Dungeness crab devotees intent on cracking open the tasty crustacean on Thanksgiving Day have somewhere to turn to after all, thanks to a limited supply from Washington, where commercial crab fishing is currently limited to Native American tribes.
With the California and Oregon coasts closed indefinitely to all commercial crabbing due to the presence of a potentially lethal neurotoxin, the only West Coast sources of crab for Thursday’s feast are the tribal fisheries on the coast north of Grays Harbor and in Puget Sound.
Washington wildlife officials say that the crab is safe for human consumption.
“There’s crab to be had if you look for it,” Michael Lucas of North Coast Fisheries, a Santa Rosa wholesaler, said Wednesday. “They’re good crabs, nice and heavy.”
They’re a bit pricey, however, since the tribal fisheries know they have a near-monopoly on a commodity that’s hitting peak demand with the holiday season, Lucas said.
“In Sonoma County, crab is an institution,” said Teejay Lowe, CEO of G&G Supermarkets.
The G&G stores in Santa Rosa and Petaluma have cooked crab for $7.59 a pound and live crab, flown from Washington in tanks of water, for $9.75.
Lowe said he prefers to buy crab off the docks at Bodega Bay, but the local fleet has been idle since state officials put a hold on crabbing three weeks ago due to a massive bloom of algae that release domoic acid, the dangerous neurotoxin. The most recent tests by the Department of Health found that half to two-thirds of the crabs sampled at Bodega Bay had unsafe levels of domoic acid, which causes symptoms ranging from vomiting and diarrhea to coma and death.
Whole Foods Markets in Santa Rosa, Sebastopol, Sonoma and Petaluma will have “limited amounts” of fresh crab from Washington tribal fisheries arriving today, Wednesday and Friday, said Elliott Myers, the chain’s regional seafood coordinator for Northern California and Reno.
The price will be “fluid,” he said, ranging from $10 to $12 a pound due to a higher wholesale cost.
“Our customers expect us to have Dungeness crab for Thanksgiving,” Myers said, adding that demand for the hard-shelled crustaceans also increases at Christmas and New Year’s.
Scientists say the algae outbreak is likely due to a band of unusually warm water and that the crabs will eventually purge the neurotoxin from their bodies, but it’s unclear if that will happen in time for the end-of-year holidays.
Last year’s Dungeness crab harvest was worth about $60 million statewide, and local fishermen were hoping for a lucrative crab season on the heels of a skimpy summertime king salmon catch.
The G&G and Whole Foods representatives said they were relying on testing by the state of Washington to assure the safety of the crab in their stores.
Dan Ayres, coastal shellfish manager for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, said that Dungeness crab have tested as safe in regard to domoic acid since the end of August in the area from Grays Harbor north to the Canadian border. Any crab landed by tribal fisheries in that area are safe for eating, he said.
The Quinault Indian Nation, which maintains a large commercial crab operation at Grays Harbor, started fishing on Thursday.
Dee Skikos, general manager of Andy’s Market near Sebastopol, said he is waiting until local crab gets an “all-clear” before carrying it in his store.