A thick coat of fog settled over the surface of the ocean. It was a picturesque morning in late December at Pillar Point Harbor, just north of Half Moon Bay, and seagulls were perched in a row on the rooftop of the harbormaster’s office.
I was here to fish — for Dungeness crab with a small-boat operator who supplies crab for East Bay markets and eateries. The harbor was lined with row after row of commercial fishing boats with names that were, variously, punny and sweetly earnest: Lost Claws. Lulu. The Out Cast. Pro Fishin’t. Stacy Jeanne. Above one boat, there was a big yellow banner: “LIVE CRAB, JUMBO JUMBO SALE.” Big crabs sold straight off the boat were going for $6 a pound.
Marc Alley’s boat, the Ronna Lynn (named after his sister), is almost certainly the tiniest crab boat that docks at Pillar Point. It’s a 23-foot-long blue and white skiff — shallow, flat-bottomed, completely open to the air. Even that description can’t quite capture how small the boat looks in relation to the other fishing boats in the harbor, with their fancy amenities — like, you know, a cabin with a roof over it. Put it this way: The first time couple of times I walked past the boat, I didn’t even see it. I must have thought it was a liferaft or a little rescue boat that belonged to one of the larger sailing vessels.
Which isn’t to take anything away from the fact that it is a marvel of a little boat. Alley, a wiry fellow in his sixties who has been a commercial fisherman for forty years, is something of a renaissance man — a sculptor, electrician, welder, and surfboard designer, in addition to his main line of work. He built the Ronna Lynn more or less from scratch over a period of years, and installed the navigation system and all the wiring himself. The boat is fast and agile, able to dart around tricky waves and get back ashore quickly if foul weather strikes.
The Ronna Lynn isn’t big enough to hold a lot of crabs on deck. There was, indeed, barely enough room to fit Alley, his deckhand, me, and Express photographer Bert Johnson. But Alley takes pride in the way he handles the crabs — much more carefully, he said, than most of the boats that are double or triple the size of his. For the bigger boats, speed and efficiency often trump the need to make sure each individual crab arrives at the dock unscathed.
Alley sells many of his crabs on Pier 33 in San Francisco to a wholesale operation run by Berkeley-based Monterey Fish Market, which, in turn ships some of the still-lively, tasty crustaceans to its Berkeley market, and even more of them to some of the top restaurants in the East Bay: Chez Panisse in Berkeley and Pizzaiolo, Camino, and Duende in Oakland, to name a few.
Alley had agreed to bring me and Johnson crab fishing, but he’d warned us not to expect too big of a haul. We were a little more than a month into a Dungeness crab season that’s supposed to stretch until the end of June, but he and other small-scale fisherman had been telling me about how 80 percent of the crabs had already been scooped up from the bottom of the ocean within the first two or three weeks of the season, much of them by large commercial fishing boats — large enough to make Alley’s vessel look like a toy rowboat in comparison — that had come down from out of state or from ports on the northern coast of California.
In fact, the big operators haul in far more crab in the first few weeks of the season than Bay Area crab lovers can consume. So the large boats sell their catches to giant seafood processors that ship the crab elsewhere — even to China – much of it frozen and packaged for consumers in other states and nations.
As a result, by February or March, there will hardly be any fresh crab left in the Bay Area — for local crab lovers, or for small-boat operators like Alley.
Big boats monopolizing the Bay Area’s crab market is not a new problem, but it’s gotten worse in the past few decades. A 2001 status report on the Dungeness crab industry by the California Department of Fish and Game noted that prior to 1980, the crab harvest was spread out more evenly throughout the seven-month season. However, in recent decades, the season has effectively been cut by more than half.
Because crabs mature faster in the more temperate waters of the Bay Area, the commercial Dungeness crab season in “District 10” — the portion of the California coast that extends roughly from Santa Cruz north to Point Arena, in southern Mendocino County — typically opens on November 15 each year, two weeks before the usual December 1 season opener for the northern coast, Oregon, and Washington.
