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Journey of the Crab

A crab is on the plate at Chetco Seafood Co. and ready to be enjoyed. The Pilot/Arwyn Rice
From the Pacific Ocean to the dinner platter, Dungeness crab is in demand, but as close to a fishing port as Brookings is, buying crab at a Brookings grocery store may not mean getting fresh Brookings Harbor crab.

The trip for the crab is not as simple as a quick drive from the docks to the fish counter at the local grocery store.

Breeding, growth

Female crab carry up to 2.5 million eggs in a protected area under her abdomen. Once they hatch they ride the currents in a larval stage, vulnerable to predation, especially by salmon and rockfish.

Those that survive to grow to dime size fall to the ocean floor. If they land in shallow, intertidal areas or coastal estuaries they begin growing to adulthood.

Crab reach breeding size after about two years and typically grow to harvestable size, about six-and-a-half inches. Some of the largest Dungeness crab have been more than 10 inches across.

- Oregon Dungeness Crab Commission


Crab pots

The crab pot is a simple trap.  Crab, attracted by bait, enter through a small, one-way opening. The number of crab in a single pot depends on the bait, the size of the pot and how numerous the crab are in the area the pot was placed.

Dropped in areas where fishermen know or suspect crab congregate for feeding, pots are attached to buoys. The buoys alert the crab boats to the location and ownership identity of each set of pots.

Pots are harvested as frequently as the weather allows, depending on the size of the pot and other factors.


Crabbing boats

Fishermen place crab into totes which are then hoisted to the docks. The Pilot/Arwyn Rice

Fishing boats vary widely in size and capacity. Large multi-day commercial vessels may stay out to sea for multiple-day trips, returning when the tanks are full or crab are simply not found in quantity.

The Brookings Harbor fishing fleet is made up of mostly day-boats, going out in the morning to collect crab and returning in the evening to drop their catch.

Most fishing boats sort the crab only enough to return undersize and female crab to the ocean. Crab go into large holding tanks and emptied into large crates filled with saltwater and aerated to keep the crab alive and healthy until they reach their destination.

The current minimum price for unsorted crab is $1.75 per pound.

Sorted crab have a higher take at the dock. As crab are pulled from the pots, crabbers sort not only for those to take and those to return to the sea, but by market sizes. Large, premium crab are placed in separate holding tanks for sale to local restaurants.

It takes longer to get through each crab pot, increasing labor costs and decreasing time for the catch, but sorted live crab sells for as much as $2.50 per pound to specialty markets such as local seafood restaurants.

Crab lovers can usually find fresh or live crab at the docks.

Several signs at the Port of Brookings Harbor direct buyers to buy crab right off their boats,  but buyers should be prepared.

Those who want to buy crab fresh from the boat should bring a bucket or cooler to get the crab home.

For information on how to cook and clean Dungeness crab see inset below.


Direct distributors

Most crab boats in Brookings Harbor belong to a fleet supplying one of several distributors or processors.

Some specialty direct distributors, such as BC Fisheries and Transport deliver live crab to points as far away as Mexico and Las Vegas.

It costs 20 cents per pound in labor, equipment and other operating costs just to unload the crab from the boat, said Mike Manning of BC Fisheries.

The crab are transferred to large holding crates filled with salt water and aerated to keep the crab healthy until they reach their final destination.

Much of the cost to BC Fisheries is based on the company’s year-round operations. While crab season lasts only a few months, BC Fisheries maintains a lease on the property, pays electrical bills and stores bait year-round.

Manning keeps four trucks running at all times to keep the company’s clients stocked with live crab.

The bulk of the cost is in transportation, he said. Coastal trucking companies can not use 53-foot trucks due to vehicle length restrictions on coastal roads. Using the smaller 40-foot trucks means more trips are required to deliver the goods.


Processors

Processors mostly purchase their crab, unsorted, from crab boats, and ship them to processing plants in Eureka, Calif., Fort Bragg, Calif. or Coos Bay.

At the crab processing plant the crab is sorted for size and quality. Damaged and small crab are cooked and cleaned and the meat is canned.

Large, perfect crab are cooked and chilled or frozen. During lean times most crab are shipped directly to buyers and, in times of plenty, a portion of  the crab are frozen for year-round distribution.


Stores

Despite their location so near to the fishing fleet, the Brookings Ray’s Food Place and Fred Meyer do not receive seafood directly from Brooking Harbor. With no bulk processor in the Brookings area, Ray’s and Fred Meyer must wait for the processed crab to return to Brookings by truck.

Currently grocery stores are paying around $3.30 per pound for crab from distributors. After transportation, cooking, cleaning and preparing crab for the final consumer market, the crab re-enters the distribution system for a return to Brookings.  Currently the Brookings Fred Meyer’s price for whole cooked Dungeness crab is $4.99 per pound, and Ray’s Food Place is offering crab for $3.99 per pound.

Leslie Wood serves up fresh crab Tuesday. The Pilot/Arwyn Rice
Restaurants, markets

Brookings-Harbor seafood stores and restaurants such as the Chetco Seafood Co. at 16182 Lower Harbor Road and at Dick and Casey’s Gourmet at 16372 Lower Harbor Road,  purchase premium sorted large live crab from local crabbers.

Bounders, located on the docks at the port, is a husband-wife team. John Wood catches crab from the Melissa while Leslie sells them from a floating crab shack.

As of Friday, Chetco Seafood Co. sold crab for $4.25 (cooked) or $3.75 (live) per pound. Dick and Casey’s prices were $3.95 cooked and $2.75 live. Bounders live crab is $3.75 per pound with a flat 50-cent charge for cooking.

The crab are delivered live and held in an aerated saltwater tank until they are ready to be cooked for a customer.

While several steps are removed, the personalized service and relatively small volume of sales increases the cost of doing business, said Mel Bonham, father of  Chetco Seafood Co. owner Jim Bonham.

Many crab consumers purchase the crab as a dinner and pay for the crab as part of a larger meal, but the Chetco Seafood Co. also sells freshly cooked and cleaned crab, ready to eat in the comfort of your home, he said.

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