Dungeness crab, reportedly named after a small fishing village on the Straight of Juan de Fuca in Washington State, have been harvested commercially along the Pacific coast since the late 1800’s. They range from central California to the Gulf of Alaska, and have long been part of the Northwest’s seafood heritage.
Dungeness are caught in circular steel traps commonly called pots. Weighing anywhere from 60 to 125 lbs. and measuring 36” to 48” in diameter, each pot has a length of line and a buoy attached to mark its position for retrieval. The pots are baited with squid or razor clams to attract the bottom-dwelling crabs, and set on the ocean floor following the contour of the adjacent coastline. They are allowed to soak for a one to four-day period, depending on the fishing conditions, weather and time of year. The average boat fishes 300-500 pots in depths of 5-100 fathoms (30 to 600 feet) of water. After being brought to the surface by a hydraulic power-block, the crabs are sorted and kept alive on-board the vessel in circulated seawater until they are delivered to shore-side processing plants.
Only mature male crabs measuring 6 ¼” across the shell are harvested. Juvenile males and all females are returned to the sea to insure healthy stocks for future harvests.
The ocean crab season along the Oregon coast begins on December 1 and continues through August 14. The peak harvest occurs during the first eight weeks of the season with up to 75% of the annual production landed during this period. Effort traditionally decreases in the spring as fishermen gear up for other coastal fisheries, but fresh crab continues to be available throughout the summer months thanks to a small number of boats that fish right up to the closure in August.
Oregon imposed a limited entry system on the crab fishery in 1996, with approximately 450 permits issued based on prior participation. There are in excess of 350 vessels presently engaged in the crab fishery. They range from the small wooden troller with its two-man crew to large steel combination vessels with a four-man crew capable of fishing around the clock for extended periods of time.
Dungeness crab landings are naturally cyclical. Oregon’s harvest has fluctuated from a low of 3.2 million lbs to a high of over 33 million lbs. in recent years. Average annual landings in Oregon are in the neighborhood of 16 million pounds.
The ex-vessel value of Oregon’s Dungeness crab fishery fluctuates yearly, based on the size of the harvest and prevailing market conditions. In the most recent 10-year period, the to-the-boat value ranged from $5 million to $51 million dollars. The Dungeness crab fishery usually is the most valuable single-species fishery in Oregon.
Most of Oregon’s coastal seafood processors purchase and process Dungeness crab during the course of the season. Some larger companies produce a wide variety of market forms, are capable of volume orders and maintain frozen inventories for year-around sales. Other smaller companies specialize in specific market forms and target market niches. Many ship direct to out-of-state customers.