Low-quality crab forces postponement until Dec.15; California fishermen strike deal for $1.50 a poundThe opening of the commercial Dungeness crab season off the north Oregon Coast will be delayed two weeks because of low-quality crab.

The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife announced that the crab fishing between Cape Falcon and the Columbia River will open Dec. 15. The rest of the coast opens on the traditional Dec. 1 opening day.

The department adopted the temporary rule splitting the opening date after quality testing indicated that crab off the mouth of the Columbia River need more time to grow. The temporary rule is effective only for the 2004-05 season.

The West Coast Dungeness crab fishery traditionally has had a single Dec. 1 season opening from approximately Point Arena in California north to the Canadian border. Under the Pacific States Marine Fishery Commission (PSMFC) Dungeness Crab Tri-state process, Oregon, Washington and California's Fish and Wildlife agencies consult on issues that result in any deviation from that Dec. 1 scheduled opener.

In related action, California fisherman have struck a deal with fish processors in Oregon to begin crabbing Wednesday at $1.50 a pound.

The groups settled on the price, which is 5 cents less than last year and has California fishermen less than enthusiastic.

"We're going to go," said crab fisherman Mike Cunningham, an officer of the Humboldt Fishermen's Marketing Association.

But Cunningham said the price was way too low in a year that's seen a 60 percent jump in fuel prices and a 30 percent jump in bait costs. Those are costs fishermen will have to absorb.

California crabbers were paid $1.50 a pound in 1991.

The split opening dates for Oregon allow much of the coast to open as scheduled while giving time for crab in the north to fill out to the required pick-out rate. This the percentage, by weight, of the crab's meat to the total weight of the crab. It takes about two to three months for an adult male crab to fill out its new shell following its molt in the summer. During this period, the leg and body meat is watery and of poor quality.

The Tri-state agreement includes procedures for pre-season meat pick-out testing of Dungeness crab. If crab meat fill-out rates are not met, a procedure delays the season on all or part of the West Coast. The Dec. 1 projected meat pick-out percentages from Point Arena in California to Garibaldi were above the minimums set through the Tri-State process.

To provide a more orderly fishery during a split opening, commercial crab vessel operators must declare their intention to fish north or south of Cape Falcon. Those vessels fishing south of Cape Falcon must wait 30 days following the Dec. 15 opening to fish north of Cape Falcon.

The Dungeness crab fishery is the most valuable single-species fishery in Oregon. Annual landings in Oregon are in the neighborhood of 10 million to 23 million pounds - about one fourth of the total catch from northern California to Alaska.

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