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Oregon Dungeness opener delayed again

CHARLESTON — The traditional Christmas feast featuring Oregon’s fresh Dungeness crab is off the table this year after another delay to the commercial crabbing season because of low meat yield.

Friday’s decision to delay the start of Oregon’s most lucrative commercial fishery to at least Dec. 31 marks the sixth straight year the season start has been delayed to give Dungeness a chance to fill out to industry standards for meat levels.

The season was set to begin Dec. 1, but that was delayed to at least Dec. 15 after tests showed Dungeness coast-wide were short of meat volumes targeted by the industry to preserve Oregon’s brand for quality Dungeness.

This week’s round of testing showed that some areas of Oregon fit meat-fill criteria while others didn’t, leading to the continued postponement of the commercial season.

“They’re kind of all over the place, but they are growing,” said Hugh Link, executive director of the Charleston-based Oregon Dungeness Crab Commission. “They’re close, but they’re not quite there yet.”

Another round of sampling was planned to determine whether commercial crabbers can start plying the ocean Jan. 1.

If some of the samples don’t meet meat-fill standards, the commission, state marine biologists and the commercial industry would have to look at yet another delay or open portions of the state until all the Dungeness pass muster, Link said.

The delay comes at a bad time for Oregon’s fleet of more than 300 crabbing vessels, whose crews have prepared for a Dec. 1 opener only to see their gear stuck at the docks.

“It puts a hurt on the fishermen,” Link said. “They aren’t getting any funds in just before Christmas. It’s not fun for anybody.”

But the commercial fleet has protected the reputation that cracking open an Oregon Dungeness won’t disappoint crab-lovers expecting plenty of meat.

“It’s a win-win for everybody when we put full crab on the market,” Link said.

Commercial bay crabbing also has been suspended.

Despite the commercial delays, the recreational harvest of Dungeness remains open in the ocean as well as bays, off beaches and in estuaries.

While past 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 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 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.

Dungeness out of Port Orford were at 24.2 percent meat-fill, while the meat-fill was 24.6 percent at Garibaldi on the North Coast, according to Oregon Department of Agriculture data.

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 wait for packing and shipping at Hallmark Fisheries in Charleston. State shellfish managers have delayed the start of the commercial Dungeness crabbing season along the entire Oregon coast until at least Dec. 31, because of lack of meat on the crustaceans. Kevin Clark/The Register-Guard via AP, File