In those two weeks of November, especially in years in which the Bay Area is projected to have a robust crab season, a slew of large boats, many of them based in northern ports, come down to the Bay Area and fish intensely, according to Larry Collins, president of the San Francisco Crab Boat Owners Association, which collectively bargains on behalf of San Francisco-based crab fishermen.
Often, the larger boats will have two crews on board so that they can work in shifts around the clock. Because the big-time operators haul in so much crab in those two weeks, small local boats based in San Francisco, Pillar Point, or Bodega Bay must race out to fish, too, or risk missing out on most of the season’s catch. Fishermen call this mad scramble a “derby.”
When the derby gets underway, fishermen drop as many as 174,000 crab traps — or “pots” — into the water at once. Sometimes dozens of pots get stacked practically on top of each other as fishermen jockey for position.
The number of crab pots lining the floor of Bay Area waters during the derby is sometimes up to three times what’s necessary — for the entire crab season, for the entire West Coast. According to a 1978 study by the Pacific Marine Fisheries Commission, which is considered by experts as still valid (the study also was referenced by Humboldt State University economics professor Steven Hackett in his 2003 economic analysis of Dungeness crab processing), 60,000 traps would be enough to catch an entire year’s harvest of crabs not only in California, but in Oregon and Washington as well.
With all those boats crowding into a relatively small geographic area at the same time with more crab traps than they need, it’s no wonder that the crabs get snatched up as quickly as they do.
For years, fishermen have debated the merits of the derby and the challenges that it poses for small-scale fishermen, who have difficulty competing with big boats that drop 1,000 pots in the water, and bring in hundreds of thousands of pounds of crab — storing them all on the boat — each day before heading back to port to drop off their catch.
Until recently, though, relatively little was done to address the issue. Since 1995, there has been a cap on the total number of permits for Dungeness crab fishing in California — but that only keeps the derby from getting even more out of hand.
However, last year’s crab season was the first for what looked to be a promising new initiative in California: a new regulation that limits the number of crab traps each boat can drop in the water. Similar to rules adopted several years ago in Oregon and Washington, the pot limit established a tiered system in which each boat is assigned a cap based on how much crab it had caught over a previous five-year period. The task force drew up a policy by taking the total number of crab traps traditionally employed in California each year — approximately 174,000 — and divvying it up between seven tiers based on the permit holder’s historical fishing record: 500 pots for the most prolific fishers, 450 for the next tier down, and so on, down to 175 pots for the lowest tier.
But small local fishermen say the new rules haven’t had much of an impact so far this season. The big boats are still dominating the market and catching far more crab during the derby than Bay Area residents can eat.
In his 2004 study of California’s Dungeness crab industry, “Racing for Crabs,” Christopher Dewees, a marine fisheries specialist at UC Davis, defined “small” boats as being those that were less than 30 feet long, “medium” boats as being between 30 and 50 feet long, and “large” boats as being 50 or more feet long.
Josh Churchman, who’s fished for crab out of Bolinas for the past 30 years, is a small boat operator: He has a 22-footer, the Osprey. He and Alley are two regular suppliers to the Monterey Fish Market. Another small operator is Phat Vo, co-owner of Berkeley’s Bonita Fish Market, who goes crab fishing a couple of times a week during his off days at the shop. Vo doesn’t have his own crab boat, but goes out as a deckhand on his friend’s 30-foot boat. On an average day, when the fishing is decent, they might pull in three or four thousand pounds — a drop in the bucket compared to what some of the bigger boats are catching.
For supporters of small-scale fishermen, though, the difference between the small and big boat operators has less to do with the literal size of the boat and more to do with the care with which many of the fishermen who operate those smaller vessels handle their catch. Tom Worthington, a partner at Monterey Fish Market who runs the company’s wholesale operation, said he buys nearly all of his crabs from small boat fishermen. He started working with a lot of them when Monterey Fish first opened some 35 years ago, back when fishing practices on the whole tended to be rougher around the edges from a sustainability standpoint. He has found that the smaller operators tend to use the techniques that he values.
