Delays to the Dungeness crab commercial season have become a regular occurrence over the past five years, but this season, it’s missed all three of its biggest holidays: Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s. For everyone who looks forward to live crab scuttling onto restaurant menus this time of year, it’s a disappointment. But for small local fishermen who rely on those holiday sales to get through the winter, it’s devastating. And without any opening date on the horizon, some are now saying that the entire season might be a wash.
“It’s super frustrating,” says Heather Sears, captain of the Princess out of Fort Bragg. “The public just wants crabs, and we as fishermen just want to produce crabs, especially for the holiday market, which is the most lucrative live market of the year … but at this point, the whole season might be a write-off.”
Crab season traditionally opens in November, but fears of whale entanglement delayed the season from November 15 to December 1, which means that local crab wasn’t on any Thanksgiving tables. Then, days before Christmas, fishermen say that Pacific Seafood, the big wholesaler that buys most of the crab up the West Coast, lowballed the price they’d pay at $2.25 per pound, when fishermen were hoping for more than $3 per pound. It’s a disagreement in price that led to a standoff between the fishermen and the buyers, as the fisherman refuse to go out for that low a price, while the wholesalers refuse to up their offer.
Pacific Seafood denies holding up the season, as stated in the Chronicle, but the crab fishermen and restaurant suppliers that Eater SF has spoken with disagree. Whatever the case, the impasse means that a week into 2021, fishermen have yet to start their much-needed season, the first one after a massive May fire at Pier 45 destroyed the gear belonging to 30 members of the area’s fishing community.
For small local fishermen, missing Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s means they have completely lost that small but special market for live crab during the holidays. Sears grew up in Morro Bay, and says that crab is her favorite fishery (“even though my dad says it’s like being a garbage man”). She says she spent $71,000 on a crabbing permit just a few years ago, hoping it would make up 50 percent of her business, working the classic Californian split of Chinook salmon in the summer and Dungeness crab in the winter. Now, her boat is tied up in the harbor, sitting with 9,000 pounds of empty traps. She’s picked up a couple of different permits to expand into rockfish, instead.
She also owns a small market, and feels it on the retail side. Princess Seafood Market & Deli offers an ice case full of fish, as well as burgers and tacos to go. “Missing the holidays is huge,” says Sears. “I could have made so much money … we had a line down the street and up the hill for live crab, and we had to sell frozen. Some people turned around and walked away.” She estimates holiday crab sales were 20 percent compared to past years. “Look, this is a crab town,” she says. “They’re going to wait, and I don’t blame them. I’m not going to eat a frozen crab.”
Restaurants in San Francisco would usually snap up those live crabs at the outset of the season, when the wild ingredient would star on menus across the city. Adrian Hoffman of Four Star Seafood, a former chef turned fishmonger, says he usually sells 400 to 500 pounds of live crab a day during the holidays, to restaurants from Scoma’s and Waterbar to Saison and Benu. Now, he’s going direct to consumers, selling frozen crab sections through a new website. “They’re good,” the former chef promises. “If you’re making a cioppino, there isn’t really any positive to using a live crab.” He also just opened Billingsgate, that new seafood market and counter in Noe Valley, with a plan to install live tanks to feature the beloved local crustacean.
Those tanks are currently empty of crab, and it remains to be seen whether they’ll be filled at all this year. Sears wouldn’t describe the fishermen’s refusal to fish as a stalemate, saying “it’s a fluid situation,” and pointing out that there is nothing legally stopping her from going out and fishing crab right now — and because she is in the unique position of having her own market, “I’m not going to sell one crab to Pac Seafood, ever,” she says, so their price offer isn’t the issue. Burt she says she’ll remain tied up in solidarity with the other fleets, in opposition to the big wholesaler’s efforts to “dominate isn’t even the right word,” she says, “it’s so far beyond that.”
Hoffman also confirms that there’s nothing to stop fishermen from breaking ranks and going out in the middle of the night to net some crab. “But that crab would be worthless,” Hoffman says. “It only works because there’s one customer who buys millions of pounds of crab a year. That’s why they have the power to set the price.”