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Crab industry put to test

Garage-size cement slabs on seafloor anchor pistons capturing wave power; some coastal residents are wary

Crabs and power generation seem to be an odd combination for conflict. But along the Pacific Coast using ocean waves for power creation is making crab harvesters, well, crabby.

It all seems logical and perfect. The ocean waves relentlessly break along the coast. Sometimes there are just small waves, and during storms they can be enormous but they are always rolling in and crashing onto the beach. There must be a way to harness all that energy and convert it into electricity. Wave power is no longer on the drawing board and is becoming a reality as fossil fuel reserves are depleted and fuel prices continue to rise. Development of power from waves is still in its infancy but prototypes are already offshore from Bandon, Ore.

Simply put, a valve-like piston is anchored to the ocean floor. Waves cause the piston to go up and down, and the action can produce electricity. Multiply that one power generator by, say, hundreds installed in a bay and significant amounts of electricity can be created. At least that is the plan – and the rub.

In that same shallow bay is a thriving and sustainable population of crabs. Dungeness crabs are one of the seafoods that are well-known that delight many palates. Unlike other seafood that have had boom or bust (mostly bust) cycles caused by overfishing, pollution and development affecting habitat loss, crabbing has had a history of a consistent population and catch.

Dungeness crabs are found only in the North Pacific. They have been harvested since the 1890s (over 100 years). Crabbing is not just a commercial venture. Individuals (even ones from out-of-state) can rent or buy a crab trap. After baiting the trap (commercial crabbers use herring, squid and razor clams) and throwing it off a pier, most often one or two crabs can be caught within two hours. In Oregon the average commercial harvest is 10 million-plus pounds. Commercial as well as personal crabbing allows only harvesting adults that measure 6½ inches across the back. That means all the juveniles and females are expected to be thrown back. Adult males are then about 4 years old and have shed their shell up to 16 times. They all live in sandy, shallow bays and along the Pacific coastline.

The commercial crab traps called pots have exit holes just large enough to allow young ones to escape. Since 1996 the crab fishery allows only about 450 commercial permits to be issued, ensuring that the coastal crabs are not over-harvested. The industry is well-managed and after all these years is still, in good years, experiencing record harvests.

Understandably the crab industry is closely monitoring the wave to electricity initiative because the wave-powered pistons are anchored to the seafloor by cement slabs the size of a two-car garage floor. The slabs would be constructed in prime crab habitat. Several hundred cement slabs constructed in a bay would have a serious impact on the crab population. The annual harvest catch value is $5 million to $50 million.

For us inlanders the wind power/crab issue may seem like a distant problem. But for those who enjoy crab meat from the local grocery store or take a trip over to the coast occasionally to catch fresh crabs for a seafood feast, the problem may not seem so distant.

Tags: crabs