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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.

"You can see that $3.6 million worth of crab was landed at Bodega in those first six weeks of this season. However, a lot of that went into the pockets of fishermen from outside the port of Bodega," Kalvass said.

Michael Nozel, head of the live seafood division for Pacific Seafood, based in Clackamas, Ore., said his company collects crab from all over the West Coast, including Bodega Bay, and ships the live catch to Shanghai, Beijing and other ports in China.

He explained that<NO1><NO> historically the Dungeness crab export market has been dominated by companies in Vancouver, British Columbia, which has a large population of immigrants from China.

"For many, many years, Vancouver was the strongest supply line to China of live West Coast seafood," Nozel said. "The biggest change would be that the Vancouver shippers just simply can't keep up with the demand."

Nozel has been working in the live crab business for 15 years. The company he started, Live Seafood, was bought by Pacific Seafood in 1998. Over the years, he said the company has shipped live crab to China sporadically, but more recently it has been shipping steadily.

Nozel said the most important thing is to quickly move the crabs through the supply chain. Passenger planes are the best option because those flights are more frequent than freighters or mail delivery planes, he said.

"The common thread among all the shippers is reducing the time from when the crab is actually caught in crab pots to the time it reaches the market," Nozel said. "So you can imagine that ours is an extremely fast-paced business that requires a lot of logistics."

For example, when a volcano erupted <NO1><NO>in Russia last year, it spewed ash into the flight path between the U.S. and China. Passenger planes were re-routed and had to decrease their weight, so cargo was booted off planes, including the delicate live crabs. If a detour takes too long, the crabs have to go back into water or they could die, Nozel said.

"Everything has to be controlled and everything has to be right, and you really can't have any pieces of the puzzle be subject to wrinkles," Nozel said. "It's monitoring all the individual elements of the whole logistical puzzle."

Fishermen themselves generally are not shipping the creatures to China. But they are benefiting financially by selling for higher prices, as the increased demand from abroad stays strong while the season's remaining supply of catchable crab thins.

<CW-17>Anello said fishermen began the season earning about $1.60 or $1.75 a pound for their catch and now it's up to about $3.</CW>

Michael Lucas, president of North Coast Fisheries in Santa Rosa, said his company also is exporting live crabs to China on passenger planes.

"It sells for more than it does here. You got another $2 per pound for shipping it," Lucas said. "It sells for more because it costs more, and there's an inherent risk that you're going to absorb."

Details were unavailable for the selling price of Dungeness crab in China.

"If you don't have somebody over there that is a true trade partner, you don't belong in the game to begin with," Lucas said. "There's a lot of risk. It's a really tricky game."