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Oregon crabbers face delay

The traditional Christmas feast featuring Oregon’s fresh Dungeness crab could be in jeopardy again this year following Wednesday’s announced delay of the commercial crabbing season because of low meat yield.

The decision to delay the planned Dec. 1 start of Oregon’s most lucrative commercial fishery to at least Dec. 16 marks the sixth straight year the season start here has been delayed to give Dungeness a chance to fill out to industry standards for meat levels.

Dungeness off the coasts of Washington and California are also showing low levels of meat within their shells, and their seasons also will be delayed at least until Dec. 16, according to the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Tests planned for late November or early December will determine whether commercial crabbers can start plying the Pacific beginning Dec. 16, opening the window for Dungeness to flow inland to the Rogue Valley in time for Christmas.

“It’s possible,” said Troy Buell, ODFW’s state fisheries manager in the agency’s marine program in Newport. “We could get there in some areas, but I doubt we’ll be able to open the entire coast.”

The recreational harvest of Dungeness in the open ocean will still open Dec. 1 as scheduled. Recreational crabbing remains open in bays, off beaches and in estuaries.

Commercial crabbing delays are generally welcomed by the industry because they ensure a high-quality product to consumers and avoid wasting the resource. While delays have seen Dungeness not available for popular Christmas feasts in Oregon, they generally don’t damage the overall commercial fishery.

Last year’s season did not open until deep into January, and Oregon’s crabbing fleet of more than 300 boats landed 18.7 million pounds of Dungeness, just above the 10-year average. The $66.7 million those crabs fetched was the second-highest in Oregon history, according to the ODFW.

Fisheries managers use “meat fill” tests to determine how well the Dungeness have rebounded from the late summer shedding of their shells in a process called molting.

After the molt, the crabs fill with water as their shells harden and they grow new muscle.

A two-pound crab must yield at least a half-pound of meat.

For commercial crabbing to open south of Cascade Head, Dungeness must sport 25 percent of meat content, and 23 percent north of Cascade Head.

Recent tests showed Dungeness off Brookings to have the highest meat-fill content at 22.3 percent, according to ODFW statistics. The lowest was off Astoria at 20.3 percent, statistics show.

Buell said Dungeness meat content can grow by 1 percent a week.

“We’ll wait about three weeks and test again,” Buell said. “We could get there.”

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or mfreeman@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MTwriterFreeman.

Dungeness crab