According to Worthington, the basic process for crab fishing is essentially the same no matter the size of the boat: Everyone uses the same kinds of traps; everyone has to inspect each crab by hand. But because of the scale of their operation, big boat fishermen tend to not handle the crabs as gently as someone such as Alley. On the big boats, the live crabs might get jostled around or transferred from container to container several times. As a result, Worthington said, on the rare occasion when he needs to supplement his inventory with live crabs unloaded from one of those big boats, he sometimes sends as much as 20 percent of the crabs back because their shells have been cracked or their claws ripped off. He never has those problems with Alley’s crabs.
For a boat that is unloading tens of thousands of pounds of crab at a time, a cracked shell or missing claw isn’t a big deal. The main thing is to get to the crabs first and scoop them all up before anyone else can. So as soon as the season opens, the race is on — and, in the end, it simply isn’t a race that small boat operators can win: There’s no way a tiny crab boat like Alley’s can work at the same blistering pace as a 60-foot vessel with enough manpower to work around the clock, seven days a week, and enough space to store more than 100,000 pounds of crab on board before it needs to unload.
As a result, the small-scale fishermen wind up getting a much smaller share of each year’s overall crab catch. And everyone gets a shorter crab season.
One of Worthington’s fears is that small-scale commercial fishing has become so difficult that the fishermen aren’t passing their traditions down to their children. Crab fishing is a notoriously dangerous line of work as it is — four or five boats sink each year, according to Zeke Grader, the director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations. And when the competition — driven by the large, out-of-town boats — is as fierce as it is during those first few weeks of the crab season, there’s pressure on fishermen to defy their better judgment and go fishing even when the weather is less than ideal.
Most of the small boat fishermen in the Bay Area are in their mid- to late-sixties, Worthington said. If no one in the next generation takes their place, all that will be left is the large-scale fishing operations.
The Ronna Lynn’s chief advantages are its maneuverability and its speed, which allowed us to make it out to the row of traps that Alley had dropped, about three miles offshore, in less than half an hour. It is a remarkable thing to go out on the ocean in a boat this small — nothing above you to protect you from the elements. You feel as though you are standing, literally, on top of the sea.
Just when I was getting comfortable, Alley gunned it to twenty knots, and it was all I could do to hold on with two hands and try to keep from tumbling overboard.
Here’s the way the fishing works: Alley steers the boat out toward the buoys that are attached to his traps, each one a reddish-orange capsule bobbing in the sea. Once we’re in position, the deckhand starts up the boat’s winch system, tugging on a pull-cord like you’d do with a lawnmower until it comes sputtering to life. Alley lifts the buoy out of the water and hooks it onto the winch, which pulls 300 feet of rope up in a matter of seconds, until the trap appears. It’s an iron cage, basically, and looks something like a hollowed-out tractor-trailer tire covered in rope. Each one weighs about 85 pounds even without the crabs. The pots also have a kind of “self-destruct” function, so that if one of them gets lost, a section of rope disintegrates in the water after a couple of months, allowing any crabs trapped inside to escape.
Once Alley pulls the trap aboard, he quickly sorts through the catch — and it’s pretty thin today, maybe eight to ten crabs in a pot, and most of them are undersized, female, or of the wrong species (rock crabs, mostly, which require a different permit). He tosses these back and sets the keepers in a bin while his deckhand reloads the bait: a little plastic tub with sardines in it, to draw the crabs in with their smell, plus a big slab of swordfish for the crabs to eat while they’re in the pot — to keep them happy, Alley said. And then it’s on to the next buoy.
There is an art to fishing, even beyond the most important part, which is figuring out where the crabs actually are. Alley has a theory that the crabs trapped in the pot make “happy” and “not happy” sounds that might make other crabs more or less prone to come in. And he thinks the “happier” crabs — the ones that endure less stress once they’ve been captured — wind up tasting better as well. Here, too, is where you see the difference in how the small-scale fisherman operates: Alley gently transfers each keeper into a container by hand, and keeps maybe thirty or forty of them in each bin — not five hundred to a bin, as a larger boat might do. Again, he believes the crabs are happier that way, and less likely to get damaged.
