Oregon’s Commercial Fishing in 2021

by Erik Knoder

April 4, 2022

Oregon’s commercial fishing industry revenues jumped 29% to $206 million in 2021, mostly thanks to a bumper Dungeness crab harvest. It was the best crab year since 2013. Total commercial fishing harvests have averaged about $165 million (2021 dollars) in recent years. But after years of delayed starts, the 2021-2022 Dungeness crab season started on time on December 1, 2021. The 2020-2021 season didn’t start until December 16 for most of the coast. Since most crab are landed early in the season, this meant that the 2021 calendar year logged an unusually large harvest. Pacific whiting and groundfish also contributed to a more valuable year. Overall, the revenue from fishing rose by $46.5 million in 2021 even as the volume of harvests decreased by 27 million pounds.

Individual fisheries

Crab harvests in 2021 rose 22% to 24.3 million pounds, the best harvest since 26 million pounds were landed in 2013. The crab season started December 1; the first time since 2014 that the season started on time. Higher prices also helped. The crab harvest was worth $120 million in 2021, about 65% more than the year before. Dungeness crab is usually Oregon’s most valuable fishery, and it was again by far in 2021.
Salmon landings rose 15% in 2021, to nearly 1.8 million pounds. This was more than the past few years but still well below the average since 2010. Also, the average price rose a little to $3.65 per pound. As a result, the total landed value rose 28% to $6.5 million. This made 2021 better than the previous four years, but the commercial salmon fishery remains below its average since 2010.

The pink shrimp harvest was almost 47 million pounds in 2021, an increase of 8% from 2020, and more than the average of recent years. Unfortunately, shrimp prices fell slightly from 72 cents to 50 cents per pound in 2021. The total value landed managed to increase 3% to $23.4 million. This was about the average of recent years. Oregon pink shrimp was certified as a sustainable fishery by the Marine Stewardship Council in 2007 and reassessed as sustainable in 2011.

The amount of whiting landed fell for the second year, by 16% in 2021 to 184 million pounds. Whiting accounted for 58% by weight of all wild seafood landed in Oregon, but it has a low value. The price increased by two cents to nine cents per pound in 2021. The total landed value for this fishery rose 15% in 2021 to $17.5 million. Much of Oregon’s whiting is made into surimi for use in making artificial crab meat.

The value of groundfish landed increased 22% in 2021 to $22.5 million. The landed value had dropped for the last few years so 2021 represented a small recovery, but the fishery is still below its average since 2010. The amount landed increased by 10%, and the average price rose five cents per pound to fifty cents. The price per pound had been dropping since 2016.

The albacore tuna harvest fell 27%, and was roughly half the level of two years before. Fortunately, the price increased 29% to $2.05 per pound. Accordingly, the total value landed fell by only 6% in 2021 to $6.6 million. This was the lowest level since 2003. Albacore has become an important fishery in recent years, especially for smaller boats that depended on salmon.

Some smaller fisheries had notable changes. The slime eel (hagfish) harvest, which is mainly exported, dropped 33% in 2021 to about $800,000. Clam harvests were mixed: razor clam harvests were down 61%, but butter clam harvests grew 54% to $202,000. In total, the clam harvest fell 13% to about $883,000. The Pacific halibut was up 33% to $1.6 million. The red sea urchin harvest rose modestly to $725,000. The sea urchin fishery roughly doubled in 2018 and has stayed fairly high since then. Although the amount harvested has fallen, the price per pound has gone up fivefold as the demand for sea urchin eggs (uni) used in sushi has increased in recent years. Most of the sea urchin harvest is processed out of state. The market squid harvest dropped 24% to $4.5 million. The squid fishery grew from nothing in 2017 to $6 million in 2020. This may herald the establishment of a new important fishery for Oregon since it is now similar in size to the salmon fishery.

Employment

There were an estimated 1,227 commercial fishers (excluding tribal fishing) in Oregon on an annual average basis in 2021. This was pretty similar to the previous year but down from 1,438 in 2019. The business restrictions from the COVID-19 pandemic and limited salmon harvest are the likely causes for the drop in employment. Several seafood processors were strongly impacted by restrictions and closures.
Estimating employment in fishing is more difficult than measuring the harvests. Legislation in 1999 allowed most fishermen to be exempt from unemployment insurance coverage – the primary source of employment data. The Oregon Employment Department now estimates the number of fishers based on a combination of survey data and the number of commercial fish landings made in Oregon. This method was new for 2014 and resulted in a lower employment estimate than before. Oregon vessels or crews making landings outside of Oregon are not included in these estimates of employment in Oregon.

The estimated number of fishers varied from a high of 1,660 in April to a low of 467 in November. Fishing employment often peaks in the summer but COVID-19 restrictions led to a subdued summer season. Five coastal counties – Clatsop, Lincoln, Coos, Curry, and Tillamook – had 96% of the total employment, based on where landings occur. Perhaps even more surprising is that non-coastal Jefferson County had any commercial fishing employment. These jobs are sometimes based on crayfish harvests.
The most important fisheries for employment are crab, pink shrimp, and salmon. The estimates of employment by species represent the minimum number of people in that fishery on an annual basis. Landings are counted by only the most valuable species landed that trip. Commercial fishers harvested about 100 different species in 2021.

Revenue

Although the number of fishing vessels has declined from historic highs, it has become more stable over the past decade. Fishing began generating more revenue per boat after the turn of the century, albeit with plenty of fluctuations. There were 882 vessels with at least one landing in 2021, down from 984 in 2020. They averaged about $233,000 each in landed value in Oregon in 2021, up 44% from the previous year. Each vessel supported about 1.4 workers on an annual average basis; many vessels have landings only part of the year.
In addition to direct employment, commercial fishing provides the resource for seafood processors. Complete data on processors for 2021 are not available yet, but employment through the third quarter of 2021 averaged about 100 jobs below 2020. Records show that there were 32 seafood processors in Oregon that had employees in 2020; it looks like Oregon added two more processors in 2021. Some processors also use temporary help firms to round out their staffing, but these employees are counted in the business services industry. The processing industry paid more than $49 million in wages in 2020, which clearly shows the benefit of adding value to raw natural products.


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