PACIFIC NORTHWEST — Rough weather, tough tariffs and an ongoing respiratory outbreak in China have stunted the commercial Dungeness crab season in Oregon and Washington so far this season.
Catch totals from fishery managers indicate about 50% of last years’ total over the same period.
“It’s a slow crab year for us,” said South Bend Products General Manager Dean Antich.
Relentless storms through most of January have kept much of the fishing fleet in port, particularly smaller vessels unable to safely operate in rough seas.
“Weather has been a big part, it’s kept these guys in,” Antich said. “We haven’t had good, fishable stretches of weather. Also I think there’s less crab down here this year than guys had last year. We’re off a fair percentage compared to what we’ve had in the past.”
The crab landings this season have been “about half” of last year at this point, according to WDFW Coastal Shellfish Manager Dan Ayres.
As of Tuesday, Feb. 4, the latest landing figures indicate that 5,087,762 pounds of Dungeness were caught off the Washington coast by non-treaty commercial crabbers. This includes crab caught off of Oregon and landed in Washington. A majority of the catch (49%) came from the area (60A-2) just off the Long Beach coast, between Westport and Cape Disappointment, and the area (61) south of Cape Disappointment (35%). Willapa Bay has accounted for roughly 10% of the catch, approximately 500,000 pounds, according to figures from WDFW.
“We have recorded a total of 2,878,131 pounds of Dungeness crab,” reported WDFW Coastal Shellfish Manager Dan Ayres in late January.
“In the same time frame last season we had landings of 6,266,621 pounds.”
Calls for change in fishery management policy
Concerns about poor salmon returns and the impact of ocean acidification has prompted calls for change in fishery management from local processors.
“We need our fish opportunities back,” said Antich. “It’s dangerous to be heavily reliant on one fishery and any businesses reliant on salmon are dwindling away.”
In January 2018 South Bend Products acquired a processing facility in Chinook, formerly owned by Bell Buoy Crab. The facility provided more access to the Dungeness crab fishery and curbed shipping costs. The facility processes crab year around.
Employees vary at each location in Chinook and South Bend, depending on the season and the availability of fish. During peak production at the Chinook facility, up to 150 employees may be processing Dungeness crab, but right now it’s about 50.
At the facility in South Bend, the crew can swell up to 100 employees, varying with the success of commercial fishing seasons. Summer is the busiest time with salmon, Antich said.
The impact of ocean acidification on young crabs has been a focus of scientific research, but the lack of salmon — the backbone of the processing facility in South Bend — has been Antich’s biggest immediate concern.
“There was an article out last week talking about the ocean acidification affecting the juvenile crab,” Antich said. “I don’t know that we’re seeing the impact of that today, but if it’s true and we see reduced recruits and the biomass weakening. If we’re only reliant on crab we’re going to be in trouble. We need salmon. We need a well-rounded and diverse fishery because you never know when something is going to fail, like the chum salmon in 2019. The absolute lack of chum in Puget Sound — we typically buy millions of pounds out of there but this year we didn’t pack more than a truckload. It’s just that bad.”
Regulatory issues have an oversized impact on Columbia River and Willapa Bay fishermen, Antich said.
“Our Willapa watershed is so restricted with the fishing opportunities and amount of fish being raised, same with the Columbia River,” he said. “These opportunities are lost. With less opportunity there’s less effort and interest in fishing. The tradition of passing it down in the family is gone. The young guys aren’t starting in any of the salmon fisheries.”
Ramping up hatchery production
Some feel re-focusing on hatcheries could remedy the current lack of salmon.
“We need to get the hatcheries open to produce more fish, so people can make a living at this again,” said South Bend Products Facility Manager Allan Heather. “Without the salmon and the sport industry, it kills all these communities along the coast. They depend on that money. And when they only get a few days to fish, they don’t hire people and a lot of them just close up.”
The fallout from less robust sport and commercial fisheries is evident in coastal communities, Antich said.
“Look at what’s happened to Westport, the town has just died from a lack of tourists. The hotels and charter offices are no longer full.”
Antich and Heather agree that raising more hatchery fish could be part of the solution.
“They (fishery managers) want to make everything wild and natural, but without spawning at the hatcheries it’s not going to happen,” Heather said.
“There are no more natural fish. They’re gone. The only thing left is genetically modified fish from interbreeding.”
Brave new world for local processors
On Tuesday, Jan. 28, dozens of workers draped in plastic aprons, gloves and hairnets worked in unison picking and packing Dungeness crab at the Chinook facility. What appeared to a full staff, however, was only a fraction of the former crew.