Truth be told, the weather conditions aren’t great on this particular morning. (We only see one other boat out on the water the whole time: a big one that Alley thinks is based out of Seattle.) Every time Alley’s boat stopped, I felt the choppiness of the water. It sent me lurching first one way and then the other. Moving from buoy to buoy, the boat tilted up and then landed down with a thud. Up and down, up and down — like skiing moguls, Alley said.
Crabbing can be lucrative — in his very best year, Alley said he sold $150,000 worth of crabs; $80,000 or $90,000 in sales is a more typical season. But those numbers don’t factor in the roughly $50,000 that he has to spend up-front each year on equipment, bait, fuel, permits, and other expenses. The pots alone cost $250 each once they’re loaded up with gear, and he has 250 pots. And equipment — not to mention crabs — get stolen all the time.
“It costs a lot of money to make a lot of money,” Alley said.
And his business would be more sustainable if the prime crab season lasted more than just a month or two.
Last year, commercial fishermen caught about 10 million pounds of crab in District 10. The size of the harvest varies year to year, but, generally, fishermen say, four-fifths of the catch occurs during the derby.
But as much as Bay Area residents love to eat fresh crab, they can’t consume 8 million pounds in just a few short weeks. That’s where large corporations — such as the Pacific Seafood Group, the Clackamas, Oregon-based seafood company — come into the picture. Big boat operators sell much of their catch to Pacific Seafood, which has processing facilities spread all along the West Coast. The company then repackages most crabs and other fish into saleable food products — such as crabmeat, whole cooked crabs, and frozen crabs — that are ready for the supermarket.
Pacific Seafood is the largest buyer of Dungeness crab on the West Coast. Mike Okoniewski, an operations manager with the company, said the company has the capacity to purchase and process more than 10 million pounds of West Coast Dungeness crab in a season — a stunning number given that California’s entire harvest for last year was 17 million pounds.
Pacific Seafood has been referred to as the Walmart of the crab business. Many of the fishermen I spoke to described a company that is able to walk into a room — literally or figuratively — and set the terms of the discussion, whether it be during beginning-of-the-season price haggling or over an issue like crab trap limits. At least two different people used the word “kingpin” in describing Pacific Seafood.
Okoniewski said the company gets a bad rap just for being big. But those who’d like a longer crab season argue that without a company like Pacific Seafood, there might not be a reason for the big boats from out of town to come down and catch all of those crabs during the derby, because no one else would be able to handle buying that much crab at once.
According to Okoniewski, Pacific Seafood sells up to 10 percent of the crabs it buys as live catch to establishments in the Bay Area and elsewhere. In fact, the company touts the inroads that it has made into the Chinese market, where live Dungeness crab command an exceptionally high price, as one of the ways the company helps keep overall prices higher for fishermen. Pacific Seafood also cooks crabs whole and sells them that way to supermarkets and other purveyors — some in the Bay Area, but mostly in other regions.
But the lion’s share of the company’s crabs are cooked, butchered into sections, and frozen so that they can be stored for months before the meat gets picked and canned or turned into other crab products.
Pacific Seafood has generated a fair amount of controversy over the years. In 2010, a group of West Coast fishermen filed a class-action antitrust lawsuit against the company — though the case was eventually settled after Pacific Seafood agreed to make a handful of changes to its practices in order to foster a fairer competitive environment.
According to a report in the Seattle Times, the company also launched a trial program in 2005 in which it would ship frozen crabs to Qindao, China in order to have the meat picked there for roughly one-tenth the cost of labor — thereby taking millions of dollars out of the Oregon economy. (This particular program was the first thing that Alley brought up when I mentioned Pacific Seafood.) Okoniewski said he’s certain that the company no longer ships crab to China to be processed, but I wasn’t able to get official confirmation.
