Crab's coming

Fresh Dungeness crab will be hitting Rogue Valley fish markets and restaurants within days, with Oregon's commercial crabbing season opening Monday.

Commercial fishermen across the coast begin pulling crab traps Dec. 1, the traditional start of Oregon's most lucrative single-species fishery.

The first crabs will be coming to the Port of Brookings-Harbor as early as Monday afternoon, meaning Rogue Valley consumers can start saying yes to Dungeness as early as Tuesday.

"There's a lot of excitement for Dungeness, which is our West Coast lobster," said Brent Kenyon, owner of the Wharf Seafood Market and Eatery in west Medford, where customers have already pre-ordered crab.

Crab cooks are part of many holiday traditions in the Pacific Northwest, in part because the fishery is at its heaviest during the party season between Christmas and New Year's Day.

Barring bad weather, the shells will be cracking everywhere from kitchens to restaurants to corporate parties, Kenyon said.

"You grow up in Oregon and Washington, you learn to love Dungeness," Kenyon said. "It's Oregon gold."

Oregon commercial crabbers and fish processors paved the way for Monday's opening by agreeing last week to an initial sale price of $1.60 per pound, said Nick Furman, executive director of the Charleston-based Oregon Dungeness Crab Commission.

That price will remain steady for the first seven days, then "the forces of supply and demand" will set the price, said Furman, who expects that precooked crab should be available from coastal processors to Rogue Valley markets as early as Wednesday.

Kenyon said he expects to sell "at least a couple thousand pounds" of live crab a week for about $5.99 a pound.

"We're hoping to do more than that," he said.

Last year's Dungeness fishery saw 321 commercial skippers capture 12.3 million of these crustaceans for a boat value — the money skippers were paid by processors taking crabs off their boats — of about $29 million, Furman said.

Early indications are that the ocean floor off Oregon likely has fewer crabs than the past two years, which were very bountiful, Furman said. But the upside to fewer crabs means less competition for food and, thus, more meat beneath the shells, he said.

That factor seemed to play out so far this fall. Tests on crabs caught in mid-October showed their meat-to-shell ratios were already good enough for market, Furman said.

The question mark for fishermen likely will be whether consumers hit by the sluggish economy will mark fresh crab off their holiday lists.

Julie Tomlinson, owner of Dick and Casey's Gourmet Seafood Products at the Port of Brookings-Harbor, said post-Thanksgiving shoppers were clamoring for crab. But she is unsure whether that translates into healthy sales winter-long.

"With the economy the way it is, I have no idea how it'll end up," Tomlinson said.

"The sense is we're probably going to be down from last year, but we anticipate the quality to be good," Furman said. "Hopefully, it'll translate into good crab for the holidays."

Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 776-4470, or e-mail

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