The Oregon Department of Agriculture is ordering crab fishermen to eviscerate or destroy any crab caught since Feb. 13 after tests Wednesday showed domoic acid is again at unacceptable levels.
There is also a recall on all live or whole-cooked crab caught since Feb. 13, said Troy Buell, fishery manager with Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.
Recreational crabbing in Curry County has also been closed.
The news comes nine days after the long-delayed crabbing season opened in the last section on the Oregon Coast.
“It wasn’t anticipated but it was a possibility,” said Bernie Lindley, a Brookings crabber on the Miss Emily. “Nobody got caught off guard here.”
Fishermen have also complained that, while crab are big, the meat within is not very substantial.
“The last test showed a decent quality, but we have heard from several fishermen that it’s not consistent across areas,” Buell said. “There’s spots where it’s OK and spots where it’s not quite filled with meat.”
The combination could spell the end of the season for many fishermen, as Crescent City fishermen are reporting that crab are already starting to molt.
“As long as there are processors who eviscerate and who are paying reasonable prices, they’ll continue to fish,” Buell said. “Or they might move to other areas. It’s hard to predict individual decisions.”
The processing system has been enduring challenges of its own, Lindley added.
In a typical year, crab fishermen haul their catch to processors — here, most crab are hauled by truck to Hallmark Fisheries in Charleston outside Coos Bay, Newport or Eureka, California. BC Fisheries at the Port of Brookings Harbor can also process crab.
And the processing center in Charleston has been unable to hire enough employees to take in all the crab they’d like to. Lindley said they set a daily intake limit of 5,000 pounds, then 3,000 — which most boats can easily handle.
“Generally, the crab season opens in December, and the processors are buying and buying and buying, a storm shows up and they catch up on the glut,” Lindley said. “Well, this year, we’ve had nothing but good weather, unimpeded good weather. They’re buying them, buying them, buying them, and now they’re putting boats on a limit so everyone can get some in. They told everyone three days ago they weren’t going to buy over the weekend.”
He said he doesn’t anticipate — much less want — prices to drop because of this supposed oversupply, saying the processors merely need time to catch up.
And it’s hard, because plants are running at about a third capacity, Lindley said.
This year in particular, the labor pool has been skimpy,” he said. “That’s the overriding theme of our struggle.”
The crab catch is already starting to taper off, too.
“We’re not catching anything close to what we were the first day,” Lindley said. “We went from 20 crab a pot, not to 12, not to 10, but one — overnight. That’s like flipping a lightswitch.”
Other challenges are that crab south of here appear to be starting to molt.
“It’s a pretty unusual situation to have these issues this time of year, and several years in row,” Buell said. “In addition to low-meat fill, this late in the year.”
“This is certainly a very challenging season for us to do business,” Lindley said. “The last time we had a year we were kinda groovy, we put 5.2 million pounds across the docks in Brookings. We were the top port in Oregon. And what was that, three, four years ago?
“We always compare every year to our best year,” he added. “We probably said that was a struggling year, too. And now we’re pining away for the good ol’ days of four years ago.”