December 17, 2010

Crab Season: What You Need to Know

sites/default/files/crab_pot_0.jpgJust as the growing season for many fruits and vegetables is coming to a close, the season for Dungeness crab is in full swing.  In California, the commercial season for crab opens on December 1, with a small area around Half Moon Bay opening up a few weeks earlier to meet the demand at the Thanksgiving holiday.

The good news: crab has not been overfished

Veteran fisherman and regular Saturday market vendor Larry Miyamura of Shogun Fish Company knows the ins and outs of the Bay Area crab world. The great thing about local Dungeness crab, he says, is that consumers concerned with overfishing can rest easy. “Crabs are sustainable because of the three S’s,” he says. “They are managed according to  size, sex, and season.” 

To catch these crustaceans, fishermen place “pots,” 100-plus pound cages, on the ocean floor. The crabs crawl in, the pots are pulled back up onto the boat, and the work of sorting begins. Crabs must be a minimum of 6¼ inches across, otherwise they’re thrown back; once they’re this size, they’ve passed their reproductive cycle. All females are also thrown back so they can continue reproducing. Unlike, say, Bluefin tuna, which is often caught before it reaches sexual maturity, these conditions ensure that the population is able to replenish itself for years to come.

The not-so-good news: small fishermen are being driven out of the market

Dungeness crab is caught all along the Northwest Pacific Coast, but California is the only state with no limits on the number of pots a boat can put in the water.  This lack of crab pot limits makes what could technically be a seven-month season last two months at best.  On an average year, an estimated 90% of the available crabs are caught by January 1st.  A UC Davis article from 2005 calls the season a “dangerous derby that captures most of the succulent crustaceans in the first six weeks of a seven-month season.” Not much has changed.

“It’s an uneven playing field,” says Miyamura; larger boats with more pots and crew to harvest the finite supply have the advantage over the smaller local boats. 

Larry Collins, President of the San Francisco Crab Boat Owners’ association agrees.  “When I started crabbing 22 years ago nobody had more than 250-300 traps,” he says. Now it’s not uncommon to see boats with big crews and 1000-2000 pots. Because the permits can also be bought by Oregon-based businesses, some boats come down to California to get around the pot limits they have in their own state.

All crab caught in the area is sold to wholesalers at an agreed upon price; this year it is $1.67, hardly enough to make it worth the cost of fuel, traps and bait. For retail consumers, there’s no real way to support small crab fishermen directly.

“We’re working on it,” says Collins. “We’ve incorporated SF Community Fishing Association. Hopefully within a year we’re start selling our own crab. You’ll know exactly which boat it came off of and the story of the family who caught it.”

The Association would be located at Fisherman’s Warf, an area that might benefit from a return to local commerce.  “San Francisco has always been a fishing town,” says Collins.  “Most people don’t go to Fisherman’s Warf because they think it’s just for tourists, but there are still families —  4th and 5th generation — catching fish there.  We’re going to try and own a little more of the supply chain so that we can pass more money back to the producers. And I’m sure as soon as we’re set up, [Shogun’s] Larry will buy his crab from us.”  

Tomorrow is Shogun Fish’s last Saturday of the season. Larry will be at this Thursday market (with preorders only) and will return in May 2011.

CUESA intern, Cathleen Enriquez contributed (mightily) to this article.

About CUESA

CUESA (Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture) is dedicated to cultivating a sustainable food system through the operation of the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market and its educational programs. Learn More »