Considering the disastrous previous season of 2015-16, which featured historic, months-long closures in the California Dungeness crab fishery due to the presence of a neurotoxin in the animals, that’s more than above-average news.
“We made some money,” said Shane Lucas, who fishes for crab out of Bodega Bay, where he also owns the Fishetarian Fish Market.
Based on preliminary data, the 2016-17 season has brought in more than 21 million pounds of California Dungeness crab to California ports, worth $66.7 million. That represents the largest quantity and dollar value since the 2012-13 season, according to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. During the 2015-16 season, crab boats caught only 12.3 million pounds, a 48 percent drop from the previous five-year average, at a value of about $39 million.
But this year’s California Dungeness crab season has not been without its issues.
“We had our challenges with all the different openings that we had to deal with,” said Jim Caito of Caito Fisheries in Fort Bragg, a seafood processor with locations in San Francisco and other California ports. “It was definitely a challenge for us and the vessels.”
Caito was referring to the staggered opening of the season, which started mid-November because of lingering traces of domoic acid, the same neurotoxin that ruined the 2015-16 season, in crabs along the coast. That recurrence caused the California Department of Public Health to delay the opening of the season in certain areas. In addition, crab fishermen went on strike briefly in late December.
Such interruptions made it harder for crab boats to move from one place to another, and made things unpredictable in the market, Caito said, though prices were stable.
The small amounts of domoic acid initially detected in crabs in some areas didn’t scare off customers, according to Chris Lam of Pucci Foods, a Hayward seafood wholesaler, and Daily Fresh Fish, a direct-to-consumer seafood delivery service.
“At the beginning of the season, people were asking more questions,” Lam said. But as the season progressed, he said, media reports that the crabs were safe caused people to be less concerned.
As a result, this year saw a return of crab feeds, the large community events offered by schools, churches, fishing organizations and fire departments. “Last year the cost (of crab) was so high it was ridiculous,” Lam said, which made crab feeds, often fundraisers, too difficult to pull off at times.
At Fish restaurant and market in Sausalito, chef Douglas Bernstein said some customers asked about the safety of the crab, but overall, sales were normal. He advised home cooks to avoid the crab butter, also known as viscera, where toxins concentrate when present, and not to make broth from the shells.
“Most people were understanding of commonsense measures to keep you healthy,” he said.
Another issue that came up in the Bay Area crab industry was a record number of whales caught in fishery gear on the West Coast. Of the 71 reported whale entanglements on the West Coast in 2016, at least 21 of those were caught in California Dungeness crab gear, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The record numbers led Oakland’s Center for Biological Diversity to file notice to sue the California Department of Fish and Wildlife last month for failing to prevent the gear from causing injuries and deaths of humpback whales, blue whales and sea turtles, which is said to be in violation of the Endangered Species Act.
The department issued an advisory to crab fishermen for best practices to minimize whale entanglement risk, including keeping excess fishing lines in check.
For many in the industry, getting the California Dungeness crab season largely back to status quo was good news, but no one was ecstatic after years of serious setbacks elsewhere in the California seafood ecosystem.
Warm water temperatures from a powerful El Niño was a factor in the crash in the sardine population, and the state’s five-year drought has hit the salmon fishery hard. The commercial Chinook salmon season, which normally starts in May, hasn’t opened north of Pigeon Point (San Mateo County) because low population counts caused the federal managers and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife to severely limit the season this year.
“We’re still struggling to recoup from the year before, with all the other big challenges in the industry,” Caito said.
By: Tara Duggan
Re-printed with permission of SeafoodNews.com