Oregon commercial Dungeness crab fishing on hold again amid negotiations

Boat captain Jon Stevenson sits on the Tauny Ann that's loaded with crab pots and ready to go. But because of the delay in commercial crab fishing, there's currently no work. (KATU Photo)

The Oregon commercial crab season is delayed once again as boat owners negotiate with fish processing companies over the price of crab.

State regulators postponed the opening of crab season more than a month, moving it from Dec. 1 to Monday, Jan. 15, because crabs did not have enough meat.

But as crews readied their boats and equipment, fishermen were put on hold again.

Fish processing companies wanted to drop the price of crab about 50 cents less than last season, which was $2.87 per pound.

Fishermen objected, saying this year's price-point was too low.

Boat captain Jon Stevenson says the delays are frustrating, but are part of the industry.

"If you aren't delivering [product], you aren't getting paid," Stevenson said. "This is a longer delay than most years."

Stevenson captains the Tauny Ann, owned by the Dixon family in Newport.

Even though the boats are not operating, Stevenson says bills continue to stack up.

"Maintenance, preventative maintenance, docking fees, registration, fuel," Stevenson said, "there are always expenses, even when it's just sitting here."

The delays have greatly impacted fishermen, especially those who own smaller boats.

Taunette Dixon is the vice president of the Newport Fishermen's Wives. After a season was delayed several years ago, the group used donations to fund a food box program, which helps struggling fishing families between seasons and over the holidays. Last season, approximately 20 families asked for the boxes. This season, more than 50 families were in need.

"Fishing is tough. You don't get an hourly wage, and there is nothing to fall back on," Dixon said. "Sometimes you have a bad season on top of the bad season."

Oregon Dungeness Crab Commission Chair John Corbin says processors and fishermen are close to reaching an agreement, but all offers are on hold until a big storm passes through the region later this week. It is expected to bring strong winds upward of 40 or 50 knots and surf up to 30 feet.

Corbin said the processors worry fishermen would set sail amid dangerous conditions because they may be desperate to start fishing.

"The last thing we want is to put an inferior product out there," Corbin told KATU. "I'm hopeful they'll reach an agreement soon."

Kaety Jacobson, marine fisheries extension agent with the Oregon Sea Grant program, says these negotiations are not uncommon. They happen from time to time.

Jacobson says the Oregon Department of Agriculture helps to mediate negotiations. If the parties reach an impasse, the state steps away, until the parties reach an agreement.

"The fishermen have to be able to pay their bills and make profit. The processing company plants also have to be able to pay their bills and make profit, and where that sweet spot is, is where those negotiations can be tricky," Jacobson said. "An agreement will be reached, it's just a matter of when."

Fish markets and grocery stores also hope that an agreement is reached soon. Markets across the state told KATU they have taken a sales hit, especially over the holiday season, when Dungeness crab is a popular dinner-table dish.

"We told our customers we would have crab mid-January," an Oregon City fish market told KATU. "With the [negotiations], now we don't know when it will be available."

Until the deal is struck, fresh, commercially caught crab won't be available, and the fishing industry sits idle.

The Oregon Dungeness crab season typically runs December through August, but most of the crab fishing takes place before March.

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