On one side, workers picked meat from the claws and body of the crab, while others in a separate section filled and sealed 5-pound cans of crabmeat.
“We produce crab meat five days a week 52 weeks a year,” Antich said. “We buy as much crab as we can at the peak of the season when they’re in prime condition, during the first month or month and a half. We have the frozen sections in cold storage, thaw it and pick crab meat year-around.”
The product is then primarily distributed on the West Coast to bigger markets in Seattle, San Francisco and Los Angeles.
Crab picking, or shaking, requires fast and steady hands, and pay often depends on how proficient each picker is.
“We can usually tell within a week if they’re going to make it,” Antich said. “It’s piece work. You’ve got to meet a certain amount of product to achieve a minimum-wage level. It’s priced per pound and if they’re not making minimum wage — if it’s costing us money — then they’re not qualified for the job. A good crab shaker can produce more than 160 pounds in a 7-hour shift. The top shakers can make $30 per hour.”
Less available product has translated into fewer employees and smaller paychecks for local processors and their employees. In the past, processing facilities would hum 24-hours during peak fishing seasons and workers would come in waves and work in shifts. Today, a skeleton of the former crew still exists, a fraction of the former workforce. Now in prime Dungeness fishing season, there sometimes isn’t enough product to keep what workers remain busy for a full day.
“They would start at 6 a.m. and were done before 8 a.m. for days,” Antich said. “They weren’t even reaching the first coffee break. It’s a sad thing to see because we’ve grown accustomed to this business model. We’ve been able to manage the Chinook facility this year with less staff because of the inconsistencies with live crab. We’re not running 24-hours as would be a normal crab season. We’ve been managing it with one shift all season. It’s about 50 fewer employees.”
Rising costs, shrinking margins
The dependability of salmon and crab has dwindled as operating costs for local seafood processing facilities have risen.
“It’s labor and higher operating costs from the plant side to higher bait costs on the fishermen’s side,” Antich said. “It’s higher operating costs, no matter if you’re a fisherman or a processor.”
The Food Modernization Safety Act, signed into law in 2011, has been among the numerous changes for small seafood processors along the coast.
“Food regulation is continually updating,” Antich said. “We are keen to that and we’re trying to be proactive on those things.”
In January, Washington raised the standard minimum wage from $12 to $13.50. The impact was felt directly by seafood processors that seek to hire low-wage employees during the winter season.
“It had an impact for sure,” Antich said. “Most of the entry-level cannery positions were at $13, but are now getting $13.50. Staff that was making $13.50 previously, that have years of experience and know what to do, are now worth more, so I gave them a raise.”
The business currently employs more than 100 minimum-wage workers, approximately 55 in South Bend and 50 in Chinook, Antich said.
The staff numbers fluctuate with the fishing seasons. A poor salmon year in 2019 followed by a slow crab season so far this season has gutted the staff, particularly in Chinook, where 50 positions have been cut.
Still, many staff, such as Hector Medina, have remained loyal and returned for decades.
Medina, 45, has processed crab in Chinook for the past 23 years.
“Consistency,” Medina said when asked what makes a good crab shaker.
Seafood processing jobs can be a savior for families looking to earn money during the slower winter months, when fewer seasonal jobs are available.
“They’re loyal to the cannery,” Antich said. “There’s really no jobs in north county.”
Change is the only constant in evolving processing industry
Albacore tuna and Chinook salmon were once the backbone of local canning and processing industries lining the Columbia, but change has been a constant.
“In this industry, five years ago were the old days, 10 years ago were how things used to be,” Antich said. “It was nothing to have 100,000 pounds of fish and running three trucks off the Columbia River or Willapa. In 2014, we hauled 30,000 pounds of coho out of Nahcotta on the first day of the fishery and it sustained. We bought millions of pounds of fish. This year we might have had 10,000 pounds once. We’ve run more fish in one day in the past than we’ve ran the whole year last year.”
As certain fisheries have waxed and waned, local processors have adjusted accordingly.
“It’s significantly different than it was five or 10 years ago,” Antich said. “Salmon was the higher value 10 years ago, but now Dungeness is probably 60% and salmon is 20%.” Black cod has risen to now account for about 10%.
Antich attributed the decline in salmon simply to a lack of supply.
“Last year was our worst volume salmon season of all time,” he said.
“The amount of fish we purchased was less than half of our previous worst year. It has to do with salmon policies, ocean conditions and opportunity,”
There haven’t been any new products added in the past year, but a bigger push is being made on crab, which prompted an expansion by adding docks in Eureka and Crescent City in California.
