When the California Department of Fish and Wildlife gave the green light for the state’s commercial Dungeness crab fishing season to begin, it seemed like we’d finally gotten a bit of normalcy in this mess of a year. According to the regulatory agency, boats at docks from the Mendocino Coast to the Mexico border could head out as of December 23, bringing in crabs right before Christmas. But when fisherman met this week, they learned that they wouldn’t be setting out, after all, as negotiations between the biggest crabbing operations and the wholesalers that buy their catch have reached an impasse. That means no crab for Christmas, and no paychecks for small, local fisherman who were counting on the holiday demand for crabs to pay the bills.
The Bay Area News Group sent up a flare Tuesday night, writing that price negotiations might keep crabbers from heading out on Wednesday morning, the first day they’d be cleared to fish after fears of whale entanglement delayed the season from November 15 to December 1, and then again to the 23rd. The news that they’d be allowed to fish prior to Christmas — typically a banner day for local Dungeness at Bay Area homes, markets, and restaurants — was some of the first good news local crabbers had gotten, after the pandemic eroded much of their sales to restaurants, and a massive May fire at Pier 45 destroyed the gear belonging to 30 members of the area’s fishing community.
“It’s a very complicated situation,” Tom Worthington tells Eater SF. He’s the co-owner of Monterey Fish Market, one of the Bay Area’s best-known retail and wholesale seafood suppliers, specializing in locally caught seafood for local chefs, home cooks, and some of the region’s best restaurants. “The bottom line is that the person who bids the lowest sort of controls the crab market,” and right now, the pandemic-related slowdown for the wholesale seafood market means that bids are very, very low ... so low that the biggest crab boats out there, the ones that can take in “40,000 to 100,000 pounds of crab a tow,” refuse to head out.
Worthington explains: When the crab fishing season begins, there’s suddenly a big haul of crab on the docks, all at once. While many of the customers for those crabs are “small players like us,” the vast majority are huge companies that make bulk buys, then store surplus crabs in freezers to sell to retailers and wholesalers, from grocery to restaurant chains, all year long.
But this year, since the wholesale demand for crab slowed way down as the pandemic raged, those big bidders still have freezers that are full of crabs from last year’s catch. They don’t need the fresh crab fishermen expected to start pulling in this week — and, in fact, they might not even have room for it in their freezers. So the biggest companies bid low: according to the SF Chronicle, around $2.25 per pound, while local crabbers say they need at least $3.30 to make a trip worth their while.
While “one side of the market wants fresh crab and is willing to pay for it,” Worthington says, describing not just his business but the multitudes of restaurants hoping to serve up fresh crab this week, that side of the market can’t accommodate all the crab those big boats will take in. So even though the smaller suppliers are raring to go, with “boats stacked at the dock for the last month, just waiting,” they can’t head out to fulfill that demand.
That’s because one coalition of crab fisherman refuses to go out, none of them do, Worthington says. The all-or-nothing ethos is a longstanding “unspoken rule” that’s one part old-school collective bargaining, and another part high-intensity peer pressure. “There’s a history of some pretty nasty play between people who have gone and people that haven’t gone,” Worthington says, with cut lines and other gear sabotage rumored for those who, in essence, cross the picket line.
And then there’s the pandemic, which makes crab fishing even more dangerous. Commercial crabbing means “running a huge production line ... with guys on top of each other and no room for error.” In other words, the kind of close quarters that makes for a COVID-19 hot spot. You can see, perhaps, why they’re holding out for that extra $1.05 when their health is even more on the line than it typically is in an already dangerous industry.
All this mean no local Dungeness for Christmas, but New Year’s crab isn’t completely out of the question. The fishermen are set to meet again on December 26, Worthington says, and there’s the possibility that they might agree to go out after that. But he’s not so sure. “At this point, I don’t know,” Worthington says. “I don’t know why they’d settle on the 26th, if they wouldn’t on the 23rd,” likely the most lucrative day of the season. “It’s hard what’s going to take place,” he says, “as the mood among local buyers” (all of whom were expecting the retail or dining boom that comes from fresh crab) has soured to ask why they should bother to “offer any more than what big producers are offering.”
It’s a heartbreaking, frustrating situation, Worthington says, as “these local guys need a paycheck as much as anyone else out there, and they really really want to go.” And then there’s the rest of us, many of whom had been looking forward, for weeks, to fresh crab at Christmas. “It would have been so nice to have a little bit of nostalgia, and just something nice, in the middle of all of this,” Worthington says wistfully. “Crab is just so seasonally perfect. It would have been so good to have that, at least, after everything else this year.”