The Dark Side of Crab Season

California's crab fishery is a model for sustainability. But cutthroat competition is threatening the area.


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."

The result of this increased competition is a shorter season, say the fishermen. Although the season is meant to go until June, about 80 percent of the crab in the area is caught by New Year's. The only buyers big enough to purchase such quantities are processing houses like Pacific Choice, according to Murray.

This means that a large portion of area crab is canned or frozen and shipped out of state, often ending up on riverboat gaming operations along the Mississippi. "You could feed those people Styrofoam after a night of drinking and smoking and pulling slots," Grader says. "Dungeness crab is something to be freshly enjoyed when the meat is sweet and tender."

The effectively shorter season puts additional pressure on the local fleets. "People seem hungrier," says Collins. "If you get your string of gear there, it's your spot, so it's a race to get your spot." And this competition has made an already dangerous pursuit even more so, causing boats to sink and sometimes leading to deaths. According to a CDC study, there were 58 commercial fishing fatalities reported in Oregon, California, and Washington from 2000 to 2006. Of these 17 were in the Dungeness crab fleet. The CDC says the Dungeness crab fishery is the most dangerous on the Pacific Coast. "Everyone takes the risk to get out there at the beginning of the season under whatever God-awful conditions," says Grader. "Friends have been lost."

Part of the solution, Grader and Collins agree, lies in trap limits, similar to those in place in Washington and Oregon. This would lengthen the season and Grader says, would mean "much less incentive for people to take risks of overloading their boats."

The California legislature agrees. In recent years, two bills have been passed to limit the number of traps, only to be vetoed by the governor. Although the cost and logistics of regulation were cited as the reasons behind the veto, the fishermen believe otherwise. Papetti puts it silently, rubbing together his forefingers and thumb--money. "The big processors [who buy the bulk catch of the larger boats] don't want pot limits," speculates Collins. "They have got the ear of the governor and they spend more money on reelection campaigns than the small boat fleet does."

There is hope that change is coming. State Senator Pat Wiggins, whose Second District from the North Bay up to Eureka makes up a large portion of prime Dungeness crab territory, authored legislation to establish a Dungeness Crab Task Force to as she puts it, "reach beyond contentious fixes." The task force, whose members include fishermen and crab processors from around the state, is exploring options like trap limits and buoy tags. A full report is expected in January.

Some are skeptical. "Fishermen are good at fishing. They're not good at legislating," Murray says. "I worry they'll make a decision, and it's the wrong one that will be hard to correct."

Grader admits that the initial recommendations of the task force, be they trap limits or other legislation, may not be perfect, but they will be a start. "Like healthcare, you may not get the ideal, but you get something pretty good," he says. "And over time, you see how well it works and then begin tweaking it."

Until then Papetti thinks it's the crab lovers of the Bay Area who will suffer. "It's not my crab," he says. "They're taking from the people of San Francisco."