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Oregon Dungeness Crab Makes Sustainable Products List

Oregon’s most valuable seafood product is now certified sustainable. The Oregon Dungeness Crab Commission is ringing in the new year with a sustainable seafood label that’s been seven years in the making.

The Marine Stewardship Council certifies sustainable fisheries worldwide. The Council’s blue label assures environmentally conscious consumers that the seafood they’re buying comes from fisheries that take special care to protect the ocean’s natural resources.

As OPB’s Ecotrope blogger Cassandra Profita reports, Oregon’s Dungeness crab fleet has long believed its policy of catching only mature male crabs ensures the fishery’s longterm health. Now, they finally have the stamp to prove it.

That’s the sound of 100 people enjoying the very first certified sustainable Oregon Dungeness crab dinner. 

The Oregon Dungeness Crab Commission organized the event to celebrate the end of a grueling, seven-year effort to earn a sustainable seafood label.

No one was more surprised or more frustrated by how long it took than Nick Furman, who heads the Commission.

Nick Furman: “When you take something out of the pool for decade after decade after decade and stocks are still strong and healthy, then in our minds we must be doing something right. We only harvest mature male crabs, we put all the juvenile males back and we don’t harvest any females. That alone has enabled us to be able to harvest at the rates that we do and that we’ve been doing.”

But that alone was not enough to earn the fishery a sustainable label from the Marine Stewardship Council.

When Furman first applied for the label seven years ago he thought it would be a slam dunk. He thought Oregon’s Dungeness would be the first fishery in Oregon to be certified sustainable. He thought it would be the crab fishery in the world to earn the eco-friendly label.

But he was wrong.

Nick Furman: “We’ve been harvesting Dungeness crab off the Oregon Coast for over 100 years, and in recent years we’ve had record landings, and the stocks continue to be healthy. For us adding MSC certification is kind of the feather in the cap.”

It turned out to be a $175,000 feather.

To get certified, the commission also had to find a way to test female crab reproduction and count the young male crabs.

The new tests are designed to tell managers whether crab stocks are declining so they can cut catch limits if needed. But the tests took extra money and extra time.

And they put staff at the crab commission at odds with the staff of the private company hired to do the certification.

The commission pressed on over the years as other Oregon fisheries and other crab fisheries around the world earned their sustainable labels.

MSC Regional Director Kerry Coughlin says it will be worth the effort. Having the sustainable label can open up new markets in Europe and bring higher crab prices.

Most important of all, it keeps Dungeness crab in the marketplace as more and more retailers and restaurants commit to selling only sustainable seafood.

Kerry Coughlin: “The MSC program and our methodology is a way to way to convey to the marketplace that this kind of commitment by the fishery is taking place.”

Portland chef Vitaly Paley owns Paley’s Place Bistro and Bar. He helped prepare the state’s first official meal of certified sustainable crab for the celebratory dinner.

He says he already knew the Dungeness fishery was sustainable, but the label will assure other consumers who are concerned about the environmental impact of their food choices.

Vitaly Paley: “Today’s biggest subject of discussion for customers is not just the food itself but where the food comes from and how sustainably it was produced, who produced it. The names of people, where they’re from, seasonality. It’s not just one of the hottest subjects but it’s a heated subject.”

Furman notes Oregon Dungeness is still the first Dungeness crab fishery to be certified, and that will set it apart in the marketplace over the four other Dungeness fisheries on the West Coast.

Nick Furman: “That confirms something we’ve always known anecdotally: That we have a very well-managed and sustainable fishery. But to be able to meet the rigid standards MSC sets for the fishery is a real accomplishment.”

It will take time to figure out how the sustainable label will affect the market and the price for Oregon’s crab.

The crab commission has five years test the waters before it’s time to reapply.