When fishermen first started discussing early versions of the crab pot limit, Pacific Seafood representatives spoke out against it. “This method is bringing the fishery down to the level of the lowest operator,” Vince Thomas, then the vice president of the company, said to a 2005 meeting of the California Fish and Game Commission, according to an Associated Press report at the time.
Okoniewski acknowledged that Pacific Seafood was initially opposed to the trap limits, but said the company doesn’t currently have a stance on the matter. “We’d be remiss to dive into what is largely a big-boat-small-boat issue,” he said. “We think fishermen should settle fishermen issues, for the most part.”
The company buys crab from small boats, too, Okoniewski pointed out. And he said it isn’t accurate to say that small boat fishermen don’t influence policy — or, for that matter, that there’s anything inherently superior about having a small boat. “Guys who have put everything on the line to get a bigger boat, are you going to tell them they can’t? That’s socialism at its worst, I think,” Okoniewski said.
Still, the fact remains: The current situation, wherein so much crab is caught in such a short interval of time, doesn’t seem tenable unless a company like Pacific Seafood, with its huge network of processing facilities, is there to buy up that crab. As Worthington put it, “They want all the crabs at once.” That way, they can freeze them and profit from them.
When the government issues regulations to protect a particular fish, it’s usually because of overfishing or some other external factor that threatens the survival of the species. And perhaps that’s part of the reason why it has been so difficult to make sweeping changes to the Bay Area’s crab fishery.
Indeed, the Dungeness crab fishery has proved to be largely sustainable with just a few simple safeguards — namely, the “3-S'” principle of restrictions based on season, sex, and size. The commercial crab fishing season is scheduled to avoid the times of year when crabs normally molt and mate. Female crabs are off-limits to commercial fishermen. So are male crabs that are smaller than 6.25 inches across the widest part of their carapace.
Remarkably, those three restrictions have been in place, largely unchanged, since the early 1900s. And that alone has seemed to be enough to ensure that the Dungeness crab population stays fairly stable, within what Worthington describes as a natural seven-year cycle of abundance — a slow uptick followed by a decline. For commercial fishermen, the average annual catch has been just under 20 million pounds of Dungeness crab over the last ten years, with roughly 8 million of that coming from the Bay Area — though the total harvest, and the distribution between south and north, varies widely from year to year. Monterey Aquarium Seafood Watch has consistently recommended Dungeness crab as a “Good Alternative,” meaning that traditional sustainability issues aren’t a great concern when it comes to this species. As Vo put it, “You can never wipe them out.”
And it is perhaps because of the resilience of the Dungeness crab that government hasn’t imposed on it many of the restrictions it does on other forms of commercial fishing. There aren’t any hard quotas or restrictions on where a crab boat is allowed to fish, and, until the 2013-14 season, crab boat operators could put out as many pots as they wanted — as many as 1,000 pots a boat for some of the larger operations.
But just because there aren’t environmental concerns doesn’t mean the current state of the Dungeness crab fishery, with the large bulk of the crabs being grabbed during the derby, doesn’t have effects.
A longer, more spread-out season would not only benefit small boat fishermen, but it would also benefit people who love to eat fresh crab, particularly in the Bay Area, where knowledgeable customers have simply come to accept that it won’t be available at the fish markets or on restaurant menus past January or February — and that if it is, it will come at a premium.
Russell Moore is the chef-owner of Camino, a restaurant in Oakland specializing in California cuisine, most of it cooked in a large wood fireplace that extends along the entire back wall of the establishment. For at least the past five years, Moore said, Camino has featured a Dungeness crab-focused prix-fixe menu on Monday nights, in addition to offering crab dishes almost nightly, during the season — a recent Monday menu featured a crab broth with rice and trumpet mushrooms, half a crab grilled in the fireplace, and a dessert for $46. He buys a lot of his crab from Monterey Fish, and, given the increasingly tiny contingent of crab fishermen who have still been going out to fish in recent weeks, there’s a pretty good chance that if you ordered a crab at Camino recently, what came to the table was one of Alley’s crabs.
