Commercial crab boats farther south finally hit the water.

But the area from Cape Falcon near Arch Cape north to the Canada border remains closed to the West Coast Dungeness crab fishery. With Washington state waiting on the next round of testing results to see if levels of the marine toxin domoic acid have dipped in crabs, the closure is expected to remain in place until at least Feb. 1.

As of Friday, Washington state fishery managers were not sure the exact dates sampling would occur. The department has had to work around poor ocean conditions that have made sample collection difficult, according to an industry notice. Oregon plans to coordinate the opening of the area off the North Coast and the Columbia River with Washington.

This delay and the delay created elsewhere by weeks of price negotiations had raised concerns that a large amount of crabbing gear would go out late in the traditional season at the exact wrong time for humpback and gray whales.

Fishermen and seafood processors settled on a starting price Friday: $2.75 a pound. The fleet in Oregon and California had pushed for upward of $3 a pound; wholesalers initially offered only $2.50 a pound.

In the 2019-2020 season, fishermen averaged a price of $3.07 a pound during the opening month.

The beginning of the season is when the most gear is in the water and the bulk of fishing happens. The fishery traditionally opens Dec. 1, but a late open is not unusual. The fishery can face any number of delays, including crab that hasn’t filled out with meat, price negotiations or bad weather.

“It’s not a rare event but it’s starting to get toward the end of our comfort zone given what we know about whale migrations,” said Caren Braby, manager of the marine resources program for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Braby was part of a group that brought together fishery managers, scientists, fishermen and others in the fishing industry to examine how to minimize the risk of commercial crab gear tangling with threatened and endangered whales.

California faced a major lawsuit after fishing gear was implicated in some whale entanglements. The West Coast Dungeness crab fishery is considered a sustainable fishery and whale entanglement was a black mark nobody wanted.

As a result of the Oregon group’s work to get ahead of the issue, the state made a number of adjustments to how the Oregon's valuable Dungeness crab fishery is conducted. 

One of the changes was that fishermen must bring their gear inside of 40 fathoms starting May 1, regardless of when the season opened or when fishermen decided to start fishing. It is proving to be a vital safeguard and will keep gear out of prime humpback habitat at a critical time, Braby said.

“That physically separates humpback whales from gear,” Braby said.

Along most of the Oregon Coast, the season was delayed by price negotiations beginning in mid-December. The closure north of Cape Falcon due to domoic acid applies to only one of the 12 areas that make up the fishing grounds.

The rest of the coast, Braby noted, did not have to deal with the concerning levels of domoic acid.

Katie Frankowicz is a reporter for The Astorian. Contact her at 971-704-1723 or kfrankowicz@dailyastorian.com.