With any luck, Central California Dungeness will make their first appearance of the season Monday, Nov. 15, the date traditionally pegged for commercial boats to lower their crab pots in California waters from Point Conception north to Point Arena. (The sport fishing season began Nov. 6.)
Official end to the Central California season is June, though the practice by large fishing trawlers from Oregon and Washington to swoop into California waters early on and take huge numbers of Dungeness have essentially hobbled the traditional season. The effect of that early-season fishing frenzy? It guarantees that the bulk of California Dungeness (as much as 90 percent of the catch) end up processed and frozen. And that jeopardizes the livelihoods of small local crabbers, who'd benefit by a longer season ― and higher prices ― for fresh crabs delivered to the market in consistently smaller numbers spread out over eight months.
Wholesaler Ron Pezzolo, owner of Pezzolo Seafood on Pier 45 at the Wharf, says 2010 looks to be a good year for Dungeness. Sport fishermen have reported good numbers, though Pezzolo says it's hard to extrapolate the strength of the commercial season from that. If, after analyzing the fishery, state officials give crabbers the green light to drop their pots on Nov. 15 ― and assuming no freak storms ― the first crustaceans might hit shops and restaurants Monday.
Monterey Seafood's Tom Worthington says Tuesday's a better bet. "We're hearing it's going to be a big year," Worthington says. "Crabs starting out are pretty damn full. The information from Half Moon Bay is that we're seeing full, solid crabs. Up north a little less so, meaning they're probably a week or so behind. By Thanksgiving we'll have beautiful, beautiful crabs."
Prices for this year's crabs have yet to be set. That's something determined by a complicated negotiation involving various crab associations accepting bids from the big seafood companies, the ones, Worthington says, who buy enormous quantities in the first few weeks of the season and send them to China to be picked for freezing. "We're taking this wonderful thing ― a season that should last eight months ― and turning it into a two-week season," Worthington says.
"The way the system is set up it allows for a handful of people to make the money," Worthington says. "Crabs belong to the people of California. When we take this wonderful resource and make it as cheap as possible we're cheating ourselves, and our local economy, and our neighbors who are fishermen."
Governor Schwarzenegger twice vetoed legislation that would have limited the number of crab pots any one boat could put out, a regulation that would have kept huge numbers of Dungeness from being fished early in the season and protected small local crabbers. Is Worthington optimistic a new California governor will reform the Dungeness industry? "I think our hopes are much better with Jerry Brown," he says.
Meanwhile, at Swan Oyster Depot on Polk Street, workers are bracing for the Monday onslaught. Swan serves steamed, cracked crab at its marble counter, and offers raw and cooked crustaceans to go ― on the first day of the season, lines are a constant. "A lot of locals want to come in to get the good stuff," says Swan's Darren Samuel.