MENDOCINO Co., 1/16/24 – Dungeness crab is a core part of holidays and convivial dining experiences for Californians. From the ritual of cleaning, cooking and cracking crab to the many ways one can enjoy it, there is no doubt that Californians love Dungeness crab.
It’s also a core part of the economy of coastal communities, including Point Arena and Fort Bragg. The 2022-23 California Dungeness crab season netted 21 million pounds of crab with an estimated value of $54.4 million, according to State Senator Mike McGuire. Seafood retailers, restaurants and nonprofits that rely on crab feed fundraisers also reap the benefits.
And just as the California golden chanterelle was recently named the state’s official fungi, a new bill proposed in the California State Assembly seeks to name Dungeness crab California’s official crustacean.
The bill was introduced earlier this month by Assemblymember Jim Wood (D-Healdsburg) and State Senator Mike McGuire (D-Healdsburg), who represent Mendocino County and are the principal co-authors on the bill. Assemblymembers Dawn Addis (D-Morro Bay) and Gail Pellerin (D-Santa Cruz) also served as co-authors.
“Maine has its lobster. Louisiana has its crawfish. Here in the Golden State, we love our Dungeness crab,” says McGuire, “Dungeness crab is one of the oldest commercial fisheries in California and the fleet continues to be a driving economic force for coastal communities.”
“It’s a great proposal,” says Elissa Levin, co-owner of Little Dory Seafood Co., a direct-to-consumer retailer of fresh local seafood based in Point Arena, “It’s an important time to draw attention to the Dungeness crab fishery given that it has been one of the pillars of our fishing history along the West Coast for so long. It’s a resource that we have, we need to take care of, enjoy and celebrate!”
However, Assemblymember Wood acknowledges that the crabbing industry hasn’t had it easy in recent years. “We must recognize, however, that the Dungeness crab industry is not without its challenges. We need to ensure that the fishing industry, the ocean and its inhabitants are all protected.”
And despite the positive sentiment of the bill, the 2023-24 commercial crabbing season has been off to a slow start. The season was delayed statewide due to whale migrations, only to open on January 5 for Mendocino, Humboldt and Del Norte counties. However, it was delayed briefly due to weather and for a third time when crabbers decided to strike in protest of the low price that major retailers have been willing to pay. For many crabbers, low by-the-pound offers from corporate-owned grocery stores ended up being the final straw in a season that resulted in major economic losses due to crab not being available during the holiday.
However, the strike ended when it was announced that commercial crabbing would open south of the Sonoma-Mendocino County line at 12:01 a.m. on January 18. And while the season is operating without restriction up north, for those crabbing in Sonoma County and further south, there is a 50% trap reduction requirement, meaning crabbers can only set half their traps, resulting in a significant economic loss for the captain and crew.
This economic impact trickles down to retailers and shoppers hoping to enjoy a taste of the sweet crustacean on their dinner table. “Retailers may not notice the impact at the beginning of the season because there will be such a large amount of crab delivered at once,” says Levin, “However, later in the season when the catch minimizes and the boat expenses become too high to operate…crab prices will go up due to limited supply.”
According to Levin, winter is the toughest time for a small, farmers’ market-based retailer like Little Dory. The farmers’ markets they participate in are closed for the season and miserable winter weather can lead to unpredictable offerings from local fishermen. To drum up business, Little Dory hosts retail pop-ups in Point Arena and Gualala on the weekends. Customers can visit the pop-ups and also place pre-orders via an online form that lists the week’s expected catch.
For a small business like Little Dory, Dungeness crab is a major draw and one the business relies on to get through the dreary winter months. “Dungeness crab is the number one local product that we rely on to entice people out for winter sales,” says Levin. “Missing the Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s markets is making it difficult for our small business to survive the winter.”
It’s not just retailers like Little Dory that suffer. “It impacts every fisherman we know,” Levin says. “Our local fishermen in Point Arena and our friends in Fort Bragg are all suffering financially. The closure of salmon season followed by the closure and restrictions to nearshore rockfish all put the pressure on the Dungeness crab fishery for boats to make income to support their families.” The low price major retailers are willing to pay, combined with gear restrictions, also directly impact the local fishermen.
And while bringing more awareness to the importance of Dungeness crab is critical to ensuring its future as an economic driver in California, on a smaller scale, seafood enthusiasts can take a few steps of their own to ensure a sustainable and economically viable future for crabbing and fishing.
Levin suggests finding out what is in season locally and buying directly from local fishermen and small, independently owned fishmongers. Doing so enables more money to go back into the pocket of fishermen and crabbers and also guarantees the freshest, highest quality, and most ethically sourced products.
Those looking to purchase Dungeness crab can do so starting Saturday, Jan. 20, in Point Arena and Fort Bragg. Little Dory Seafood Co. will offer cooked crab from a local fisherman and live crab will also be available from other fishermen. If you want the “fresh-off-the-boat” experience head down to the Arena Cove pier at sunset on fishing days to buy crab direct. Fishermen in Noyo Harbor are also expected to have crab this weekend. And one final tip: bring cash!
Note: Sarah Stierch covers food, beverage, culture, weather and breaking news for The Mendocino Voice. Contact Stierch at [email protected]. The Voice maintains editorial control.