California Dungeness crab fishermen strike for better prices as season opens

Dungeness crab being landed in Oregon.

Dungeness crab fishermen in the U.S. state of California are holding out on starting their season as they protest low prices being offered by processors.

The California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) has opened more of the state’s coast to commercial Dungeness crab fishing after an initial opening on 5 January. Limited fishing will open on 18 January in zones 3 through 6 – stretching from the Sonoma-Mendocino county line to the U.S.-Mexico border – with fishermen facing a 50 percent trap reduction rule to limit entanglement risks for humpback whales the presence of which forced two previous delays to the season’s opening.

“This has been an extremely challenging year for California’s commercial fishing industry,” CDFW Director Charlton H. Bonham said in an 11 January statement. “Today’s action in the Central Management Area strikes a balance. It protects whales and turtles, and it gets people on the water, allowing our hardworking commercial fishing fleet to provide fresh, sustainable crab to California residents.”

The industry successfully negotiated to reduce the trap reduction rule from the 70 percent figure originally proposed by CDFW, based on a low number of whales off the coast, according to Lookout Santa Cruz.

Further north, commercial Dungeness crab fishing from Cape Falcon, Oregon, to Klipsan Beach, Washington, will begin 1 February.

The season in this area of the U.S. West Coast was originally slated to open 1 December, but it has been delayed after four rounds of testing showed substandard meat fill. The area of coast between Cape Foulweather, Oregon, to the California border opened 16 December, and the area from Cape Foulweather to Cape Falcon opened 31 December. The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife said it will provide additional details about opening the area north of Klipsan Beach at a later date.

Even though they now have the go-ahead to begin fishing, some fishermen in California are holding out for higher prices.

“The buyers are not offering a price that we’re okay with,” Jake McMaster, captain of the Eureka, California-based Captain Banjo, told Redwood News. “They offered USD 3 [EUR 2.74]. We countered with USD 3.50 [EUR 3.20] on 1 January, and we have not had a response to that price negotiation.”

The price being offered by processors is actually up from last season, according to McMaster, while fishermen in Oregon are receiving more than USD 3.50 per pound.

“Last year, they reset the price down to USD 2.00 [EUR 1.83], and I think they don’t want it to crawl back up too quickly. So, you know, the cheaper they hit the crab, the more money they’re making, which works out for them in the long run,” he said.

One Humboldt County fisherman told the Times-Standard it was Pacific Seafood the largest player in the Dungeness crab market that was setting the local price at USD 0.50 to USD 0.85 (EUR 0.46 to EUR 0.78) lower than other areas of the U.S. West Coast. The fisherman said the holdout was also aimed at eliminating a clause in Pacific Seafood’s offer that allows it to lower its per-pound rate later in the season if market conditions deteriorate.

More than 80 million pounds of Dungeness crab were caught in the U.S. in 2023, and the high volume helped offset the lower price. However, with this year’s catch expected to be down, the striking fishermen said they need a higher base price to offset rising costs.

Eureka-based Jenna Lee's Seafood posted on its Facebook page it had joined the strike in solidarity with local fishermen.

“It seems the fish companies can't pay the fishermen a decent price so that they might make a living, so we are on strike with all the others to help support a base price,” it said.

Pacific Seafood referred comment on the issue to the West Coast Seafood Processors Association.

“Because the association represents a number of competitive businesses, I do not engage in price negotiations nor comment on specific price situations between fishermen and individual processors,” West Coast Seafood Processors Association Executive Director Lori Steele told SeafoodSource.

Several local fishermen, speaking anonymously, told Redwood News they see the price offering as a tactic by large seafood-processing companies to force small boats out of business, buy permits at a discount, and then use corporate fleets to fish.

Clackamas, Oregon, U.S.A.-based Pacific Seafood was sued in March 2023 for alleged anti-competitive behavior in the U.S. West Coast Dungeness crab market. Pacific Seafood has filed a motion to dismiss the suit, calling it “completely baseless.”

Photo courtesy of Action Works Photography/Oregon Sea Grant


Want seafood news sent to your inbox?

You may unsubscribe from our mailing list at any time. Diversified Communications | 121 Free Street, Portland, ME 04101 | +1 207-842-5500