Coronavirus disrupts Dungeness crab exports to China
The outbreak of a respiratory illness in China is impacting the commercial Dungeness crab fisheries in Oregon and Washington. It appears to be resulting in more crab staying in the Pacific Northwest.
The novel coronavirus, first detected in the city of Wuhan in December, was responsible for nearly 600 deaths as CRBJ went to press and 30,000 confirmed cases with the vast majority in China, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Uncertainty over the outbreak rippled through economic markets and disrupted worldwide trade and supply chains, from electronics to clothing manufacturers, according to the Wall Street Journal.
China bans imports
China banned live-animal imports as a result of the outbreak, and restricted travel to and from the country.
The ban has been felt locally in the commercial crab fishery, where top dollar is fetched for live crab exported to the Chinese market, particularly during the month-long New Year celebration in January.
The crab market is divided among four categories that each command a different price. Live crab is the most sought after and lucrative market, followed by whole, cooked and eviscerated crab. In Japan, Korea and China, live Dungeness can fetch as much as $30 per pound.
“We were headed the right way with the live market, increasing in demand for the Chinese New Year [centered on Saturday, Jan. 25],” said Ilwaco Landing Fishermen co-owner Mike Shirley.
“The tariffs were lowered, the demand was good and the price was headed up, and then it just completely stopped. The coronavirus has spread significantly across China, where a lot of the live crab goes. At this point they have stopped all imports of any kind of live animals,” he said.
The impact of the live-import ban in China has already been felt by other fisheries worldwide.
“China isn’t taking any live seafood shipments from anywhere,” said Antich. “Lobster fisheries are shutting down in Australia. China is the market for that and they’re not taking any because of the coronavirus.”
Some seafood companies are anxiously taking a wait and see approach.
“We haven’t really seen the dust settle on that one,” said Bornstein Seafood co-owner Andrew Bornstein.
“Weather is the main adversary of the Dungy fleet right now,” Bornstein noted.
Crab fishermen endure rough seas, murky market
Commercial crab fishermen, now about a month into a storm-riddled season, are earning less for their dangerous catch as a result of the coronavirus.
“We were getting a really good live price about two weeks ago — a really good price ($4.35) — but ever since that (coronavirus outbreak) we’re getting cooked price, about a dollar difference,” said F/V Cutting Edge Captain Brian Cutting, as he watched his catch unloaded Sunday, Feb. 2.
“If we could still ship over to China, that price would maybe be $1.25 or $1.50 more. It was taking leaps and bounds there really nice,” he said. “What little bit you had you got paid well for it.”
The price difference between live and cooked crab can vary depending on the volume coming in.
“Just for the crabbers price alone, it’s almost a $1 per pound difference between the live and cooked price, and that’s early in the season. Sometimes the price gets spread by $3 or $4, depending on the volume coming in,” Shirley explained.
“A lot of the fishermen utilize that to maximize their extra dollars,” he continued. “The cooked price ($3.60) is a good price for the boats. It’s very comparable with where the live market was last year at the same time. They’re not getting the live [$4.35] price but it’s 60 cents higher than last year, when cooked price was $3. It’s a comparable year to previous years. The biggest downfall has been the weather. It’s been brutal. They’ve only had about 11 or 12 fishable days out the entire month [of January] and that’s the big boats.”
Coronavirus is another blow to what has been an ongoing struggle for fishermen reeling from tariffs imposed on seafood exports to China in 2018.
“The live market has been limited for years because of the tariffs. It slowed it way down,” Cutting said. “They can’t pay us as much because they have to pay a 50% tariff. We’ve dealt with (the tariffs) the last couple years. Three years ago, at a high point, we got $10 a pound in the springtime. It was a huge price. Ever since then we haven’t seen that big price. We were hoping the way things were rolling we could see it this year, until the coronavirus.”
Catch stays local
Crab that would have been sent to China is now largely going to local retailers, restaurants and canneries.
“There’s a good and bad with everything,” Shirley said.
“The economics are the biggest hard fall from it,” he continued. “But at the time same time, switching into cooking all of our crab, rather than sending it to China, is putting all of our crab right here in America. It’s going into all the retailers up and down the coast for the Super Bowl and Valentine’s Day, when typically this time of the year crab is starting to climb in price and it’s much harder for the retailers to afford. Every time it goes up a dollar, that many people less won’t buy, so it’s keeping it affordable. We’ve seen that immediately. We’re doing fresh, whole-cooked for a lot of different retailers where typically we’re doing less this time of the year. What went to China before is now going into our freezers and local retailers and all over the West.”