Scuttling for Dollars

Cutthroat local crabbing competition drives down prices, but carries drawbacks for Bay Area fishermen and seafood lovers.

Last month, as I was preparing my review of crab restaurants, I was shocked to learn that San Francisco’s Dungeness crab season was, for all practical purposes, over.

November 15 marks the beginning of Dungeness crab fishing in the Bay Area, primarily around Half Moon Bay, the Farallon Islands, and Bodega Bay. For most of the rest of the West Coast, the season begins December 1.

But in recent years, big boats bearing up to a thousand traps (or “pots”) have been traveling south from Northern California, Oregon, and Washington to compete with smaller local boats during the Bay Area’s head-start period, during which the bulk of the crab is harvested. From November 15 to December 1, the local hunt is fierce and grueling. And it’s over almost as soon as it has begun, an eight-month season in two weeks.

The two or three seafood processors that buy the crab — live — off Bay Area boats are working almost as fast as the fishermen. But not fast enough. According to Zeke Grader, president of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Association, Pacific Choice Seafood, one of the largest seafood distributors in California, was attempting to keep prices down by calling for more crab than it could process. By mid-December, local fisherman were complaining that the larger boats were dumping tens of thousands of pounds of dead Dungeness crabs back into the ocean, in violation of the state Fish and Game Code. The state Fish and Game Commission will hold a hearing on the subject in March, long after the unofficial season has ended.

Was it too late for me to buy crab? And how serious was this problem?

It’s not a problem for the crabs, says Pete Kalvass, a marine biologist with California’s Department of Fish and Game. Since fishermen can only catch male crabs over a certain size — a state policy that hasn’t changed since 1915 — commercial crab fishing doesn’t threaten California’s Dungeness population, which fluctuates year to year due to oceanic factors rather than human ones. Last year was a banner year for Pacific Coast crab, and preliminary reports suggest that this year’s catch will be a good one, too.

The glut isn’t a problem for consumers, either. “The price of crab has been fairly steady over the last two weeks,” said Ted Iijima, head of the seafood department at Berkeley Bowl. According to Iijima, supply of live crabs has remained steady, too, with most of Berkeley Bowl’s live crabs coming from bigger processors transporting them from Northern California and southern Oregon. Though supply drops in January, Iijima says that the Bowl will be able to stock live crabs throughout the season.

The problem, then, mostly affects local fishermen. “The economic reality is that there are a set amount of crabs to harvest,” Kalvass says. “The question comes down to would you like to take them all right away, or would you like to spread that catch out across the entire season?”

In an ironic twist, a number of the large boats swooping into the Bay Area to catch crabs once trawled for sole and snapper. But when the feds put severe restrictions on trawling in 2003 to protect the collapsing Pacific Coast fishery, they gave large settlements to affected fishermen — who then invested the money in crab pots.

Last year, Assemblyman Mark Leno, working with the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations, attempted to pass legislation limiting the number of crab pots that boats could fish with in the Bay Area. Grader says that the proposed limit of 250 was a figure that owners of small and medium-sized boats had agreed on after years of negotiations. Governor Schwarzenegger vetoed it, and this year Leno is attempting to reintroduce a very similar version of the bill, with the limits declared a two-year pilot program.

Some experts point out that moving the start date for the Bay Area crab season back to December 1 would keep many of the larger boats at home. But local commercial fishing associations rejected such a move. San Francisco tradition demands crab at Thanksgiving, Grader says.

Do limits constitute local protectionism? Definitely. Would 250-pot limits drive larger boats out of business and drive up the price of crab? Possibly. At current prices — around $5 a pound, even at higher-end supermarkets — live Dungeness crab is an affordable “luxury” for Californians. Raising prices would protect Bay Area fishermen, but might price Dungeness crab out of the budgets of many local consumers.

But there are two other, more convincing reasons to support Leno’s bill: First, slowing the hunt would reduce dumping of dead crabs. No one knows how many dead and dying crabs were dumped back into Bay Area waters in 2004. Kalvass says that he has heard reports of sixty thousand pounds. Grader doubles the figure. Whatever the loss, “it’s an appalling waste of a natural resource,” Iijima says.

Second, even though processors have improved their distribution of live crabs, when they’re dealing with such large volumes, they’re far more likely to freeze it. Grader argues that by spreading out the catch over a longer period, Bay Area diners will have greater access to live, local Dungeness crabs.

Think of it: Tourists at the San Francisco Wharf might actually buy what they’re overpaying for: Not some crab caught hundreds of miles away and frozen for months, but local food from local producers. In short, true California cuisine.

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