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Special Feature: Dungeness crab

Big volumes supply a strong live market

Harvest highs and lows are cyclical, but Dungeness demand has increased. - Photo courtesy of Oregon Dungeness Crab Commission
By Melissa Wood
November 05, 2011

If catching Dungeness crab were a competitive sport, then this year it was California for the win. Fishermen from the Golden State scooped up a record-breaking 27.48 million pounds of Dungeness during the 2010-2011 season, beating both Washington and Oregon for the first time in years. Those states landed above-average totals of 21.7 and 21.2 million pounds, respectively.

The other big numbers were in values. Increasing demand, spurred by a hot live market with growing overseas destinations, particularly China, pushed prices up. For instance, though Oregon’s landings had dropped by 2 million pounds from the previous season, the value of landings rose from $44.6 million to $49 million.

“Basically it boils down to price per pound, and in 2009-2010 in Oregon we averaged under $2 per pound (ex-vessel prices averaged $1.93 per pound). In this current season we averaged $2.30 a pound,” explains Nick Furman, executive director of the Oregon Dungeness Crab Commission in Coos Bay, Ore. “It was up significantly — over 35 cents in value per pound for the whole season — and that was brought on by strong demand.”

Nowhere were landings and values higher than in California, which enjoyed a record-breaking take of $57 million for its catch. The last time the state has even come close was in 2004-05 when it landed 25 million pounds, and the 26 million pounds it landed in the 1976-77 season. California’s harvest has averaged around 16 million pounds per season since it began recording Dungeness landings in 1915-16.

“While 27 million pounds was a lot, what was so unusual was that most of it, 19 million pounds, came out of the central California management area. There was nothing even close to that historically,” says Peter Kalvass, a senior marine biologist for the California Department of Fish and Game based in Fort Bragg. Previously, the highest take for the central area, which is also called the San Francisco fishery, was 9 million pounds during the 1956-57 season. By contrast, that area had a total catch of 3.4 million pounds during the 2009-10 season.

“A six-fold increase over one season is mind-boggling,” says Kalvass, who credits “a perfect storm of oceanographic conditions” for the high numbers in the San Francisco fishery.

Since legal-size crabs are restricted to males with shells that measure 6.25 inches and larger, a good season means that ocean conditions were highly favorable two to three years ago when this year’s harvest were newly hatched and most vulnerable.

“If they’ve got a really good food source or condition for growth then you’re going to have a good season,” says Kalvass. Strong landings in the central area attracted boats that typically would have gone to the northern area, which had a below-average season at only 8 million pounds, down from last year’s catch of 14 million pounds and its yearly average of 10 million pounds, he adds.

These up-and-down patterns are typical in the Dungeness crab fishery.

“If you look at historical landings data, you really see a cyclic pattern of highs and lows, and so for every up there’s a down to come in this fishery, and that’s just a pattern,” says Kalvass. “When you see those very low lows they’ve typically been followed by a high, kind of like our stock market.”

Those fluctuations seem to be independent of the fishery, says Kalvass. “Environmental conditions, upwelling, offshore currents, water temperature, wind patterns — all of those things that are out of our control for the most part are going to cause these cycles, and that’s pretty much the way it’s been during its 100-year history,” he says.

Though the crab harvest tends to be cyclical in nature, lately demand has only gone in one direction: up.

Furman says that increasing demand for live product seems to be primarily generated by the export market, particularly China.

“Dungeness crab has always had a favorable position, when it’s available in the marketplace,” says Furman, who recalls seeing live Dungeness crab in a newly opened Sam’s Club when he visited Beijing in the late 1990s. “I think what’s happened as more Chinese consumers increase their buying power, Dungeness crab is one of those things that does well and features favorably on the menu.”

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Fisheries Service (NOAA Fisheries) reported live crab exports to China topped 1.4 million pounds in 2010, up from the 221,532 pounds exported in 2009. Those numbers have already been exceeded in 2011, with 2.2 million pounds of live crab exported to China through July. Additionally, those numbers don’t factor in live crabs exports to China that are shipped to Canada first, where they can be packed on cargo planes instead of as freight on passenger planes out of smaller U.S. airports. More than 16.6 million pounds of live crab had been exported to Canada by July 2011, a 6-million-pound increase over the same period in 2010.

Advances in logistics that keep crab alive during shipments across the Pacific Ocean have also helped expand the domestic live market.

Furman is also hoping that the Oregon Dungeness fishery’s Marine Stewardship Council certification in December 2010 will give it a leg up in markets where such third-party certifications are becoming a requirement.

“There was a period over the last year or two where every week we read that some new distribution business or restaurant chain or foodservice or retail group had made a commitment or pronouncement that by a certain time all product is going to have to come from a third-party certified fishery,” says Furman. “I think as the calendar runs out and some of those big buying groups start making good on those commitments we’ll see a significant impact for the blue and white label.”

The MSC label might also create opportunities in Europe, where in the past Dungeness was priced out of the market because of high shipping costs and a steady domestic crab supply.

The fishery is looking forward to the next season, which begins Nov. 15 for the San Francisco fishery and Dec. 1 for ports in northern California, Oregon and Washington.

“The $64,000 question every year in our business is how much Dungeness is there going to be because while we focus on Oregon, the marketplace focuses on the total production within the entire range and that has a big influence over price,” explains Furman. “But if we look in the rearview mirror, things look good for the coming year.”

Email Assistant Editor Melissa Wood at mwood@divcom.com 

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