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The Allure of the Dungeness Crab – Why Fishermen, Chefs and Seafood Lovers are on the Hunt

Three weeks after the opening of the commercial Dungeness crab season, Bay Area seafood lovers are seeking out their favorite restaurants to enjoy a variety of delectable dishes. Wracked with high winds and large swells, the seas kept commercial boats tied to docks with their crab pots unchecked during the first several days of the season. However, since then it has kicked off to a promising start as the sailing has become smoother and we have seen a heightened influx of the scrumptious crustacean into our northern California ports.

A top menu trend
It is no surprise that the Dungeness crab was ranked number 20 on the list of 25 food trends for 2013 in Bon Appetit magazine. Consumers seek out fresh crab on menus all across the Pacific Northwest, paying top dollar for even just a few ounces of the delicious meat. In San Francisco restaurants, chefs feature a range of dishes including crab cakes, crab melt sandwiches, crab puffs, steamed crab legs with butter and garlic… the list goes on and on. The meat is described as sweet, with a hint of saltiness and good texture that holds up well in many recipes.

A female dungeness crab. IMage by flickr user Pat Knight.

An “arms race” amongst fishermen
The popularity of the “Dungies” has opened the gates to escalating competition between commercial fishermen. In years past there has been virtually no set limit to how many crabs can be pulled from local waters; the season ends when there are no more legal-sized male crabs left to catch.

In and around San Francisco Bay, fishermen have engaged in an “arms race”, building up their stores of crab traps and upgrading their boats. More and more fishermen join the race each year, which means fewer crabs per vessel. Many crews work around the clock the moment the season opens, with some ships dropping 1,000+ traps. Larger vessels from Oregon and Washington descended upon our coastline on opening day and dropped 2,000+ traps. Working for a week straight, these boats will scoop up as many crabs as their traps will yield before dashing back to their home ports to sell their bounty. This practice has allowed them to bring in a flush of crabs before they can begin fishing in their territory, where the season begins later. Although it has remained a healthy fishery for decades, there has been much concern that the ever-increasing competition will eventually lead to overfishing and a depletion of the local population of Dungeness crabs.

It is no light matter; countless other species have suffered from overfishing, with one lesser-known local example being the abalone. In the early to mid 1900s, millions of pounds of abalone were taken along the California coast with little regard for the future of the marine snail. The highly prized white and black abalone species were almost entirely wiped out and are now considered endangered. What remains of the fishery is extremely regulated along the north coast and open only to recreational fishing for red abalone.  It is vitally important that we pull knowledge from our history of overfishing. Making informed decisions and creating viable regulations on fisheries will perpetuate the continuation of our favorite seafood species.

The new trap limit
This year the commercial Dungeness crab fishery is experiencing a change with new regulations limiting the number of traps that each vessel can set out. This new limit has been a struggle to put in place. In 2008, a cooperative approach between local commercial fishermen created the Dungeness Crab Task Force, a coalition established with the objective to make recommendations on management measures such as trap limits, fleet size reduction, and season opening date changes. The result was the new trap limit that is taking effect for the first time this year.

The inside scoop
In California there are nearly 600 fishermen with permits to fish for crab. The new law divides them into seven tiers, allowing them to have anywhere from 175 to 500 traps depending on how many crabs they caught over the 5 seasons between 2003 and 2008. It also caps the number of traps at the present total, about 175,000. It requires a permit fee of $1,000, plus $5 per trap every two years, with the money going towards enforcement of the program. Many do believe that the law is a good first step towards safeguarding the long-term health of the fishery. The goal is to maintain a healthy population of the crabs and reduce the competition between fishermen. It gives smaller scale fishermen – the “little guys” – the opportunity to catch more crab and make a greater profit. A side benefit is that the season may extend into March or April, whereas before it typically ended in December.

The Dungeness crab (Metacarcinus magister) fishery is one of California’s oldest fisheries, beginning around the time of the Gold Rush. It is also one of the most valuable, pulling in nearly 32 million crabs and generating $69 million in dock sales last season.  The crabs are caught along the stretch of coastline from Crescent City to Morro Bay. The fishery has been regulated since the 1890s and has been vigorously managed with a 3-S principle: size, sex and season. In this case, the only crabs that can be caught are mature males that are over 6-1/4 inches. This ensures that males reach sexual maturity and are able to mate for several seasons before being caught. Females are placed back in the water; they are considered extremely valuable to the continuation of the species, as one female can carry up to 2 million eggs.  Crab traps are considered eco-friendly, as there is very little bycatch, or incidental catch. This management approach protects and sustains future populations, and the Monterey Bay Aquarium considers the Dungeness crab a “Best Choice” for consumption. With the new trap limit, it is the hope of fishermen and consumers alike that the Dungies will stay on the green list for many more decades.

Our choices matter
It is estimated that nearly 85% of the world’s fisheries have been overfished. We can help by choosing seafood that is fished with ethical and sustainable fishing practices. Consumers and businesses have the power to bring delicious and healthy seafood to our tables for many generations to come. Choosing a distributor that cares about sustainability, such as Pucci Foods, will protect our food supply and respect our environment.

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