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Price dispute keeps North Coast crab boats in the docks

Crab boats that should have flooded the North Coast fishery over the weekend remained tied up Monday as their skippers held out for better wholesale prices.

Unsatisfied with the $2.50 a pound they are being offered, skippers who fish along the Mendocino, Humboldt and Del Norte county coasts appear unified in their decision to stay ashore until wholesalers make an offer closer to the $3 a pound being paid to fishermen working out of Bodega Bay and points south.

“We feel that we should at least get the same price as they do in the Bay Area,” said Aaron Newman, president of the Humboldt Fishermen’s Marketing Association.

“We’re all tied up and just waiting,” McKinleyville fisherman D. Ray Pemberton said.

The commercial crab season started Nov. 15 in District 10, the coastal area south of the Sonoma-Mendocino county line, with a negotiated opening price of $3 — the same price offered on the North Coast two years ago, Pemberton said.

Last year, North Coast fishermen settled for $2.50 a pound to open the season and suffered while fish processors profited, he said.

A better price is even more important this year because the size of the catch is expected to be smaller, though the individual crabs appear to be big and meaty, Pemberton said. Moreover, there’s a strong market buoyed by demand for crab in Asia that would support a higher price, he said.

“Still, it’s a luxury item, but we feel like $3 is kind of a fair price for what we’re offering,” Pemberton said.

The strength of their position depends in part on the timing of the commercial season in Oregon and Washington, which has been delayed until at least Dec. 16 because the crab there were not deemed mature enough for the scheduled Dec. 1 start.

The degree to which the catch along the Central Coast fishery begins to decline could affect negotiations as well, especially with the Christmas holiday coming, Newman said.

But if North Coast or even Oregon fishermen were to settle for $2.50 a pound, the price would fall for everyone, Newman said. He anticipated solidarity among fishermen.

“There’s always justifications for everybody,” he said. “We want more money for our product because our expenses are up, and the processors claim the same thing, of course.

“The truth of the matter is Dungeness crab in a low-volume year is a pretty unique item,” which should support a good price, Newman said.

Representatives for fishermen in the four primary North Coast ports — Fort Bragg, Eureka, Trinidad and Crescent City — were to meet Wednesday on next steps.

Representatives for Pacific Choice Seafood, which is negotiating on behalf of wholesalers, were not available for comment Monday.

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