How the Bodega Bay crab industry grew out of food demand during World War II

On a stormy spring day along the Sonoma Coast in 1951, brothers Steve and Bill Smith wove stainless steel wires around the sides of a steel crabpot in preparation for a day of crab catching.

It was a task the longtime Coast Miwok fishing family hadn’t started doing until about a decade earlier, when food demand increased amid rationing during World War II, crabbing restrictions loosened and technological advances in frozen food storage became widespread.

“We never paid much attention to crabs before the war,” Bill Smith told The Press Democrat in March 1951. “Crabpots like these were prohibited in California coastal waters until around 1943.”

By the early 1950s, there were five fishing operations at Bodega Bay and about 100 fishermen who saw commercial crab fishing as a good side hustle, according to news reports at the time. Previously, Smith Brothers Fishery was the sole fishing business on the bay.

Crab processing plants also employed women workers through the 1940s and 1950s to pick, weigh and pack Dungeness crabs.

“When people eat a crab cocktail, or French fried crab legs, or a cracked crab with beer, they probably never stop to think that there’s a lot of work involved in getting it to his table,” Steve Smith said in 1951.

The Smith Brothers Fishery closed in 1963, according to the Rancho Bodega Historical Society. Smith Brothers Road in Bodega Bay is named after them.

Crabs were fairly affordable in the mid-20th century. A grocery store ad in The Press Democrat in 1966 listed whole jumbo Dungeness crabs for 39 cents a pound — cheaper than chicken breasts for 59 cents a pound.

By the late 1970s, as inflation increased everyday expenses, crab prices began to climb. In 1978, prices doubled when Bodega Bay fishermen and wholesale buyers agreed to $1.10 per pound, or about $1.89 for consumers, according to local news.

Dungeness crabs remain a valuable industry in Sonoma County, although crab season has shortened in recent years and its future is uncertain.

See the gallery above for photos of Dungeness crabs in Sonoma County over the years.

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