When the California Department of Fish and Wildlife gave the green light for the state’s commercial Dungeness crab fishing season to begin, it looked like we had finally gotten a little normal in this mess of a year. According to the regulator, boats at quays off the Mendocino coast to the border with Mexico could take off from December 23 and bring in crabs just before Christmas. But when fishermen met this week, they learned that they would not go out after all, as negotiations between the biggest crabbing operations and the wholesalers buying their catch have reached a dead end. That means no crab for Christmas and no paychecks for small, local fishermen who figured the crab holiday requirement would pay the bills.
Bay Area News Group posted a flare Tuesday night, writing that price negotiations may have prevented crabbers from going out Wednesday morning, the first day they would be cleared for fishing, after fears of whale development delayed the season from November 15 to December 1. and then again to the 23rd The news that they were allowed to fish before Christmas – typically a banner day for local Dungeness in Bay Area homes, markets and restaurants – was some of the first good news that local crabs had received, after the pandemic eroded much of their sales to restaurants and a massive fire in May on Pier 45 destroyed gear belonging to 30 members of the area’s fishing community.
“It’s a very complicated situation,” Tom Worthington tells Eater SF. He is a co-owner of Monterey Fish Market, one of Bay Area’s most renowned suppliers of retail and wholesale fish, specializing in locally caught seafood for local chefs, home cooks and some of the region’s best restaurants. “The bottom line is that the person bidding on the lowest kind controls the crab market,” and right now the pandemic-related slowdown for the seafood wholesale market means bids are very, very low … so low that the largest crab boats out there, those who can take “40,000 to 100,000 pounds of crab a tow” refuse to take out.
Worthington explains: When the crab fishing season begins, there is suddenly a large haul of crab on the dock, all at once. While many of the customers for these crabs are “small players like us”, the vast majority are huge companies that make bulk purchases and then store surplus crabs in freezers to sell to retailers and wholesalers, from groceries to restaurant chains, all year round. .
But this year, as wholesale demand for crab declined as the pandemic raged, the big bidders still have freezers full of crabs from last year’s catch. They do not need the fresh crab fishermen expected to start pulling this week – and in fact, they may not even have room for it in their freezers. So the largest companies bid low: according to SF Chronicle, about $ 2.25 per. pounds, while local crabbers say they need at least $ 3.30 to make a trip worth it.
While “one side of the market wants fresh crab and is willing to pay for it,” Worthington says, describing not only its business but the many restaurants hoping to serve fresh crab this week, but that side of the market can not accommodate all the crab that the big boats will take in. So even though the smaller vendors are brave enough to go, with “both stacked at the dock in the last month, just waiting”, they can not go out to meet this requirement.
That’s because a coalition of crab fishers refuses to go out, none of them do, Worthington says. All-or-nothing ethos is a long-standing “unspoken rule” that is part of old-school collective bargaining and another part of high-intensity peer pressure. “There’s a story of some pretty ugly game between people who’s gone and people who’s not gone,” Worthington said, with scorecards and other equipment sabotage rumors about those essentially crossing the fence line.
And then there is the pandemic, which makes crab fishing even more dangerous. Commercial crabbing means “running a huge production line … with guys on top of each other and no room for error.” In other words, the kind of close quarters that provide a COVID-19 hotspot. You might see why they endure the extra $ 1.05 when their health is even more on the field than it typically is in an already dangerous industry.
All of this means no local Dungeness for Christmas, but New Year’s crab is not entirely out of the question. The fishermen are set to meet again on December 26, Worthington says, and there is a possibility that they may agree to go out after that. But he’s not so sure. “At this point, I do not know,” Worthington said. “I do not know why they would settle down on the 26th if they would not do on the 23rd”, probably the most lucrative day of the season. “It’s hard what’s going on,” he says, “as the mood among local buyers” (as everyone expected the retail or dining room boom coming from fresh crab) has been trying to ask why they should bother “Offer something more than what major manufacturers offer. ”
It’s a heartbreaking, frustrating situation, Worthington says, as “these local guys need a paycheck as much as anyone else out there and they really want to go.” And then there are the rest of us, many of whom for several weeks had been looking forward to fresh crab at Christmas. “It would have been so nice to have a little nostalgia, and just something nicein the midst of all this, ”Worthington says sadly. “Crab is just so seasonally perfect. It would have been so good to have it at least after everything else this year. ”