Every December, palpable excitement fills the Oregon coast as residents anticipate the opening of the commercial Dungeness crab season. To many on the coast, Dungeness crab is at the center of holiday and family celebrations at this time of year. As crabbers prepare their vessels and gear, fishery managers coordinate with various partners to ensure that a safe, quality product is available to consumers and that access to Dungeness crab is orderly and equitable.
Like other crustaceans, Dungeness crab grow by periodically shedding a chitinous exoskeleton through a process called molting. As adults, crab molt at most once per year, leaving them in a vulnerable post-molt or softshell condition which lasts for approximately two months as the new shell hardens and fills with tissue (Rasmuson, 2013). Ocean commercial crab season regulations are designed to provide some measure of protection during the time of year when molting typically occurs as softshell crab are more susceptible to injury or mortality from handling. By restricting harvest of poor condition crab, handling impacts are reduced and a higher meat yield can be obtained by targeting crab in a hardshell condition (PFMC, 1979).
The first seasonal closure was established in 1948 using crab condition criteria based on shell hardness sampling (Waldron, 1958). Since this time, the determination of open seasons has been a topic of debate due largely to variability in coastwide molting patterns, harvest fluctuations, and socioeconomic considerations. A coastwide season opening date of December 1 and closing date no later than August 15 was first recommended in 1963 (Snow, 1963) and though the season closure date has moved several times, the regulatory season opening date has remained unchanged.
Over time, a number of efforts have been made to improve coastwide coordination of season openings allowing for an orderly start to the crab season. Since 1993, this coordination has taken the form of the Tri-state protocol which details a preseason testing program based on meat recovery and season opening procedure for Washington, Oregon, and California (Didier, 2002). The latest revision of the preseason testing protocol for the Tri-state coastal Dungeness crab commercial fishery, signed in August 2019, is available here.
Today, preparation for the season opening begins in late November as Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) partners with the Oregon Dungeness Crab Commission to collect crab for preseason testing. Concurrently, crab are collected from each test station for Oregon Department of Agriculture (ODA) domoic acid tests. Once the season opening structure is determined, ODFW notifies industry and the public as soon as possible so that there is adequate time to prepare to fish.
In Oregon, fishers are allowed to set commercial crab pots during a 73-hour gear setting period prior to the season opening (OAR 635-005-0485). A gear setting period was first adopted in the mid-1960s at the request of industry to provide equal opportunity to vessels of all sizes, reduce congestion, and improve safety (ODFW, 1983).
Beginning on the day prior to the season opening, Oregon State Police conduct hold inspections of all vessels participating in the first 30 days of the season, with assistance from ODFW (OAR 635-055-0465). Each vessel hold is inspected and certified to be free of crab before providing the vessel operator an Oregon hold inspection certificate. If the fishery has been divided into multiple fishing zones, the fisher must also declare which fishing zone they intend to fish. A vessel used for fishing crab in an open zone is then prohibited from fishing in any zone that opens later within the same crab season until 30 days after the later-opening zone has opened.
In addition to regulatory season delays due to meat quality or biotoxins (i.e., domoic acid), industry-led delays of the ocean commercial season may occur for several reasons. Historically, these delays have been the result of inclement weather or inability to agree upon a starting price. A state-supervised price negotiation process was established in 2003 to allow harvesters and processors to collectively bargain for an opening price. This voluntary price negotiation process is initiated only at the request of harvesters and dealers representing at least 51% of the active permits and buying capacity in the state, respectively. If this threshold is met and price negotiations proceed, the process is overseen by ODA with involved parties bound by the terms of the negotiated price agreement. Through this process, crabbers are able to set gear and begin fishing safely and efficiently, while processors can ensure a dependable supply of crab.
The commercial crab season opening is a complex process that involves many parties and is subject to variability in weather, crab abundance, molting patterns, and a number of other factors. Dungeness crab are an iconic retail product and culturally significant species in Oregon, and regulations are designed to maintain product quality, while also allowing for an orderly start to the season to minimize safety concerns.
With the ocean commercial crab season opening tomorrow in Oregon, it is an exciting time to be working with ODFW in Newport. I’ve been able to observe and participate in various aspects of two season openings now, and I’m continually impressed by the amount of time, effort, and coordination that is required to get the season started. Like everyone else on the coast, I look forward to the coming weeks and the influx of fresh Dungeness crab that will soon available and ready to be enjoyed by all!
Didier, A. J., Jr. 2002. The Pacific coast Dungeness crab fishery. Submitted to the Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation of the United States Senate and Committee on Resources of the United States House of Representatives. The Pacific States Marine Fisheries Commission, 30 pp.
Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW). 1983. Staff statement on preseason setting of crab pots and crab pot release mechanism for public hearing March 18, 1983. Exhibit E. Marine Region, 4 pp.
Pacific Fishery Management Council (PFMC). 1979. Draft Fishery Management Plan for the Dungeness Crab Fishery off Washington, Oregon and California. 93 pp.
Rasmuson, L. K. 2013. The biology, ecology, and fishery of the Dungeness crab, Cancer magister. In Advances in Marine Biology, Vol. 65, pp. 95–148. Ed. By M. Lesser. Academic Press, Burlington. 176 pp.
Snow, C. D. 1963. Oregon crab management. Oregon Fish Commission, 14 pp.
Waldron, K. D. 1958. The fishery and biology of the Dungeness crab (Cancer magister Dana) in Oregon waters. Fish Commission of Oregon, Report No. 24, 45 pp.