Charlene Rollins' kitchen has seen the freshest ingredients — vibrant vegetables, fragrant fruits and matchless meats. Yet it's the rarer crustaceans delivered fresh enough to fight all the way to cook pot.

Charlene Rollins' kitchen has seen the freshest ingredients — vibrant vegetables, fragrant fruits and matchless meats. Yet it's the rarer crustaceans delivered fresh enough to fight all the way to cook pot.

"Fresh and live is totally different," says Rollins, chef and co-owner of New Sammy's Cowboy Bistro.

Countering the crabs' claws with pincers of her own, Rollins withdraws a pair of metal tongs and stays the sentence until after lunch. It's the first time in two decades at the Talent restaurant that she's seen such feisty crabs, usually shipped from their point of origin to larger cities like Portland and San Francisco for distribution.

"By the time they come from here to there to here, they're not quite as lively," Rollins says.

Pulled from the Pacific just 24 hours before, the Dungeness crabs were diverted from traditional wholesale channels to Port Orford Sustainable Seafood, a new brand that blends the interests of fishermen, scientists, government entities and conservation groups. In December, the crabs joined wild, line-caught fish under a yearlong pilot project to sell Port Orford's marine harvest in the Rogue Valley, targeted for residents' interest in "sustainability" and support for locally produced foods.

"The Dungeness crab is a super sustainable industry because it only harvests male crab," says Aaron Longton, manager for Port Orford Sustainable Seafood.

Also subject to minimum size restrictions, the Dungeness crab fishery is Port Orford's largest, with 1.7 million pounds claimed last year to the tune of $2 million, Longton says. More than 850,000 pounds of last year's total came in December, the opening month of Dungeness crab season, he adds.

"We should break last year's record."

About 98 percent of Port Orford's fish is still sold to large wholesalers. But the goal of Port Orford Sustainable Seafood under the Port Orford Ocean Resource Team is to bring customers a top-quality product that conforms to their environmental ethic while securing a more equitable income for fishermen.

In the Rogue Valley, that translates to numerous native fish species — much of it flash-frozen and vacuum-sealed — sold at local farmers markets, Ashland Food Co-op and several restaurants since last summer.

"I'd been looking for something like this for a long time," says Terry Boaz, meat-department manager at Ashland Food Co-op. "You just can't get it any fresher.

Longton recently added whole, cooked Dungeness crabs to Port Orford Sustainable Seafood's offerings. Starting in December, he brought a couple hundred crabs to the Rogue Valley every week, some to fill special orders for participants of a local community-supported agriculture program. He cooks the crabs immediately upon receipt from two partner boats and has them in the Rogue Valley the next day.

Although crab fishermen opened this season with near-record catches, supply and demand have since fallen off, and the price has increased, Longton says. But there's no better time to eat Dungeness crabs, he adds.

"They're heavy; you can tell by handling them," he says.

Although shell weight contributes to the price per pound, heavy crabs pack more meat. Fished until mid-August, crabs are less desirable during their summer molting season, when they tend to be weaker and don't withstand shipping, according to the Oregon Dungeness Crab Commission. The commission considers December through April the peak season.

A champion of eating with the seasons, Rollins featured Dungeness crabs on New Sammy's menu several times this winter, adding them to a paella with local rabbit and Port Orford black cod and rock fish for a dinner benefitting the Rogue Valley Farm to School program.

Longton's supply of crabs and fish is weather-dependent. Unique among West Coast fishing communities, the port of Port Orford is exposed to open sea instead of sheltering in a bay. Boats, launched with a hydraulic lift system, can be mired for weeks amid large winter swells. But Port Orford Sustainable Seafood's Dungeness crabs will be available in the Rogue Valley intermittently until summer, Longton says.

Many local grocers sell cooked crabs, and The Wharf Fresh Seafood Market and Eatery in Medford sells live Dungeness when available.

Reach Food Editor Sarah Lemon at 776-4487, or e-mail slemon@mailtribune.com.