NEWPORT - Rough seas and high winds driven by a series of Pacific storms could force the delay of the commercial Dungeness crab season.
With the season set to open Dec. 1, crabbers and processors are keeping an eye on weather forecasts, and they don't like what they see.
Under fishery regulations, crabbers could head out to set their traps as early as Saturday.
"A lot of the small boats, especially, are getting nervous," said Jerry Bates, owner of the Depoe Bay Fish Co. processing plant in Newport. "And some of the processors are, too. We've had years when the boats couldn't get out for two weeks, and that makes it tough when you're trying to let the retailers know when you'll be able to deliver the product."
Ken Hilderbrand, Extension seafood specialist for Oregon State University and Oregon Sea Grant, said many fishermen on the central coast have been counting on crab to help make up revenue lost in other fisheries this year.
"The industry is down in a lot of areas, and crab is one way they can make a little money," said Hilderbrand. "So there's a lot of pressure to get out there fast."
Although the crab season lasts until summer, Hilderbrand said, most of the catch is sold in December and January, partly because of the intensive fishing effort and partly because of a strong holiday-season demand for Dungeness crab.
The season's first severe winter storms began stacking up off the Pacific coast last week, and have hammered the region with heavy rain, hard winds and high seas ever since. More storms are expected through the Thanksgiving weekend, according to OSU's George Taylor, the state climatologist, who is predicting a wet, cold winter.
"The 10-day outlook calls for things to stay pretty wet and wild, although it may let up a little into next week," Taylor said Wednesday. "But it's hard to reliably forecast exactly what will be happening a week into the future."
Forecasters have suggested that the Pacific may be in for a La Nina winter, the flip side of the El Nino climate phenomenon. Such cycles tend to bring with them harder storms with higher winds, and lots of them.
The U.S. Coast Guard at Yaquina Bay is braced for continued rough weather, and officials there say they hope local crabbers won't risk setting out if conditions are extreme.
"There aren't many new boats here, and the experienced crabbers are pretty safety conscious," said Coast Guard spokesman Chris Rosen. "If the price of crabs is high, some of them might risk it, but in the last couple of years the fleet has been a little more cautious. When it's really rough like this, you probably won't see them going out."
The Coast Guard cannot prevent fishers from leaving port, but does provide regular reports of bar conditions, on VHF radio channel 16, and by phone at 541-265-5381.
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Ken Hilderbrand, 541-867-0202