The restaurant has a small, intensely seasonal menu that changes every day and is very much subject to the chef’s whims and particular interests. But crab, Moore said, is the one thing that both the cooking staff and the customers really like. On a single Monday during the crab season, the restaurant might go through ninety or one hundred whole crabs, served a half at a time. “It’s the most popular thing we do, pretty much.”
Moore said he likes to be able to offer the crab dinners through the end of February and even into March when possible, but there have been years in which he’s only been able to do serve crab through January. Once the quality of the crab starts to go down toward the end of the season, he stops putting them on the menu. According to Moore, that’s just part of the deal of being a restaurant that’s committed to only serving local seafood — as opposed to relying on previously frozen crabs or live ones shipped from out of state, as restaurants that serve crab all year round do.
Ultimately, it’s the consumer who values fresh local crab — as opposed to, say, the once-frozen products that are widely available at grocery stores and are processed by companies such as Pacific Seafood — who suffers from the brutal efficiency of the crab derby. This season has been typical insofar as there was an abundance of reasonably priced crab through the beginning of December — as cheap as $4 a pound if you looked in some of the Asian markets, or around $6 at the more upscale, sustainability-minded fishmongers. But by around Christmas, as the supply dwindled, prices in Bay Area stores routinely hit $8 or even $10 a pound. By February, it may be a challenge to even find live local crabs in a lot of stores.
“And what a shame it is,” Worthington said. “So much of [the crab] ends up in freezers, and the quality plummets.”
Of course, as a matter of general practice, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife doesn’t carve out fishing regulations to protect small businesses or to satisfy the preferences of seafood consumers. What’s more, in spite of the Bay Area dining public’s love affair with Dungeness crab — and the number of people who would certainly be happy to be able to enjoy affordable fresh crab in April, May, and June — there is relatively little public discussion of the issue. The average customer isn’t going to even know, for instance, that if a restaurant is offering live crab during summer, chances are, that crab is coming from out of state.
“They understand better about vegetables with all these farmers’ markets than they do about seafood,” said Collins of the San Francisco Crab Boat Owners Association.
Of all the different ways that the derby might be eased, a trap limit is the only one that has ever enjoyed serious momentum. The law has been in the works for more than a decade, with two earlier proposals for a limit of 250 traps eventually getting vetoed by then-Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2004, and then again in 2005. A task force of assorted stakeholders — including fishermen, crab processing companies, and Department of Fish and Wildlife officials — put together the current tiered trap-limit policy, which Governor Jerry Brown signed into law in 2011 and took effect during the 2013-14 commercial crab season.
But the jury is still out on whether the pot limit will help extend the crab season beyond the mad scramble of those first two or three weeks. Industry insiders like Worthington and Grader (the fishermen’s association director) expressed hope that the 500-trap limit would help to slow down the initial rush of the crab harvest. But the fishermen on the front lines have painted a less-than-rosy picture of the law’s impact, at least thus far.
In San Francisco, Collins said that this year more out-of-town boats came down for the first few weeks of the season than he’d ever seen in his life. Churchman, who fishes for crab out of Bolinas, said that this year he’s seen more crab pots in the water than he did before the trap limit was put in place.
How could that be? Churchman’s theory is that the limits were simply set too high. Even 175 pots is a lot of crab pots — more pots, in fact, than he had been accustomed to using as a prolific fisherman. What’s more, Churchman said, “latent” permits — which weren’t in use in the previous season — are being bought up and given that same 175-trap limit, in many cases by fishermen operating fancy boats that are tricked out with expensive equipment. Combine that with the large out-of-town boats, which, even with a 500-pot limit, are still able to fish on an entirely different scale, and the result, Churchman said, was “an onslaught” — perhaps millions of pounds of crab removed in just the first few days of the season.
It could be, then, that some local fishermen who have expanded their operations are getting a slightly larger slice of the pie, but the net effect on the crab season is still the same. The proof is in the crab pots: During the couple of hours I spent fishing with Alley in late December, none of the traps we pulled up held more than one or two keepers, and he said he expected the bulk of the remainder of the season to be more or less the same.
