Jill Smith: Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife Shellfish Biologist

crabbing oregon
If this was crab season all the gear on the back of the boat would be gone. Doors, net reel, shrimp box etc. would be cleared off. It takes about a half day to one and a half days to take all equipment off and get ready for crab season. Photo courtesy: Jill Smith

Pacific Dungeness crab season is swiftly approaching for local fisherman, and the Astoria branch of Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife is gearing up for another season of data collection, inspections and toxicity testing. Passionate about life, science and people, Jill Smith, a shellfish biologist for the local chapter of Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) works closely with shrimp, crab and sardine fisheries for the Clatsop County area.

Working with fishermen from the mouth of the Columbia River to Nehalem Bay, Jill Smith has studied the Oregon Coast for 16 years. On a daily basis, Smith collects data that has been archived by ODFW for over 30 years.

“I love collecting real data, looking at the body of data and being involved in real science. It is nice to be a part of something that is bigger than you, while helping the fisherman in the long run,” says Smith when asked about her favorite parts of being a shellfish biologist.

While Smith has enjoyed working with fishermen for over 12 years, before coming to Astoria she spent time leading guided camping adventures throughout Canada, the United States and Mexico. After graduating from Oregon State University with a degree in zoology and a focus in marine biology, Smith traveled to Bolivia with the Peace Corps. There she worked with young boys impacted by cocaine and other drug manufacturing. Through youth development grants, she was able to assist in providing basic needs for the local children, developing a rabbit and guinea pig farm to generate income long-term, and establishing a water storage facility.

pink shrimp oregon
Pink shrimp Pandalus jordani were caught off the coast of Oregon. Photo courtesy: Jill Smith

These days, Smith uses her passion for science and helping others to aid fishermen and protect sensitive marine species. As an example, Smith, along with shellfish biologists up and down the Oregon Coast, works with pink shrimp fisheries to help them avoid catching smelt. Recently it has been discovered that if lights are placed on shrimp-catching equipment, they deter fish (including smelt) from getting caught. Over the past three years, through data collection and experimentation, ODFW has noticed a decrease in by-catch. Smith continues to work toward the right combination of lights and hopes to have definitive answers for pink shrimp fishermen in upcoming seasons.

Limiting by-catch (other species caught in fishing gear) is a win-win situation for both fishermen and for sensitive species such as smelt. While it is beneficial to the marine ecosystem to limit by-catch, it is also labor intensive for fishermen and processors to remove the extra animals. As an added risk, the more species-diverse the catch, the greater the risk of introducing contaminants to the whole catch.

The George Allen has a double rig net reel to release two nets at the same time and could be used for ground fish, salmon trolling, shrimping, and crabbing with appropriate permitting. The wooden doors on the side of the vessel help keep the net wide open when dragging at the bottom. Photo courtesy: Jill Smith

As November nears, pink shrimp season will close (the season is April through October) and pre-testing for the upcoming commercial crab season will begin. With an estimated opening day ranging anywhere from December into January 2018, tests throughout November will include determining the “pick-rate” of crab and demoic acid presence.

The “pick-rate” of crab caught and sold in Astoria/Warrenton must be a minimum of 23%. Essentially, the weight ratio of un-cooked to cooked meat from the crabs caught in the test sample must be at least 23% in Astoria and Garibaldi. Newport and Southern Oregon Harbors must have a pick rate of 25%. Only once all the harbors meet the minimum pick-rates set for the region can the commercial season open. Having a minimum “pick-rate” allows consumers to avoid what is colloquially referred to as soft-shelled-crab, or crab that hasn’t yet grown into its shell.

Demoic acid testing is conducted in order to ensure that the acid is not present at rates potentially toxic to humans. “A crab can ingest a clam high in demoic acid, and demoic acid can then accumulate in the viscera (crab organs),” Smith explains. It is recommended to remove the organs prior to cooking crab and throw away the water afterward to limit demoic acid exposure.

Minimum requirements set by ODFW prevent poor quality crab in the market. During the commercial crab season, ODFW will send crab to the Oregon Department of Agriculture for additional demoic acid testing. “It is important to understand when cooking and buying seafood why it is being sold whole versus halved,” Smith urges.

High-quality crab, healthy fisheries, safe fisherman and protected ecosystems are goals Smith, along with the rest of ODFW, strives for.

To learn more about the crabbing and clamming in Tillamook Bay, click here.

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