Oregon Dungeness season delayed

Fresh Dungeness crab from Northern California will hit Rogue Valley seafood outlets early this week, but those crabs now crawling off the Oregon Coast likely won't reach local tables until closer to Christmas.

Commercial crabbers along the Northern California coast were to start pulling their pots Sunday as Dungeness crab-fishing season opened there.

However, the Oregon season will be delayed until at least Dec. 15 to give the Dungeness more time to fill out their shells with meat. The start of the season could be delayed even longer, should the crabs not reach the size that help make Dungeness Oregon's most profitable fishery.

The Medford-area has seen a smidgen of fresh Dungeness from the commercial fleet south of Mendocino, but the California fishery will funnel fresh crab inland by midweek, says Mike Cooper, owner of Rogue Valley Fresh Seafood Co. in Medford.

"It's usually three to four days," says Cooper, who has been selling Central California crab this past week. "But we always get a lot of calls for crab between Thanksgiving and Christmas. People are always interested when it opens in Oregon."

Rogue Valley crustaceanists prefer Oregon crab for its freshness, taste and for its shop-local flavor, Cooper says.

"Oregon crab has its own identity," he says.

The delayed season does not mean the crabs are in poor shape or that they are somehow of poor quality. It simply allows the crabs enough chance to fill up with meat to keep Oregon Dungeness a top-drawer item for both recreational crabbers and consumers.

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.

The minimum threshold is a 25 percent meat-recovery rate, meaning a 2-pound crab must yield at least a half-pound of meat.

November tests showed that crabs captured off Brookings and Port Orford were just shy of the 25 percent threshold, according to the Oregon Dungeness Crab Commission. Crabs caught off Charleston north to the Columbia River exceeded the threshold, except for those caught off Astoria and Newport — two important crabbing ports, according to the commission.

Those meat shortfalls led to the delay in setting of crab pots.

Oregon will not open its commercial season Dec. 1 if any of its ports fail to hit the 25 percent threshold during the mid-November testing.

Similarly slow meat-recovery rates triggered a coastwide delay in the 2012 season until Dec. 31. In 2011, the Oregon Coast from the Columbia River south to Gold Beach opened Dec. 15, but the South Coast ports of Gold Beach and Brookings did not open that year until Jan. 15. It was the first "split opening" off the Oregon Coast since 2005.

The two biggest biological factors that affect when crab fill out are food availability and when they shed their shells, says Brandon Ford, the marine program spokesman for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife in Newport.

Crabs fill out quicker if there is a lot of food in the water. High numbers of Dungeness on the ocean floor also can trigger slower growth because of competition for food, Ford says. Crabs are scavengers and eat virtually anything they can get their claws on, including smaller crabs, he says.

Also, the timing of the late-summer molting process can vary year to year, Ford says.

While the commercial season remains on hold in Oregon, the ocean sport-crabbing season will open as scheduled Sunday off the Oregon Coast.

In 2011, the ODFW closed the recreational crabbing season in the ocean during the commercial closure, but objections from sport-crabbers and opinions by Oregon State Police troopers that enforcement was not a problem led to the agency returning to the regular sport season last year.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470, or email at mfreeman@mailtribune.com.

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