Dungeness crab is one of the Oregon’s coast’s most popular treasures, widely enjoyed whole with olive oil or butter, or featured in iconic West Coast dishes like crab Louie and cioppino. For longtime Oregonians, Dungeness is often a Christmas or New Year’s tradition, one that local chefs participate in as they develop holiday menus. In recent years, however, the commercial season for Oregon Dungeness has slipped from the traditional December 1 opening to start dates as late as February — including this year. In 2023, a portion of the state opened to commercial crab fishing on January 15, not opening fully until February 1. Typically that means less crab on the market through the season, which could mean higher prices and rarer appearances on menus. Dungeness crab remains one of the more stable, sustainable seafood populations, but these increasingly late seasons have adversely impacted crabbers, suppliers, and restaurants — with added costs and challenges that are eventually passed along to consumers.
Dungeness crab is beloved by local chefs for its subtly sweet flavor and firm-but-moist texture. Chef Kate Koo of Alberta’s Zilla Sake House much prefers local Dungeness to other crabs for her nigiri and sushi rolls. ”Dungeness tends to be a little less fishy and crabby,” Koo said. “It’s not as flaky and dry as some other crab that I’ve used in the past. I found that if we’re using snow crab like we did years ago that we did have to mix with a little lemon juice or mix a little mayo to get it to hold together in the rolls. But the Dungeness does that enough on its own, which is something that I love about it.” Zilla uses Dungeness crab throughout its menu, including in multiple rolls, nigiri, and crab sunomono salad with ponzu sesame dressing.
When adult crabs are found to be insufficiently meaty, however, commercial crabbers are prohibited from setting their crab pots. Crab tests over the last decade have repeatedly found undersized crabs in November, pushing back the December 1 start date for weeks, often into the next calendar year. Caren Braby, the marine resources program manager for Oregon’s Department of Fish and Wildlife, said that while the exact biological mechanisms are still being studied, it’s clear that climate change plays a critical role in the delayed growth of the crab’s muscles during the summer and fall leading up to the commercial season. Warmer ocean waters during the crabs’ critical fall growth period can limit both the food supply crabs rely on and oxygen levels in the water. Additionally, Braby said that ocean warming and resulting acidification can delay the season further by intensifying algal blooms, which produce a biotoxin that makes its way into the crabs’ meat. The toxin, domoic acid, can be harmful or even fatal to vertebrates further up the food chain — including sea birds, seals, whales, and humans. In 2017, commercial crabbing was temporary closed weeks after opening due to high levels of domoic acid, even though meat fill was strong.
With delayed seasons nearly every year for the past decade, seafood suppliers and local restaurants have developed strategies to be resilient. Carlo Lamagna of Southeast Clinton’s Magna Kusina said that his popular crab fat noodles and ginataang alimasag — crab cooked in coconut milk — are better with fresh Dungeness, but he can use picked, frozen crab meat from his supplier in the slower times of year. When Oregon Dungeness is unavailable, Koo works with her suppliers to find fresh crabs as far afield as Alaska, but will also use frozen crab in a pinch.
The impact is felt strongest by Oregon’s 423 commercial crabbers who depend on Dungeness for a substantial portion of their annual revenue. Tim Novotny, executive director of the Oregon Dungeness Crab Commission, said that Dungeness is easily the most profitable of Oregon’s fisheries, and while many crabbers are able to harvest shrimp or rockfish in the off-season, the uncertainty heading into the critical crab season in December is especially stressful. “They’ve got to try to find a way to keep their crew busy and fill out the payroll,” Novotny said. “It’s very harrowing during that time period. They’ve gotten used to these delays, but it’s still very uncomfortable and full of angst.”
Henry Ho, logistics manager at Southeast Powell’s live seafood supplier OM Seafood, said that with a geographically diverse set of crabber relationships and oxygenated tanks that can keep crabs alive for up to a month, his company finds ways to offer live Dungeness consistently throughout the year, but the slower months necessitate steep fluctuations in price. “People don’t want to pay $11 for a pound for crab,” Ho said, “There’s a big waiting game… weeks and weeks of ‘I don’t know if I should order.’ So orders get dropped or canceled.”
Those price increases ultimately mean local chefs face the choice of raising the menu price for a dish, or dropping it altogether until the season opens. Chef Brett Uniss of McMinnville’s Humble Spirit had been hoping to feature local Dungeness prominently in Christmas and New Year’s menus and was disappointed when the season opening was delayed well into January. “The season got pushed and pushed and pushed,” Uniss said, “So we just basically paused on it because there’s not a real substitute for live, or at least freshly cooked, Dungeness crab.“ With the season now open, Uniss plans to include Dungeness in crab pot pie and pasta specials in the weeks ahead.
While Oregon diners may need to embrace uncertainty in the years to come — especially those accustomed to traditional Dungeness for the December holidays — the long-term health of the Dungeness population remains strong. “Dungeness crab is one of our most idyllic, model species for sustainability,” said the Department of Fish and Wildlife’s Braby, so crab-lovers can continue to enjoy their fresh Dungeness, in-season, guilt-free.