WINSTON ROSS

The (Eugene) Register-Guard via Associated Press

NEWPORT, Ore. (AP) -- Mitch Zimick's hands are a blur, wrapping fishing line from his elbow to his hands into a tight coil, bound for the round, steel crab pot stacked in front of him.

Zimick is readying pots for the start of Oregon's most valuable commercial fishery, crabs, accompanied by the sound of Lynyrd Skynyrd blaring from the cab of a nearby pickup truck.

With the right gear, the right conditions and an incredible amount of hard work in some of the world's roughest seas, Zimick could earn as much as $1,000 a day, come December. A little effort up front is likely to pay big dividends.

"It's a gold rush," Zimick says. "We're just hoping for a fair price."

Just how much cash he and his fellow deckhands on the Wide West rake in depends on a combination of fairly unpredictable factors, not the least of which is the outcome of the price negotiations under way between processors, crabbers and the arbitrating Oregon Department of Agriculture.

What price the two sides agree on -- and whether they can reach a deal at all -- will ripple out across the state, affecting the size of the crabbers' paychecks, the price retailers can charge in the marketplace and the cost to consumers for a sought-after holiday meal. Last year, the fleet brought in $26 million.

Those numbers are affected by a set of conditions, many of which are beyond anyone's control. There's no limit to the amount of 6.25-inch male crabs a fishermen can haul in during the approximately nine-month-long season.

But there are only so many crustaceans to be caught, only so many decent weather windows allowing about 350 boats to cross Oregon's treacherous river bars into the ocean, only so much demand for the product in a struggling economy and a certain amount of supply from last season still on hand, determining distributors' appetite for fresh crab to fill their trucks.

First, the good news: This year's crop of crabs tested so far are fat and healthy, which means officials will allow the season to start Dec. 1. If a deal can be reached on an opening price -- last year's opener was $1.60 -- boats will be able to start positioning their crab pots in their favorite spots by the end of the month.

Florence fisherman Al Pazar said he plans to work a little farther out from shore this year than he normally does, because a spate of low-pressure systems has led to some choppy waters off Oregon. With meteorologists predicting the return of El Nino this winter, Pazar knows it could be rough out there.

"If guys go too shallow, they'll be chasing their pots around," Pazar said.

What's hard to know is whether the rough economy will dampen buyers' enthusiasm for Dungeness crab. Surprisingly, said Ryan Rogers, owner of the Fishermen's Market in Eugene, even collapsing banks and frozen credit markets didn't hamper his sales last season.

"Our crab sales were pretty comparable to previous years," Rogers said. "I guess it's one of those luxury things people look forward to every year."

Pazar isn't sure whether that trend will hold through 2010, though.

"The consumer is going to be the wild card here," Pazar said. "People need to eat potatoes and chicken. They don't need to eat crab."

Newport crabber Mark Newell said he has reviewed some recent market research that suggests demand for Dungeness could be great, especially when stacked up against competitors from Alaska: king and Opilio, or snow, crab.

"The research is that Dungeness is gaining against snow crab," Newell said. "It's a little sweeter, and you can get it fresh."

Coupled with rumors that the stock in suppliers' freezers has dwindled through the year, that could set up the right balance for a good opening price, Newell said. Oregon tends to open at about 50 cents a pound less than the price coming out of San Francisco, which is $2.50 at this point.

"I'm hearing that people didn't want to put a lot of product in the freezer last season, not knowing they were going to sell it," Newell said. "That means it's pretty much a live market," which bodes well for prices. Live crab sell at significantly higher prices than quartered crustaceans.

As the first crabs flood the market, the best price for consumers and the worst price for crabbers tends to be in the first several weeks of the season, when most of the harvest is landed. By February, crabbers can expect to be paid above $4 a pound, but there's far less to catch.

Another uncertainty is how many crabs are there for the catching. The species' resilience is demonstrated by the very fact that there's no limit to how many legal males are allowed to be hauled in -- harvest numbers in one year don't seem to affect whether more or fewer crabs are brought in the next. That doesn't mean fishermen will have any luck tracking them down.

Last year, the Oregon fleet brought in about 13 million pounds, which is in line with the average haul of between 10 and 15 million pounds.

"It's a good, strong, healthy resource," Pazar said. "I hear rumors that the crab are up."

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.

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