By Margaret Hetherwick
Special to The Examiner
If you haven’t eaten Dungeness crab lately, now may be the time to start — if you can stomach the cost.
Between accelerated fishing regulations and climate change-induced havoc on the ocean, San Francisco’s crab industry has been struggling to stay above water. Consumers have been feeling the drag as well. The price of bringing a local Dungeness crab to the table is higher than it has been for a decade, rising from about $4.99 per pound in 2014 to $11.95 per pound today.
In sustainability terms, however, this may be a small price to pay. A responsible fishing practice and a resilient local economy have made crab caught on the West Coast among the most sustainable seafood in the world, according to a May Nature study.
“What’s really nice about California is, if you’re getting fish from California, it’s kind of by default sustainable,” said Joe Conte, owner of wholesale seafood retailer Water2Table at Pier 45. “Quotas and limits are determined by science, by (the Department of) Fish and Game and even by fishermen who want to make sure that the fishery stays sustainable for them. Overall, there’s a lot of cooperation and all that’s taken into consideration to set seasons.”
California owes its high sustainability ranking to a commitment to ocean habitat restoration and environmental preservation at all levels. Kristen Monsell, legal director of the oceans program at the Center for Biological Diversity, said regulations on fishing that protect whales in turn protect fisheries.
“One of the primary benefits of sustainable fishing practices is a healthy ecosystem. Whales are incredibly important to thriving ocean ecosystems. Their poop helps to fertilize the ocean and phytoplankton in particular, which are the base of the food chain, which then helps create healthy fisheries,” she said.
The 2021–2022 crab season opened Dec. 29, more than a month after the usual start date. The delay was both to accommodate migrating whales and to avoid the effects of toxic algae blooms in the crab population. Both effects are linked to the same global environmental catastrophe: warming ocean waters.
“What happened back when ‘the Blob’ was off Oregon, back in ’14, ’15 and ’16, was the water temperature never went below 61 degrees. And I started seeing the crabs were slow,” said Larry Collins, president of the San Francisco Community Fishing Association.
Collins described the behavior of crabs that contain domoic acid, a neurotoxin that occurs naturally in some algae, which can cause severe poisoning in predators that consume shellfish or bait fish and can slow down the normally agile speed of the crustaceans. Warm ocean waters allow for ample growth conditions for the algae, which feeds the shellfish that graze on it, introducing domoic acid to the food chain. When marine mammals and other creatures are poisoned by the acid, they become neurologically impaired, leading to entanglement in fishing gear.
“We started seeing an uptick in entanglements around 2014. And that has coincided with significantly warmer waters because of climate change,” said Monsell. “But this is not a problem that’s isolated to California. We’re also seeing this play out in the Atlantic Ocean.”
The Blob, a nickname for the mass of warm water looming off the North American Pacific Coast, created perfect conditions for the spike in domoic acid in Bay Area crabs from 2013 to 2016. The mass has since dissolved into three smaller “blobs”: one in the Bering Sea, one near Seattle and one in Southern California.
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s January 2022 climate predictions, without the Blob, the La Niña climate effect has been chilling the Bay Area’s ocean waters below the regular winter temperature of 52.3 degrees Fahrenheit. Cold water combined with improved water quality makes for a winning crab season.
Dungeness crabs are not endangered, according to a study published in Seafood Watch; however, the progression of their normal life cycle means the viable Dungeness crab supply will last only a few weeks into January. Only male crabs of a certain size are taken, most of which are caught at the start of the season.
“Those dates are based on how the crab hardens up. On Nov. 15, our crabs generally are ready here — full of meat. Every year, we catch 90% of the legal male (crabs) in a couple weeks, and every year, they come back. We’ve been doing it this way for 100 years,” said Collins.
“It would have been the perfect year to say, ‘Why don’t you go on time on Nov. 15?’” said Collins. “The better the Bay is, with no pollution and freshwater flow from the Delta, then it’s really, really good for the crabs.”
According to Conte, sustainability is the leg up small-time fishermen have on the industrial outfits. Around 65% of fish Americans consume is imported, and about a third of the catch from domestic fisheries is processed overseas. A Dungeness crab in a box store like Safeway can be caught in Alaska, frozen, sent to a processing plant in Southeast Asia, frozen again, sent to Safeway and left in a freezer there until it’s time to sell.
Conte and Collins say that compared to California, the worldwide fishing industry is dangerously unregulated — what they both described as a “Wild West.”
“Everyone’s like, well, you should start selling to grocery stores because they’re the ones that are busy,” said Conte, a San Francisco native who started his company with his wife, Andi Conte, in 2011 after 25 years in the restaurant business. “And I’m like, f**k that. When COVID’s over, they’re just gonna stop buying from me again. They buy the cheapest stuff they can find.”
Regardless of the competition size, Collins argues the unique qualities of Bay Area fishing are key to both the sustainability and longevity of the local industry.
“The whole idea is you use the best available science to give the consumers — a public trust resource, what they own, as much as you can without hurting the resource, and employing as many people and getting as much value as you can out of the resource,” he said. “We want to be able to do it next year, the year after that, the year after that, and we want our kids to be able to do it with our grandkids.”