San Francisco’s local Dungeness crab season finally hauled in on December 29, after weeks of delays due to migrating whales. And the Port of San Francisco announced an exciting new development this year — for the first time ever, local fishermen are allowed to sell crab directly to consumers off the boat. (Well, let’s not say ever ever — SF has a deep crabbing history, but this is a first in recent memory, and decidedly good news.) Prior to this year, crab boats weren’t allowed to compete with the crab stands on Fisherman’s Wharf, but due to the pandemic, while the stands will continue to sell cooked crab, the boats are now allowed to sell live crab.
That means in addition to feasting on crab in restaurants and catching crab yourself, there’s now a tempting third option: head to the docks for a pick-your-own live crab adventure. Buying direct off the boat has its perks — the crab could not be more fresh, it’s priced a little lower, and it pays the fishermen a little better. Plus, it’s a foggy and fresh outdoor activity in these pandemic times. And perhaps above all, it’s a quintessential San Francisco experience. “It’s great,” says fisherman Nick Krieger of the Arianna Rose. “It’s been a long time coming. All the other ports have it,” referring to nearby options like Half Moon Bay. “And selling direct is where the industry is going. People want to know where their food comes from. They want the freshest and best crab. It’s about time.”
How does it work?
Selling crab directly from the boat is a one-year pilot program first announced in November 2021, and it’s run by the Port of San Francisco. At launch, there are five vessels participating in the new program, and they are only able to sell whole, live crabs directly from the boat. The Port of San Francisco has set up a webpage, Facebook page, and Instagram account for updates.
Where can you find the crabbing boats?
Just like in the Maltese Falcon, head down to the docks. The boats are tied up at Pier 47 on Fishermen’s Wharf, and while this cute map with crab icons is a little unclear, the best landmark is Scoma’s restaurant — the boats are at the bridge on Al Scoma Way and just beyond the end of the restaurant. There are a couple of big parking garages conveniently nearby — don’t be a jerk and try to use Scoma’s restaurant parking. That’s really bad crab karma.
When exactly are they selling these crabs?
These are commercial fishermen who make their living on the water, so don’t expect consistent business hours. Speaking with Nick Krieger of the Arianna Rose and Matt Juanes of the Plumeria, the fishermen are trying to be there every Saturday starting at 9 a.m. until sold out. They’ll also be there Sunday if they still have crab leftover, and they may open on Friday, as well, depending on supply. The port recommends checking the Facebook page and Instagram account for updates, and you can download the FishLine app for more info.
Is buying crab from the boat actually better?
Both fishermen said so far, there hasn’t been a ton of crab this year, but that quite literally makes the Dungeness even sweeter. “It’s been a light season so far,” Krieger explains. “But that means fewer crabs are getting more food, so they’re better quality — meaning heavier and sweeter.” Short of catching it yourself, this crab could not be any fresher. For example, Krieger and his team fished from 3 a.m. to 10 p.m. one day, in order to turn around and sell crab to the public the next day. That cuts out any time the live crab might sit in tanks, compromising the texture and flavor, as well as any additional time that cooked crab sits chilling in plastic with an expiration sticker.
Is the crab cheaper?
These fishermen started the season selling Dungeness for $10 per pound, which is way less than many local markets and restaurants. Okay sure, you might be able to find a rock-bottom deal elsewhere — but the quality may reflect that lower price. “I’ve got people saying, ‘Hey, I can buy this for $8.99 in Chinatown!’” Juanes laughs. “And I say, ‘Do you know how long it’s been sitting in that tank?’” Likewise, Costco also currently has cooked Dungeness for $8.99 per pound, but it’s the same freshness question. As always, prices may go up slightly through the season, across the board, as supply dwindles.
Does this really help fishermen?
In addition to costing shoppers a little less, it also pays the fishermen a little more, directly supporting San Francisco’s local fleet. Both fishermen say they’ll continue selling the bulk of their crab to wholesalers, but they’re excited to set aside a portion to sell directly to the public, and figure out how much appetite there is for the program. Even on a drizzly morning, they both steadily sold through about 1,000 pounds of crab each. They’re balancing the hours they can spend selling versus the hours out fishing — much like a farmer deciding to truck in and man a stand at the farmers’ market.
Is there anything else to know before you go?
Opening weekend was New Year’s Eve, so following the big announcement, there was a line down the dock, and the fishermen sold out in less than two hours. It’s calmed down since, but in response, they’ve set a limit of 10 crabs per person. Some fishermen provide plastic bags, but those claws can punch through, so it’s best to bring a bucket or a cooler. Some accept credit cards or Venmo, but it’s kind to bring cash. And perhaps most important, if you love the pilot program, keep coming back! San Franciscans tend to think of Dungeness crab as a holiday treat, but a steady stream will help keep our local fishermen in business, and hopefully bring back this program for years to come.