Now that it's christened a sustainable premium product, seafood dealers expect crab to crack new markets.
Oregon's Dungeness crab earned the Marine Stewardship Council's globally recognized eco-label this month, certifying it a well-managed fishery.
The label comes at a time when select retailers intend to primarily or strictly carry certified seafood.
"Oregon is positioned nicely to fulfill that demand," said Nick Furman, executive director of the Oregon Dungeness Crab Commission.
The state will enjoy the distinction as the only certified crab fishery in the U.S., at least for now.
"That will provide dividends to processors and the harvesters in the state, as well as the coastal communities," Furman said.
Treated like evidence
But before it can reach shelves, retailers must know where product is coming from.
Earlier this week, Hallmark Seafood in Charleston received a chain-of-custody number from MSC, allowing buyers to trace a product's point of sale.
"This is kind of a foolproof way to know you're getting what you pay for," said Hallmark manager Scott Adams. "It's a quality standard that will probably add value."
Though maybe not immediately.
"The market side is a little slower in catching up," said Brad Pettinger, executive director of the Oregon Trawl Commission.
MSC has approved the trawl commission's pink shrimp in recent years, helping to assuage any doubt the fishery was not sustainable.
"It's the toughest and the best," Pettinger said.
"We'd be judged harshly if we did anything else."
Furman said the commission began pursuing MSC's blessing in 2003, after having been judged favorably by other seafood watchdogs, such as the Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch.
Back then, he said, MSC's seal of sustainability was relatively unknown in the United States.
"We figured if MSC gained traction that it would it be a feather in our cap," Furman said.
But proving that Oregon's Dungeness crab was worthy of its label was difficult, partly because the fishery was "data deficient."
"When it came time to prove our claims, there wasn't a lot of current research," he said.
Dungeness crab is managed by sex (only males are harvested), season (harvest occurs from December to August) and size (only adults 6.25 inches are caught). Qualifying for the label meant auditing these three sets of criteria, not just the stock assessment required to certify other fisheries, Furman said.
Even though female crab aren't harvested, the commission still was tasked with researching fertilization, among other painstaking steps.
It took years to document.
Plan B needed
A historic landing of 33 million pounds off the Oregon Coast in the 2004-05 season wasn't proof enough that the fishery was abundant and healthy.
In order to receive certification, the commission also had to come up with an emergency backup plan in the event the fishery was declining, even though "in the 100 years we've been keeping records we've never seen a sign this fishery is going to crash," Furman said.
In the end, Oregon's Dungeness crab gets to boast being the nation's only crab to earn the stewardship's stamp of approval. Its also the world's only major MSC-certified crab fishery, Furman said.
Washington, California and Alaska may come on board later. But the certification process can be long and arduous. In the meantime, the only MSC-approved crab is coming from Oregon.
‘The gold standard'
"We knew it was a sustainable fishery, but this takes it to the next level," said Mark Curran, senior seafood coordinator with Whole Foods Market.
More and more consumers, he said, expect seafood to be certified sustainable by a credible third-party.
Last summer, Whole Foods implemented a program whereby all its seafood products at least meet the standards of Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch. But, "we consider MSC to be the gold standard," Curran said.
Even Walmart is getting in on the label game. The retail giant said in a press release it would it would purchase only MSC-certified fish for its domestic stores by the end of next year.
Business Editor Nate Traylor can be reached at 541-269-1222, ext. 236; or at email@example.com.