showed promise — 10 to 15 crabs here, 30 to 40 there — an improvement over last year. That was a good thing, especially after delays pushed the crab season’s start past the holidays, leaving Christmas tables without any prized Oregon Dungeness crab.
For West Coast Dungeness fishers, 2015 was a wipeout, with toxic waters causing an unprecedented delay. But for consumers, those same setbacks might prove a windfall, as a strange collision of global trade and too-warm waters have made Oregon “Dungies” meatier and cheaper.
“The consumer is going to get a far superior product,” Corbin said. “They’re going to get a great, stuffed-full crab right now.”
Oregon fishers started pulling up crab pots Jan. 1, months after the usual start date, after an algae bloom mixed with what scientists are calling “a blob” of unusually warm El Niño waters, creating the perfect conditions for domoic acid to proliferate throughout the West Coast. The toxic cocktail shut down Oregon, Washington and California’s shellfish industries well past their typical start dates.
Crabbers still must contend with the occasional winter storms on the ocean, but that they’re used to.
Domoic acid outbreaks happen every decade or so, but this year’s was unprecedented in size, said Oregon Crab Commission director Hugh Link. In the early 1990s, and again in 2003 and 2004, Dungeness tested positive for domoic acid, but the crab industry went ahead with harvesting anyway. Razor clams and mussels hold the poison in their meat, but crabs expel it regularly, so it is only stored in the “butter,” or guts. Crab fishers simply killed the crabs and eviscerated them, ditching the butter and selling the meat.
Asia’s entry into the Oregon Dungeness market changed all that.
For the past eight years, Chinese crab buyers have flooded the Oregon docks with high-dollar prices for live crabs to export to Asia. Corbin said about 40 percent of Oregon’s crabs have been sent to China alive in the last few years. It’s such a lucrative market, crab fishers decided they’d rather wait until Jan. 1 — after three clean tests and a couple extra weeks’ wait on top of that — to start fishing, rather than risk losing those sales.
“We didn’t want to go down that road and lose that live market,” Corbin said. “We opted to stay put until we were sure the crab were in excellent shape.”
But that meant missing the biggest Dungeness sales season at home. Leading up to the holiday season, when many families prepare a crab dinner, Dungeness can go for as much as $13 a pound. If Oregon misses its usual Dec. 1 opening date, retailer Lyf Gildersleeve usually stocks up on California crabs which can be harvested as early as Nov. 15 most years.
But the whole West Coast was paralyzed by the domoic acid infiltrating the meat of mussels and razor clams, sickening sea birds and mammals. It stopped the shellfish industry in its tracks while scientists tested and retested, waiting for the acid to subside. Like Oregon, California’s crab season missed its opening date and still hasn’t opened.
“When you miss that window, the whole season is kind of shot anyway,” said Gildersleeve, who owns Flying Fish Market in Portland. “It’ll be fine for the next month or two months, but as we get further into the spring, crabs are available, I’ll have them for retail and they won’t sell. It’s unbelievable.”
Flying Fish now has Oregon Dungeness. On Wednesday, employee Paul Cullinan said he’d sold six whole crabs and lots more tubs of crab meat, which save consumers the effort of gutting and cleaning the crab.
For the holidays, Gildersleeve sold crabs caught in the Puget Sound and by tribal fishers in Washington. Still, the price just keeps dropping after Christmas, making it hard for catchers or sellers to make up for the lost time. Especially with a highly-publicized toxin scare just past.
“When I was getting crab and they were from Washington, legally harvested, people still questioned it,” Gildersleeve said.
Crabbers are also concerned about the public’s perception of the toxin’s reach. Crab is a commodity, which means the opening price is negotiated with the state just before the season’s start. This year it was $2.90 per pound, down from $3.10 last year.
Rick Lillienthal hopes it’ll increase as the season goes on, but the domoic acid scare had its effect.
“We’re hoping they’ll go up, but our production is dropping off already,” Lillienthal said, who estimated he pulled in about 45,000 pounds two weeks into the season. “They’ll work out. It’s going to take a little while for people to get over their fears.
From the first pull to the second, the average crab harvest cuts in half and then half again with the third. Even so, Lillienthal’s gut tells him this year will be pretty good.
Lillienthal’s family is one of Oregon’s Dungeness pioneers and this is their 104th year. He isn’t much concerned about the domoic acid or ups-and-downs of crab populations.
“I’ve done this my whole life, so you see above, below and average years,” Lillienthal said.
The current 10-year average for Oregon’s crab take is 19.3 million pounds. It’s a hefty sum, and one that crab fishers got used to. But it was unusual when the trend started. The ten years before that, Oregon’s coasts were producing about what they were the past few years.
The Oregon Dungeness population has been on a seven-year downward cycle, according to state numbers and fishing crew reports. Last year, Oregon crabbers brought in 8.5 million pounds, the first time since 2000 that they hauled less than 10 million pounds. This year looks like the crab population might start cycling back up.
Lillienthal will likely hold off on celebrating with his own crab dinner. “Usually you eat so many of them you wait awhile,” he said, chuckling. “I’ve seen a few of them.”
— Molly Harbarger