« September 2009 Table of Contents
Top Species: Dungeness crab
Oregon landings outshine remainder of West Coast harvests
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
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
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
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
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,
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
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
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
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
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
Featuring Dungeness was a no-brainer, says Westlye, since
most restaurants try to feature the crustacean when it's in
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
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