Locally caught Dungeness crab on sale, offering Bay Area fishermen some relief

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Last week’s opening of the commercial crab season put fresh, local Dungeness in stores once again and got lots of Bay Area commercial fishermen back out on the ocean.

Neither circumstance is expected to last much longer than a few more weeks, with winter long gone and the crab catch thus far below what it typically would be at the start of the season, according to industry veterans.

It’s no surprise, given the unprecedented, four-month delay in the opening of a fishery that normally peaks in late December.

But there’s at least enough of the crustaceans coming in to put a few dollars in the pockets of crabbers and their crews, and the crabs themselves are generally meaty and sweet — a welcome treat after such a long wait, grocers said.

“We’re not setting the world on fire,” fourth-generation fisherman Tony Anello said, “but we’re doing OK.”

“People are excited when they walk down and see it,” said Scott Becklund, head meat cutter at Pacific Market in Sebastopol, where the crab was selling for $7.99 per pound Wednesday. “Everybody who’s coming through is buying a couple of them. They’re maybe not doing the big parties, but they’re buying what they can.”

Dungeness crab is one of California’s most lucrative fisheries, with 2014 landings valued at more than $66 million statewide and above $10 million in Bodega Bay, driven by lucrative Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s markets, and then abundant crab feeds.

But this year, the traditional Nov. 15 opening of the commercial fishery south of Mendocino County was put on hold because of a persistent harmful algal bloom and a naturally occurring toxin that accumulated in crabs at levels above what health officials consider safe.

The closure extended well beyond what anyone anticipated and continues in California ports north of the Sonoma County line.

Test levels finally dropped enough by mid-March that state officials reopened the commercial fishery south of Mendocino County and, after settling with wholesalers on a price last week, the rush was on.

Bodega Bay crabbers say the catch since then has been somewhat inconsistent, though some boats are coming back with decent loads.

“It’s spotty for a lot of people,” said Dan Kammerer, who decided to sit the season out, though he’s crewing for a friend. “Some guys have done pretty good in certain areas, and some guys are not.”

Word from Half Moon Bay and San Francisco suggests that catches are so small that some larger boats from outside the region are going home already.

Locally, Rich Franceschi, dock manager for North Coast Fisheries, said Wednesday morning that he expected to surpass 300,000 pounds of offloaded Dungeness soon — “a good amount of crab,” he said.

But he and the fishermen know they’re racing time, and that once the crabs’ shells start to soften in preparation for molting season, the fishing will soon come to a close.

North Coast Fisheries president Mike Lucas said demand is sluggish, limited to a small market for fresh crab and some frozen crab.

“We kind of figured it would be,” he said. “It’s not the time of year where people go out and buy a bunch of crab.”

But where they are buying it, the feedback has been positive, grocers said.

“The size is nice. They’re full, they’re mature,” said Todd Davis, meat and seafood coordinator for Oliver’s Markets, which was selling local Dungeness for $5.99 a pound Wednesday.

Davis said sales were decent, at least for early spring.

“We’re going through probably three to four hundred pounds per day, per store, which is great, being it’s this time of year. But it’s horrible in comparison if it was November, December. We’d be selling many thousands of pounds per day if it was Thanksgiving or Christmas time.”

Cooler, damp weather this weekend might even persuade some North Coast residents that cioppino is in order, he said, referring to the traditional seafood stew.

The spurt of late-season crab sales comes as boat captains, crewmen and others in the industry await moves by federal officials that could free up aid money. The hope is that such assistance could keep some of the ailing fleet afloat.

The looming salmon season won’t offer much relief, as the catch will likely be curtailed due to poor returns stemming from the state’s prolonged drought.

The fishing fleet “can’t just go back and make up what they lost,” Lucas said.

“Right now they’re just trying to keep their house, keep their cars, keep their boats, keep their wives and dogs,” he said. “It’s a tough scenario. We’re all kind of licking our wounds and trying to recover. But we are recovering something.”

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.

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