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Crabs for Christmas depend on good test scores

BROOKINGS — Crab boats plan to head out of three Oregon ports this weekend to help gauge whether Christmas revelers here will have the chance to feature fresh Oregon Dungeness crab in their holiday feasts.

The boats will set test pots out of the ports of Astoria, Newport and Port Orford to help determine whether Dungeness here are developing their inner meat thresholds that will decide when the commercial fleet will begin Oregon’s most lucrative and anticipated ocean fishery of the year.

The commercial season already has been delayed until at least Dec. 16 to give West Coast Dungeness a chance to recover from fall molting and bulge with the meat levels that commercial fishermen, processors and consumers expect each year.

If the samples show good meat quality, commercial crabbers could start pulling their pots Dec. 16 — in time to get fresh Dungeness inland and on the tables of families whose family traditions include Christmas crustaceans.

“A Dec. 16 opener is cutting it close, but there’s a chance to get crab to market by Christmas Day,” said Todd Buell, an Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife crab biologist working on the program.

Many Oregonians have Dungeness in their Christmas traditions, but in recent years, not so much.

The traditional Dec. 1 start to the commercial season on the West Coast has been interrupted annually since the 2014-15 season, either from a lack of muscle bulk — called meat-fill — or elevated levels of domoic acid.

Commercial crabbers and processors have for a long time agreed not to start the season until the Dungeness are full of meat. Ensuring a prime product in stores and restaurants is considered more important than exactly when those Dungeness show up.

“Everybody loves Christmas crab,” said Hugh Link, executive director of the Oregon Dungeness Crab Commission. “We don’t want to ruin that. But it’s not been the norm.”

The meat-fill tests are to judge how well Dungeness have rebounded after their summer molt. After the molt, the crabs fill with water as their shells harden and they grow new muscle.

To meet market standards, a two-pound crab must yield at least a half-pound of meat.

For commercial crabbing to open south of Cascade Head, Dungeness this year must sport 24% meat content, down from 25% last year. The threshold is 23% north of Cascade Head, which is near Lincoln City.

Dungeness sampled earlier this month at Brookings, Garibaldi, Coos Bay and Newport exceeded those levels, according to ODFW records. Long Beach and Westport test sites off the Washington coast showed Dungeness at less than 22% meat-fill.

If the tests show good meat-fill, and commercial fishermen can settle on a landing price with processors, crabbers can drop their pots Dec. 13 and begin pulling them Dec. 16.

Also, the entire Oregon Coast is under a recreational ban on razor clamming because of elevated levels of domoic acid in razors. Razor clams dominate Dungeness crabs’ diets, so state officials will be testing domoic acid levels in crab from Astoria south to Coos Bay, Link said.

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

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

123RF.comDungeness crabs are the most commercially important ocean commodity in Oregon.