I decided to write a story on crab fishing it was because I love crab. The delicate flavor that needs little more than a pat of melted butter can deliver such a subtle yet distinctive flavor it always causes me to take pause.
Any Oregonian that’s worth a salty seashell can tell you about how a crab fisherman does his work: a bait-loaded pot goes in the water with a buoy left to bob on the surface, and hours later when the crab fisherman returns the bait has been replaced by live Dungeness crab. But do Oregonians know what happens to these crabs after they’ve been brought to shore? While my affinity for crab brought me to the coast to learn more about one of my favorite local foods, the details I discovered about the crab marketplace were quite surprising to me. And that’s how I find myself, a simple crab enthusiast, writing a feature about the nature of the crab industry today, with subjects ranging from deals with China, the challenges of fishermen, and monopoly in the crab marketplace.
These words describe a vessel where a fisherman, full of expectations, hopes and dreams will reside for six months, more or less, every year. For Sale – Year: 1979 Length: 40 Hull: Steel Builder: Hockema Location: Oregon 40’x14’x5’ steel combination crab/shrimp/salmon/tuna vessel built in 1979 by Hockema. Factory remanned Detroit 6V92 main with only 3,000 hours, rated at 280 hp. Twin Disc 509 gear. Northern Lights 10kw genset. Crab insert packs 15,000#. Set of winches, boom, northwest crab block, gurdies, 25 tubs longline gear, shrimp table, doors and net reel. Electronics include Furuno GPS, (2) VHF, (2) Furuno radar, (2) Furuno sounder, Sitex plotter and ComNav w/remote. Asking $375,000, includes OR 500 pot crab permit, OR shrimp permit and OR salmon troll permit.
As one of the most dangerous jobs you can have crab fisherman contend with more than rough seas and the chance of falling overboard. Much of their lively hood depends on such basic things as finding good boats, good workers in remote areas, diesel fuel costs, and managing high insurance rates. To understand crabbing you first have to take into account that there are 150,000 crab pots off the Oregon Coast and there won’t be any more than that. Crab fishing, I came to find out has practically no rules, except that there is a limit on the total number of pots, but not, on the number of pounds you can catch per pot. This interesting method means that those who own enough crab pots and have bigger hulled boats can catch more pounds quickly and stay out at sea longer before returning to dock. Once caught, only females or small crab are thrown back and the rest are carried to shore where they are kept in icy cold water bins. There, they generally rest one on top of the other, similar to hibernating, in well circulated water until sold live or sent on to be cooked and frozen or processed into canned crab.
Something else that every crab fisherman thinks about is the sea itself, which is changing. For the first time California surfers are calling about dead crabs on the beach. Some believe that the coal fire plants in China are creating acidification in the water which is ironic given that China changed the lives of the crab fisherman here and the crab we all eat.
What does China have to do with Oregon Crab?
In 2003 a call was made that changed the face of crab fishing off the West Coast. The caller said they would pay double to almost $4 a pound for first-rated crab. Those are the ones with superior hard shells, bigger and fuller with the tender crab meat, and healthy enough to weather a trip across the globe to the streets of Shanghai, Beijing and ports of call under Chinese control. This call changed the entire market in the blink of an eye and raised the price of crab instantly everywhere. Today, about 30 percent of Dungeness crab caught by Oregon fisherman are shipped to Chinese markets. We, in the US, eat the rest and we pay more for it. “You’re likely to never see crab at $1.99 a pound again like you used to,” stated one of the fisherman. Annually Oregon crab fishing accounts for about $45 million in revenue.
Today there are about five companies that sit at the table and control the Oregon crab market once it hits the shore, processing the crab and distributing it directly to the retail market. Further, some of these companies have bought their own boats. It makes me anxious for the fisherman; their catch is priced by a few people and varies from day to day. No other market works quite like this. Thus far the crab fishermen have been able to harvest the sea and support their families. This December they will take to the cold water again, anxious to set the first pots as their boats bounce on the cold gray ocean. They hope the big spiny males will climb inside. It’s not an easy life, nor is it one of guarantees, but it’s one definitely worth trying – for me – at a table – with butter please.