Oregonians could know sometime next week whether fresh-caught Oregon Dungeness crab will be available for Christmas parties or their palates will have to wait until the new year.
The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife is in the midst of testing meat levels in Dungeness with mixed results — to a point where it was too early to say whether the season delay of Dec. 16 will be extended to allow the crabs to fill out after this fall's molt.
Tests of crabs sampled this week off Port Orford and Brookings showed meat-fill levels below what's needed to open the season, said Kelly Corbett, the ODFW's commercial crab project leader.
However, crabs sampled off Newport showed they meet meat-fill requirements, meaning they are ready for harvest once the season officially opens.
ODFW was still awaiting other Oregon port samples expected to come in next week, Corbett said.
If North Coast ports show good enough meat-recovery, the fleet fishing out of those ports could drop their pots Dec. 16 under a split-opener scenario used by the state before.
If not, fleets would join South Coast crabbers who would remain at bay for another two weeks, which would likely put fresh Oregon Dungeness in stores shortly after New Year's Day.
"The option of splitting the opener has not been decided," Corbett said.
The Oregon fleet sports 425 ships with crabbing permits, with 320 boats landing crab in Oregon ports last season, which also opened late. The last time the season opened at its normal Dec. 1 date was 2014.
The fleet and processors don't want to begin Oregon's most lucrative ocean fishery until they can guarantee Dungeness' legendary high-quality meat, said Hugh Link, executive director of the Oregon Dungeness Crab Commission.
And consumers know that, Link said.
"They know we may be late to the party, but the party doesn't start until we get there," Link said.
The ODFW on Nov. 16 announced a delay in the season start until at least Dec. 16 based on early meat-fill tests completed that week.
Commercial Dungeness crab is by far Oregon's most valuable fishery. Last year's season opener was also delayed, but the 20.4 million pounds of Dungeness landed fetched a record $62.7 million to the fleet. Last year's landings were about 22 percent higher than the 10-year average, according to the ODFW.