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Top Species: Dungeness crab

Oregon landings outshine remainder of West Coast harvests

San Francisco Chef Gerardo Perez serves cioppino with
    Dungeness at Palomino. - Photo courtesy Stacy Cahill
By Joanne Friedrick
September 01, 2009

Even though it is the same species being caught off the Pacific coast, Dungeness crab fishermen are seeing very different results from California to Alaska.

"We've been fairly fortunate in Oregon this year," says Nick Furman, executive director of the Oregon Dungeness Crab Commission in Coos Bay, Ore. In mid-July, with about a month remaining in the 2009 season, Oregon fishermen had landed 12.8 million pounds of Dungeness - 500,000 pounds ahead of last year's total and a couple million pounds over the annual average.

The Oregon season, which began in December, filled the holiday demand for Dungeness and continued strongly through spring and into summer. "The timing with the holidays was perfect for our fishery," says Furman, who adds that demand continues to outstrip supply.

Even with high demand, the struggling economy has kept prices slightly down from the previous year, he says. "We started out at $1.60 (ex-vessel) at the beginning of the season," says Furman, a price that is down from about $2 per pound in 2008. The price held steady for a while because of the consistent supply, he says, but recently prices escalated to $4 to $4.50 per pound going into the live crab market.

"This has provided a good opportunity for those who fished the entire year," says Furman.

Washington's Dungeness fishery, meanwhile, has struggled with a slow season, says Bill Weidman, president of Washington Crab Producers in Westport, Wash. "It's been one of our worst years," he says. Washington's landings through mid-July were about 9 million pounds versus a total of 15.1 pounds last year.

Prices during the season, which runs from January through mid-September, seesawed from $1.70 per pound at the start to $5.50 per pound in spring and then back to $1.70. About 70 percent of Washington's catch is frozen, says Weidman, and then further processed for retail use.

Even with the slower season, Weidman says the same number of fishermen were in business this year, buoyed somewhat by the higher prices they were able to garner mid-season.

"There's nothing we can do but hope for a better year next year," adds Weidman.


Managing the catch

Dungeness crab ( Cancer magister) , named after a town on Washington's Olympic Peninsula, is pot-caught with a baited trap. Only hard-shelled males 
are harvested.

Furman notes there's no real consistency in the landings, which stretch from Baja California to Alaska. "We just happened to have ocean conditions that worked for us," says Furman.

Oregon has come off a period of historically high landings, says Furman, which can be both a blessing and a curse for the industry. Years of consistently high yields can flood the market with crab, he says, causing prices to fall and inventories to be held over from the previous year.

So even though the state's Dungeness fleet is having a good season, "If we'd had landings of three or four years ago, we would have been in trouble. But because production was down somewhat, it stimulated demand to get it while they can."

Furman isn't concerned about having too much inventory on hand going into the 2010 season. When the harvests were larger, it provided the industry with an opportunity to have more competitive prices and to get into venues that previously were leery of buying Dungeness, he says, such as the casinos or the supermarket frozen food sections.

Even now that supplies have fallen off from historic highs, Furman says Oregon's Dungeness industry has maintained its business with shore-side casinos in Louisiana and Mississippi. "We haven't had to be the cheapest crab to get the sale," he explains. "It hasn't been quite as susceptible to low-end pricing strategies" as some other species of crab such as blue.

During off-peak years, the focus remains on the domestic market, says Furman, and Dungeness is promoted via trade ads and shows. Of the export markets, China, Hong Kong and other parts of Asia are the most interested, he says, although the Dungeness export market remains quite small.

"Not too many years ago," he notes, "the Eastern Seaboard was considered an export market for us."

Although final numbers won't be in for a while, Laura Fleming, communications director at the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute, says the Dungeness industry in the state is looking at numbers that will be down significantly from 2008, along with slightly lower prices. The projected Alaska catch for 2009 is 2.25 million pounds, down from the 4.7 million pounds harvested in 2008. Alaska's season runs from mid-June through mid-August and then begins again in October and November, with about 75 percent harvested in the summer, she says.

Dungeness may not be the biggest bargain of the various crab species, "but it has a very loyal following. Followers like it and think it delivers on flavor and texture," notes Fleming.

The majority of Alaska's harvest hits the market as clusters that are cooked and frozen in brine, or the crab is cooked and frozen whole. Preference is divided by region, she notes, with whole-cooked the preferred form on the West Coast and Eastern buyers preferring clusters.

Both Fleming and Furman note Dungeness is prized for its sweet flavor and its ability to stand on its own.

"Dungeness has a niche," says Furman, being sold frozen but also available fresh. "If someone is a purist, you can get Dungeness that hasn't been processed."

The crab also boasts a high meat-to-shell ratio, so even with a higher price, it provides a good value to restaurateurs, processors and diners.

In California, yet another of the Dungeness supplying states, numbers for the season were also down, to about 5.8 million pounds this year versus 8.2 million pounds last year.


From boat to table

California, like Oregon, experienced its peak years in 2004, 2005 and 2006.

"This past winter was the first time in a while that the price was high because supplies were lower," says Kevin Westlye, executive director, Golden Gate Restaurant Association in San Francisco.

That didn't stop the association from making Dungeness one of its featured foods in a promotion called SF Chefs.Food.Wine.

From Feb. 19 to March 1, 44 of the city's chefs featured special menu items using Dungeness crab or ran specials on the crab. Accompanying the promotion was a coffee table cookbook with recipes using Dungeness crab. Diners were able to receive the book free if they used their Visa Signature card at the restaurant.

Westlye says the crab promotion was part of the lead-up to a four-day charity event this summer. They did a similar cookbook last August and restaurant promotion featuring heirloom tomatoes.

Featuring Dungeness was a no-brainer, says Westlye, since most restaurants try to feature the crustacean when it's in season.

The tricky part for this promotion, he says, was that it was the first time in a while that supplies were low, so prices were higher than normal. "When the price is $15 to $18 (an entrée), you can afford to offer it more. But when it reaches a higher price, like this year (in the low to mid $20s), restaurants offer fewer menu items," he explains.

Still, all 10,000 of the Dungeness crab cookbooks created for the event were given away during the promotion, which is a partial measure of its success.

One of the benefits for restaurateurs, says Westlye, was thinking about Dungeness in new ways. "We believe fresh Dungeness is the best crab in the world," he says, and it is often served simply in a salad, with pasta or as part of surf and turf.

The chefs initially prepared their recipes during a two-day photo shoot in November 2008, says Westlye. Among the creations were various salads using citrus and melon that brought out the sweet flavor of the crab, "and even crab enchiladas, though the chef was careful not to make the mole too overpowering."

The trend for using Dungeness, says Westlye, seems to be moving away from heavy preparations such as Alfredo and cream sauces and toward lighter, healthier cooking preparations.

The crab used in the photo shoot and the promotions came from San Francisco Bay, but also from the various other zones along the Pacific Coast where Dungeness is caught. "Because we did the photo shoot in early November, some folks got the crab locally, but others used frozen."

Westlye, a chef himself, says there is a slight difference in flavor in Dungeness as the crabs move northward along the Coast, "so our chefs focus on buying as local as they can."


Contributing Editor Joanne Friedrick lives in South Portland, Maine


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