In record numbers this season, the plump Dungeness crabs fishermen have plucked from the waters outside <NO1><NO>Bodega and San Francisco bays are finding their way onto dinner tables in Shanghai and Beijing.
Tony Anello, a longtime commercial fisherman and owner of the Spud Point Crab Company, estimated about 50 percent of the crabs caught in Bodega Bay are being flown to China this season.
It's a market force driven by an overflowing bounty of crustaceans, a growing middle class in China that savors the </CL>Western treat and a few smart fish mongers who have figured out the tricky business of how to get the crabs over there alive.
"It's a market that appreciates high quality, live Dungeness crab," said Bill Carvalho, president and founder of Wild Planet Foods. "It has given the fishermen another market for their product, which creates more stability for the price."
Wild Planet, based in McKinleyville, <NO1><NO>has focused for many <NO1><NO>years on producing a line of wild-caught, canned seafood in the U.S. and <NO1><NO><NO1><NO>began exporting live Dungeness to China about 14 months ago.
The volume of live and fresh crabs exported from the San Francisco area to China increased by more than 20 times from 2009 to 2010, according to customs data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Exporters shipped 939,001 pounds of live, fresh, salted or brined crab to China in 2010, up from just 41,502 pounds in 2009. The dollar value jumped to $3.2 million from about $159,000.
Although crab catches vary from season to season,<NO1><NO> and this year showed a dramatic overall increase, the volume shipped to China in 2010 dwarfs the amounts recorded in the past two decades of available data. The product also has been shipped to Hong Kong and South Korea, but in smaller quantities.
<NO1><NO><NO1><NO>The amount of frozen and canned Dungeness crab shipped<NO1><NO> to China from the San Francisco area also grew substantially, from 44,557 pounds in 2009 to 459,789 pounds in 2010, jumping in value from $158,722 to $1.86 million.
<NO1><NO>How to ship live crabs overseas is a closely guarded secret, where timing is everything.
Although exporters would not provide full details about the highly competitive and risky operation, partial accounts from several sources indicate the crabs are chilled, packed into styrofoam boxes with some form of oxygen supply, secured in a plastic bag and placed in the cargo section of passenger planes bound for China.
Anello exported about 15,000 pounds of live crab to China several years ago. But his operation was derailed by the Cosco Busan oil spill in 2007, which brought fishing in the Bay Area to a halt for weeks. <NO1><NO>He hopes to have the export channels back in place later this year.
The conditions were right for the new export market to take off this season.
In the first two months of Dungeness season at Bodega Bay, fishermen hauled in more than 10 times the catch that they did during the same two months last season.
Last November and December, Bodega Bay fishermen unloaded 2.2 million pounds of Dungeness, compared to just 181,971 pounds during the same months in 2009, said Peter Kalvass at the state Department of Fish and Game.
The dollar value jumped to $3.6 million from $387,450 during that time. That catch was twice as plentiful as the combined catches of both San Francisco Bay and Half Moon Bay.