Toxic algae puts Dungeness seasons in limbo

It’s an unsettled market going into what should be the launch of the Dungeness crab season in states on the West Coast.

The presence of domoic acid in crab, caused by a toxic algae bloom in the warmer-than-usual water off the California coast, delayed the start of the season there, while testing of crab in Oregon and Washington continued in advance of a possible 1 December opening.

Hugh Link, executive director of the Oregon Dungeness Crab Commission, said the state-supervised price negotiation meetings set with crab fishermen and seafood processors to determine the opening per pound price for the 2015-2016 were postponed “because we don’t have enough information.”

Boats are still going out to gather samples to see if and where crabs are affected by domoic acid. There have been areas of the Oregon coast where crabs have tested positive for elevated levels of the acid. Domoic acid can accumulate in the viscera of Dungeness crabs and neither cooking nor freezing lessens its toxicity.

“We want to provide a quality product,” said Link. “We really want to assure consumers that nothing but safe product comes onto the marketplace.”

Last year Dungeness crab garnered record prices, with wholesale cluster prices in the USD 9 (EUR 8.45) range. A decline in landings over the past few years, along with increased demand, has lead to the sustained higher price levels.

At this point, Link said, it’s too soon to make a stock assessment. “But we were hoping for a little better season,” he said. Landings for Oregon last season were 8.3 million pounds, down from 14.3 million the previous period.

According to the Pacific Fisheries Information Network, total landings for Alaska, California, Oregon and Washington in 2014-2015 totaled about 34 million pounds, with California accounting for nearly half of that. That number is down considerably from just a few years earlier, when all four states accounted for 62 million pounds landed in 2012 and again in 2013.

One seafood distributor said the California market may not reopen until January, which could leave the door open for more sales of other crab species.

“It looks bleak again this year,” he said, with Dungeness prices staying high. Wholesale FOB prices for whole cooked frozen crab was in the USD 6.75 (EUR 6.34) to USD 7.50 (EUR 7.04) range, while clusters came in around USD 9 (EUR 8.45). That translates to about USD 12 (EUR 11.23) a pound at retail, he said.

A Midwest retailer, who was selling live Dungeness from Washington, was asking USD 16 (EUR 15.02) a pound.

Depending on where in the country retailers and restaurateurs are located, they may be willing to switch to something else.

“Dungeness in our area isn’t quite the religion it is on the West Coast,” said the distributor, noting that ample supplies of stone crab from Florida may be a good, high-end substitute, along with kings. Another industry observer cited bairdi as a cheaper and viable competitor to Dungeness.

The timing couldn’t be worse for the Dungeness crab industry, with consumers seeking it as part of their holiday menus.

Once the season starts, there will be some marketing programs launched in Oregon to reassure consumers about Dungeness, Link said. But that may be a ways off.

With so many unknowns, “It will be interesting to see what happens,” he said.

Friedrick, Joanne. N.p., n.d. Web. 02 Dec. 2015.