The Dark Side of Crab Season

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Photo by Katie Robbins


On a brisk Monday evening just after dusk, Danny Murray, Bobby Cicala, and Dominic Papetti were doing what they do at the end of each day during San Francisco's Dungeness crab season. With an estimated 100 years of fishing experience among them, the three men unloaded the day's haul - a couple thousand pounds--from the depths of their 50-foot boat, the King Crab, to the docks of Pier 45 on Fisherman's Wharf. While Papetti, the senior statesman of the group (who the others joke got his start crabbing in the days of the rowboat) looked on, Murray and Cicala used a pulley system to hoist crate after crate of the precious cargo to the docks where it would be sold that evening to local buyers.

Idyllic scenes like this were celebrated a couple weeks earlier at Slow Food San Francisco's third annual festival of Dungeness crab. The event, which drew people from as far as New Jersey to enjoy freshly cracked crab dipped in lemon or butter, was held not only to mark the beginning of the crabbing season--which in the Bay Area runs from just before Thanksgiving to June--but also to celebrate what Zeke Grader, the executive director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fisherman's Associations, called "one of the bright sides in our fishing industry."

The success of the California crab fishery stems in part from a system known as "3-S management," which restricts Dungeness crabbing by size (male crabs smaller than 6 ¼ inches are thrown back), sex (females are strictly off limits), and season. This has allowed the crabs to repopulate each year, and although the number of crabs goes through a natural cycle of up and down years, Larry Collins president of San Francisco's Crab Boat Owners Association, says, "Biologically, it's a very healthy fishery."

Although the season is meant to go until June, about 80 percent of the crab in the area is caught by New Year's.

While the local crabs themselves are in pretty good shape, however, local fishermen face challenges. The majority of Bay Area crabbers work on small boats like the King Crab, catching a few thousand pounds of crabs a day. This has traditionally been the case says Grader because there has been no need to have larger boats; not only are those more expensive to operate, but also the smaller boats have been the right size for the amount of crab in the area each season.

But further north in Oregon and Washington, where rougher waters require larger boats, the season doesn't start until December and so big boats from those states come down to the waters near San Francisco to take advantage of the earlier start, pulling in tens of thousands of pounds of crab each day. "Outside boats come out for two weeks," says Papetti. "They take the majority of crabs and then leave." Echoes Murray, "[The larger boats] can fish in rougher water. If it's bad at the beginning of the season, they're at a big advantage."

According to Collins, there have long been fishermen from more northerly shores fishing off of the wharf in mid-November; however, a few factors have led to an increase in their numbers in recent years. First, he says, restrictions on other types of fishing have meant that large trawlers have come in to make up for the decline in their former livelihoods. "When you lose halibut, rock cod, salmon, and tuna," he says, "It's hard to stay alive, and it puts pressure on the remaining ones."

Further, unlike Washington and Oregon, California has no limits on the number of traps or pots that each boat can put out, meaning that these larger boats can catch huge amounts of crab in just a few days. "The way they fish crabs is different," says Collins. Where the local industry is small and family-owned, going out each day to deliver to local buyers, he says, "the draggers stay out for two or three days and get 30,000 to 50,000 pounds in a shot." Zeke Grader agrees. "They've never fished crab. The way to make up for lack of skill was through real estate."

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Katie Robbins is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. She has covered food, culture, and lifestyle for a variety of publications, including Psychology Today, Saveur, Meatpaper, Tablet, and BlackBook, among others. More

Katie Robbins is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. She has covered food, culture, and lifestyle for a variety of publications, including Psychology Today, Saveur, Meatpaper, Tablet, and BlackBook, among others.

In her former life as a documentary producer, she reported on issues such as the New Orleans school system, America's health insurance crisis, and the U.S. Secret Service for organizations like PBS NewsHour, ABC News, and the National Geographic Channel. Learn more at www.katiesallierobbins.com.
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