Normally Oregon’s Dungeness crab season kicks off in December, just in time to stack holiday tables with fresh-cracked legs and pillowy fried cakes. But this year's high levels of domoic acid—a naturally occurring biotoxin produced in algae—delayed fishing through the New Year. Then, just as the boats were gearing to go, fishermen across the coast went on strike to protest a movement by West Coast seafood processors to lower the rate for Oregon's crab catch. (Pacific Seafood Group led the movement, which aimed to drive Oregon's price-per-pound down a full quarter from the $3 rate paid in Washington and California.)
The strike ended in bitter compromise January 9, with the parties agreeing to a rate of around $2.88 per pound. The silver lining? Now that the fleets are out, our newly tapped waters are churning up mountains of crab, with some commercial boats chugging to shore with upwards of 50,000 pounds on Dungeness on board.
The professionals aren't the only ones making a haul. While commercial and charter boats flow in and out of Alsea Bay, a bit north in Newport, 40-year fishing veteran Mike Newell is seeing “up to a hundred” casual crabbers dropping traps off the city's public piers. Newell says you’ll find great spots along Bay Boulevard, where docks with open views of Yaquina Bay cozy up to local shopping haunts. And a trip to Newport’s south side offers a 400-foot pier a stone’s throw from Rogue Ales that is “barely east of the Yaquina Bay bridge, so you can kind of look right out there and see the ocean, see the jetties.” (Prefer to drop your pot from a pedal kayak? Try this service in Pacific City.)
For a seafood harvest that mostly goes overseas, casual crabbing is one way Oregonians can tap into such bounty. Lyf Gildersleeve, a practiced fish slinger and the owner of Portland's sustainable seafood market Flying Fish Company, agrees that “the market is flooded. Everybody’s getting in lots of crabs.”
Gildersleeve is a big proponent of recreational fishing. "It’s a connection to your food and it creates value, just both for an experience for a younger kid or adults," he says. He recommends finding your way down to Nehalem, Netarts, or Yaquina Bay with bait at the ready, maybe some nice chicken bits or fresh fish scraps provided by your friendly fish monger.
There’s good reason to scoop up Oregon’s state crustacean right now, before peak season wanes. According to Gildersleeve, during a normal season (eg, an early December start), most of our annual crab harvest is culled during the season's first two months and largely heads overseas to international buyers willing to pay premium prices that Oregon's comparatively small markets can't match. This year's late start to crab season might delay a typical February's rising prices and flagging availability, he says, but surely not for long.
That's good incentive to get you road-tripping to the coast. Newell has some advice to get you off on the right foot: get there early, know how to spot the males, watch your tide tables, fish in high, slack waters, and don’t be afraid just to “throw your rings out there.”