As COVID-19 shutters the Asia market, crabbers target local buyers.
Even before COVID-19, crabbers along the coast were in uncharted waters.
In January the crab fishers saw stormy weather on an “historic’ scale,” according to Tim Novotny, communications manager for the Oregon Dungeness Crab Commission. Crabbers were also learning to navigate more abundant and more unpredictable crab harvests.
Both phenomena could be attributed to rising global temperatures. A recent study from the University of Maryland found warmer waters increased crab mating frequency, though the study was conducted with blue crab, not dungeness.
Still, times were good. Before the virus, crab caught off the coast could fetch close to $30 a pound in China, particularly during the month-long Chinese New Year celebration in February. Tariffs on live animal exports from the Trump administration’s trade war had lessened and crabbers were poised to have an excellent quarter.
Then COVID-19 hit. China banned live animal imports before the February festivities were scheduled to begin. The stormy weather in January prohibited crabbers from going out on the water. The pandemic meant when it finally became safe to catch crabs, harvesters found fewer places to ship them.
“China shutting down was when we first started to feel the impact of the pandemic, then the closures of restaurants and stores hit us full blast,” says Novotny. “All of a sudden nothing was going out.”
“But necessity is the mother of invention. Everyone from the crabbers to the processors to the mom-and-pop places started saying, ‘Okay, so what do we do?’ and you started to see Pacific Seafood start shipping crab all over the country.”
Until the pandemic, flash-freezing techniques, which freeze crabs in a briny block of ice to maintain flavor and texture, was a niche market, used primarily for small orders. Since COVID-19, seafood processor Pacific Seafood expanded the flash-freezing process and has developed new supply chains for the flash-frozen crabs going to the East Coast.
Conventional freezing methods, which involve throwing a crab in a freezer overnight, left the meat with a tough texture and unpleasant taste. Flash-freezing, a process which subjects the crustaceans to cryogenic temperatures for freezing in a matter of hours, does not cause the same amount of tissue damage.
When the crab meat is presented at trade shows, Novotny says even seasoned crab connoisseurs cannot tell the difference.
Other crabbers have set their sights on the local market. Smaller crabbing operations began to offer home delivery and curbside pickup.
Like many sectors during COVID-19, the pandemic has brought seafood industry leaders together.
The Oregon Dungeness Crab Commission has partnered with the Department of Agriculture and Oregon State University, as well as other state seafood commissions including the Oregon Albacore Commission and Oregon Salmon Commission, to create a marketing initiative using the hashtag #EatOregonSeafood. The campaign features a website which displays the location of local seafood in the area.
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The goal of the campaign is to increase consumption of locally caught seafood. The biggest factor working against at-home crab sales, according to Novotny, is the perception that seafood, crab in particular, is difficult to cook.
For this reason, the campaign also displays recipes that can easily be prepared at home.
“We want to change the perception that Oregon dungeness crab is a white-tablecloth kind of meal,” says Novotny.
This year will still be “devastating” for crab fishers, says Novotny, with some facing a 50% or more loss in revenue. Still, as the industry springs into action, he remains optimistic.
Although the short-term benefits of marketing and market creation will not play a role in whether or not a company survives, he is confident the changes will lead to a much greater future for Oregon seafood.
“It has been a really hard slog. But ingenuity kept it from being completely devastating,” he says.
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