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Oregon crab season to get underway after weeks of delay

The state has strict standards that need to be met, both for size and for a harmful biotoxin with links to climate change.

PORTLAND, Ore. — Oregon’s commercial Dungeness crabbing fleet has the go-ahead to hit the water this weekend after repeated delays.

The start to the season used to come on Dec. 1, but that has become increasingly rare, said Caren Braby, the marine resources program manager for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. 

“The more recent years have been affected by climate change, ocean hypoxia, biotoxins and other factors that are just becoming more common season to season,” she said.

Only one season, since 2014, has actually started in early December.

The state has strict standards that need to be met before the season can open. Crabs must be of sufficient size and they need to have acceptable levels of a harmful biotoxin called domoic acid. 

Domoic acid comes from algae blooms that are consumed by clams, who are in turn eaten by Dungeness crabs. The biotoxin accumulates as it travels up the food chain. Although it doesn’t cause any harm to shellfish, it can be poisonous to humans or even deadly if eaten in large enough quantities. 

Francis Chan, a marine ecology professor at Oregon State University, said there are some links between the phytoplankton that produce domoic acid and ocean waters warmed by climate change.

“There's starting to be this emerging understanding that it's linked with certain kinds of ocean conditions,” he said. “It seems to be linked with warmer water.” 

Chan who has done research on the changes in Oregon’s coastal waters for more than a decade, said there are number of causes for concern.

As carbon dioxide builds up in the atmosphere, some of it is absorbed by the ocean, causing increased ocean acidification. There have also been well documented areas of hypoxia, meaning areas of low oxygen, that can be harmful to sea life.

And of course, there’s warming. A study released earlier this week found that 2022 had the hottest global ocean temperatures on record for the fourth year in a row.

The world’s oceans have “been profoundly altered due to the emission of greenhouse gasses and other anthropogenic substances by human activities, driving pervasive changes in Earth’s climate system,” the authors wrote.

And that’s showing up in Oregon’s waters, Chan said.

“The rate of climate change that we have today is faster than has been evident in the time of our species as people,” Chan said. “We’re definitely in uncharted territories.” 

Tim Novotny, executive director of the Oregon Dungeness Crab Commission, said the crabbers he’s talked to are frustrated by the delays, but understand they are necessary to deliver the best product to Oregon consumers.

“It's frustrating because you want to start December first,” he said. “You want to get going. You want to get the crab to the market. But you don't want to do it at the sacrifice of quality.”

The crab season is set to open on Sunday, Jan. 15, from Cape Arago near Coos Bay, to Cape Falcon near Manzanita. Areas north of Cape Falcon aren't likely to open until at least Feb. 1. 

But Novotny said crabbers will also have to consider the weather and have yet to agree on a price with processors. 

It's hard to overstate the importance of Dungeness crab to Oregon's coastal economy. The crab harvest last year brought in a record $90 million, more than half the value of all of the state's fisheries brought in for the entire year.

“The Dungeness crab fishery is often referred to as our bread and butter commercial fishery," Braby said. "It is the one that really serves as the backbone to our fishing industry and therefore to our coastal economies across the Oregon coast."

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