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."