Mad River Union
HUMBOLDT – This year’s Dungeness crab season is again in suspense, as fishermen across the West Coast have stopped setting their traps in protest of reduced prices.
In California, domoic acid impacts have faded, but the area near Shelter Cove to Humboldt Bay’s north jetty remained closed to fishing until Dec. 26.
Local crabbers prepared to take advantage of the area’s opening, but a very different scenario ensued when buyers – including Pacific Seafoods, the multi-armed company that sets the agenda for off-the-boat pricing – dropped the buying price to $2.75 per pound.
The 25-cent per-pound price drop triggered a strike by Eureka fishermen who had dealt with high swells and limited fishing opportunity since areas of the northern California coast opened on Dec. 1.
Price disagreements usually erupt at the start of crabbing seasons, but the persistent domoic acid situation led to varied openings across the West Coast.
Local crabbers maintain the Dungeness market justifies the out-of-the-gate $3 per pound price, and as of press time, their boats were still moored. Fishermen in Oregon, which was completely open for crabbing on Jan. 1 after domoic acid-induced delays, joined the boycott along with fishermen in Washington.
“Pretty much the entire coast is tied up and not setting gear,” said Ken Bates of the Humboldt Fishermen’s Marketing Association.
Demand for fresh crab tapers after Christmas. But Bates said demand is still high and there’s a minimum of frozen inventory.
“The market appears to be very strong, but Pacific Choice isn’t interested in compromise,” he added, referring to the processing subsidiary of Pacific Seafoods.
As of the writing of this article, price negotiations were still ongoing in Oregon, but crabbers in Willipa Bay, Wash. were reportedly setting gear in preparation for a Jan. 1 opening there.
Dungeness crab is an income staple for California fishermen, and last season was drastically delayed by toxic algae blooms. The season before that saw spotty crabbing and reduced landings from the previous year.
After two years of struggle, the big picture goal is to avoid a price-drop precedent. If fishermen accept the lowered price, “It will be very hard to get any of that back this year or next year,” Bates said.
When it was active, the season was shaping up to be fairly good. Bill McCarthy, vice president and co-founder of Wild Planet Seafoods, said his company’s Eureka dock was busy when boats were able to get out of the bay.
“Before fishermen decided to hold off on the new price, Wild Planet was buying regularly when weather allowed,” he said.