Commercial season opening, China tariffs could bring price relief for Washington delicacy

A dock worker sorts freshly caught crab in a bin. (Getty Images)

WESTPORT, Wash. — The commercial crab season opened off the Washington and Oregon coasts this week, with fishers allowed to pull their pots beginning Friday.

The start of the Dungeness season — combined with a possible dip in demand from China — will likely mean prices will come down locally.

That’s welcomed news for customers who saw near record-high prices over the holidays, said Jon Speltz, owner of Wild Salmon Seafood Market in Seattle.

“It might have been at a historic high,” Speltz said of the prices, which sit at about $14.99-per-pound right now.

Fresh Dungeness crab over the holidays was in such high demand, Speltz said they “were just happy to get live crab.”

The fishery off the coast was delayed this year after tests showed crab had not filled out enough. It can start as early as Dec. 1, but has been pushed back to January over the past few seasons to allow crabs to become meatier, a spokesperson with the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife said.

Despite a late start, the season has remained strong over the last few years. More than 23 million pounds (10 million kilograms) of crab were landed in the 2017-18 season. That brought in a record $74.2 million in ex-vessel value.

Jon Speltz of Wild Salmon Seafood Market lowers crab into a tank. (KCPQ)

The 2017-18 season started even later, with commercial boats finally deployed in late January. Its tardy start was due to various reasons, first because of low-meat yields, then because of price negotiations and later because of weather.

Close eye on China

More crab coming in on a daily basis is good news for retailers and customers, Speltz said.

“We can definitely say the prices will drop a lot in the next few weeks,” he said.

Prices may come down as much as $7.99-$8.99, Speltz said. A far-cry from the buyers’ market of 10-15 years ago.

“People still talk about the days when they can get crab for $3.99, $4.99 and $5.99, but I think those days are over,” Speltz said.

Retailers have been keeping a close eye on China and ongoing trade wars.

Dungeness crab sales to China have jumped in the past five years, he said, raising prices here. But crab trade to China has slowed due to tariffs, with fishermen more ready to sell their catch locally.

A big test will be Chinese New Year in early February, Speltz said. A lot of crab is sold over the Chinese holiday. But if trade between nations remains slow due to tariffs, it will mean even more crab at cheaper prices at home.

“There’s this tariff war going on,” Speltz said. “That will keep the prices down. That’s one thing good for us.”

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