Dungeness crab fishermen's strike continues on US West Coast

Published on
January 6, 2017

The Pacific Ocean was unseasonably calm off Wesport, Washington on Thursday, 5 January, a perfect day for the port’s fleet of some 150 crab boats to set their first pots of the 2017 Dungeness season. But a strike that has spread to the entire West Coast meant crabbers were biding their time and wringing their hands, hoping for a resolution.

The conflict started just before the holidays when Pacific Choice Seafood – based in Eureka, California and owned by Portland, Oregon-based Pacific Seafood – dropped their ex-vessel price to USD 2.75 (EUR 2.61) per pound, 25 cents lower than what fisherman had negotiated prior to the season.

Crabbers in Northern California’s Humboldt County refused to fish for the lower price, and since then, the strike has spread from Morro Bay, California all the way to Westport, involving around 1,000 boats in 15 ports.

The season got a staggered start along the West Coast due delays caused by high levels of domoic acid. Fisherman in the San Francisco Bay Area have been pulling up Dungeness crab since mid-November, but moored their boats after Christmas to join the strike.

The season was set to start in Westport on 7 January, and fishermen are allowed to set pots 72 hours prior to the opening. But instead of taking advantage of Thursday’s clear skies and calm seas, anxious crabbers were crowded into the local VFW Post to discuss how to proceed.

The strike is not a welcome development for many permit-holders in Westport, where fishermen were bullish about a good season after early crabbing by local tribes was rumored to be around twice as productive as last year. Like fishermen up and down the coast, people here are also feeling pinched by high fuel and bait prices, as well as delays and closures from high levels of domoic acid that cut into last year’s season.

Many walked into the Thursday afternoon meeting thinking Westport’s crabbers would be the first to break the strike, but the union decided to stay tied up and authorized negotiations on the best price between USD 2.75 and USD 3 (EUR 2.61 and 2.84), according to a source that attended the meeting.

The negotiations are taking place in Newport, Oregon, where fishermen are sitting down with representatives from Pacific Seafood, Trident Seafoods, Hallmark Fisheries and others processors to attempt to reach an agreement.

An emailed statement from Pacific Choice Seafood General Counsel Daniel Occhipinti called for solidarity across the production line, but did not indicate the processor would meet the fishermen’s demands.

“Along with harvesters, processors, grocers and restaurants, we are all in this together, and everyone has to decide what they think the market will support. It can be challenging to find the right balance, but we’re confident that at the end of the day, consumers will get wholesome, sustainably harvested Dungeness crab at a price they can afford,” Occhipinto wrote.

As the negotiations commenced Thursday evening, one Newport crabber, who preferred to speak anonymously, said he and his colleagues had little to do but “pull their hair out.”

“If someone doesn’t give, if something doesn’t change, we’re going to be tied up here in a month,” the fisherman said.

Contributing Editor reporting from Seattle, USA

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