One of the problems is that even the small boat operators have a hard time coming to any kind of consensus on how to best remedy the situation. Worthington, who said he buys crab almost exclusively from small-scale, “cottage-industry guys,” said that while he believes the trap limits are a good thing, he thinks the only way to truly level the playing field is to delay the Bay Area’s commercial crab opening by two weeks, so that the season starts at the same time as the one up north. That way, a boat based in Crescent City (in Northern California) or Oregon would have less incentive to come down to the Bay Area during those crucial days at the end of November.
But, of course, that would mean no crab for Thanksgiving. And, even if a delayed opening did mean that prime crab season might be extended by a few additional weeks or months, something about that type of artificial restriction doesn’t sit well with Alley’s independent streak. As he put it, “Why would I want to lose fifteen days of the best fishing?”
Moreover, Alley said the proposal to have one uniform opening date ignores the basic biology of the crabs, which molt later and grow more slowly in the colder northern waters — to such an extent that in some years the crabs in Oregon and Washington aren’t ready to eat until January or February. Indeed, two years ago, the season opener for the northern coast of California was delayed by more than a month — until January 15 — after researchers determined that the crabs hadn’t developed nearly enough meat by the customary December 1 opening date.
Churchman, on the other hand, said there’s no way to know whether having a uniform season start date would work unless the fishermen give it a try. As for the crab trap limit, he thinks it might actually have its intended effect if the regulation was revised to lower the number of traps allowed in each tier — say, a fifty-pot reduction across the board.
The aforementioned Dewees study, which was conducted a decade before the current trap limitation was put into place, surveyed 243 fishermen with California Dungeness crab fishing permits — based out of ports as far south as Santa Cruz and as far north as Oregon — and found that operators of small- and medium-size crab boats tended to favor the idea of imposing some kind of trap limit. But the survey showed that there was also fairly broad support for maintaining the status quo.
Another policy that the survey asked the crab fishermen to consider was a ban on night-time fishing, a restriction that would primarily benefit the operators of smaller boats, for whom it’s neither safe nor practical to fish around the clock the way the larger vessels do. Not surprisingly, owners of larger boats tended to have a negative view of this policy. Other proposed solutions, such as a quota system, had even less support.
Back in 2004, Dewees and his study’s co-authors concluded that “if trap limits are adopted in the near future, but do little to solve perceived problems in the fishery, then it is possible that industry, fisher managers and the legislature will focus their attention on additional management options.”
Ultimately, it comes down to whether state and federal officials will see any value in trying to ensure that more of the crabs harvested in the Bay Area actually stay in the Bay Area.
In the meantime, lovers of fresh local crab will have to resign themselves to the current state of affairs: a huge influx of relatively inexpensive crab at the start of the season and then slim, and increasingly pricey, pickings after that.
Back at Pillar Point, we decided to call it a day after about two hours out on the water. Despite the rough seas, neither I nor photographer Johnson emptied the contents of our stomachs into the ocean (though we came close). That, in itself, seemed like cause for celebration, and a round of coffees at a nearby greasy spoon.
As an outsider, it was easy for me to imagine that Alley might feel a little dejected about the morning’s haul — a whole lot of effort for, what, five or six crabs? But if anything he was upbeat. He’s been doing this for a long time: If he has to pull up a hundred pots to get a hundred crabs, that’s just par for the course.
Alley said that he doesn’t, in the end, begrudge the larger boats — though he does wish they weren’t all crowded up in one area and that thieves would stop messing with his gear. He said he’ll keep scrapping away, on into April and May, when there aren’t more than a handful of other boats still fishing for crab, and when his catch will command a higher price per pound on the market — making up, somewhat, for the relatively light pots. Come June, some of the crabs that he’s throwing back now because they’re too small will have grown large enough to keep, and when the season ends, he’ll move on to salmon fishing or whatever else is next.
“I’m just an ant, basically,” Alley said. “But I’m relentless. I just keep moving those crumbs.”