When the California Department of Fisheries and Wildlife gave the green light for the start of the state’s commercial Dungeness crab fishing season, it seemed that we had finally achieved a bit of normality in this year-long mess. According to the regulatory agency, boats from the Costa de Mendocino docks to the Mexican border may depart from December 23, bringing crabs just before Christmas. But when the fishermen met this week, they knew they would not leave, after all, because negotiations between the biggest crabs and the wholesalers who buy the fish have come to a halt. That means no crabs at Christmas and no payment for the small local fishermen who relied on the demand for holiday crabs to pay the bills.
The Bay Area News Group sent out a flag on Tuesday night, writing that price negotiations may prevent crabs from leaving on Wednesday morning, the first day they would be allowed to fish after whale entanglement fears. delayed the season from November 15 to December 1, and then again to the 23rd. The news that they would be allowed to fish before Christmas – usually an excellent day for local Dungeness homes, markets and restaurants in the Bay Area – it was some of the first good news that local crabbers received after the pandemic eroded much of their restaurant sales and a major fire in May at Pier 45 destroyed the equipment of 30 members of the region’s fishing community.
“It is a very complicated situation,” Tom Worthington told Eater SF. He is co-owner of the Monterey Fish Market, one of the Bay Area’s best-known retail and wholesale seafood suppliers, specializing in locally caught seafood for local chefs, home cooks and some of the region’s best restaurants. “The bottom line is that the lowest bidder controls the crab market,” and now, the pandemic slowdown in the wholesale seafood market means that the bids are very, very low … so lower than the biggest crab boats out there, those that can carry “40,000 to 100,000 pounds of crab per trailer,” refuse to leave.
Worthington explains: When the crab fishing season begins, suddenly there are a lot of crabs on the docks, all at once. While many of these crab customers are “little players like us,” the vast majority are large companies that shop in bulk and then store surplus crabs in freezers to sell to retailers and wholesalers, from supermarkets to restaurant chains. , during the year.
But this year, as wholesale demand for crab has declined sharply as the pandemic has increased, big buyers still have freezers full of crabs from last year’s fisheries. They do not need fresh crab fishermen expected to start fishing this week – and, in fact, they may not even have room for that in their freezers. Therefore, the biggest companies offer low bids: according to SF Chronicle, about $ 2.25 a pound, while local crabbers say they need at least $ 3.30 to make a trip worthwhile.
Although “one side of the market wants fresh crab and is willing to pay for it,” says Worthington, describing not only his business, but the multitude of restaurants hoping to serve fresh crab this week, that side of the market cannot accommodate all the crab that these big boats are going to receive. So while smaller suppliers are eager to go, with “boats piled on the pier for the past month, just waiting”, they cannot go out to meet this demand.
That’s because a coalition of crab fishermen refuses to leave, none of them do, says Worthington. The all-or-nothing ethos is a long-standing “unspoken rule” that is part of the collective bargaining of the old school and part of the pressure from high-intensity peers. “There is a history of a very unpleasant game between people who went and people who didn’t,” says Worthington, with rumors of sabotage from other equipment for those who, in essence, cross the picket line.
And there is the pandemic, which makes crab fishing even more dangerous. Commercial crabbing means “operating a huge production line … with faces on top of each other and with no room for error”. In other words, the kind of closed environment that creates a COVID-19 hot spot. You can see, perhaps, why they are expecting that extra $ 1.05 when their health is even more at risk than it normally is in an already dangerous sector.
All of this means that there is no local Dungeness at Christmas, but the New Year’s crab is not completely out of the question. Fishermen are due to meet again on December 26, says Worthington, and there is a possibility that they will agree to leave after that. But he is not so sure. “At this point, I don’t know,” says Worthington. “I don’t know why they would settle on the 26th, if not the 23rd,” probably the most profitable day of the season. “It is difficult what will happen,” he says, “since the mood among local shoppers” (all of whom were waiting for the retail or restaurant boom that comes from fresh crab) has soured by asking why they should be concerned in “offering any more than the big producers are offering”.
It’s a heartbreaking and frustrating situation, says Worthington, as “these local guys need a paycheck just as much as anyone else out there, and they really want to go.” And then there are the rest of us, many of whom have been looking forward, for weeks, to fresh crab for Christmas. “It would have been so nice to have a little nostalgia, and just something cool, in the middle of it all, ”says Worthington wistfully. “The crab is so seasonally perfect. It would have been so nice to have that, at least, after all this year. “