Dungenessence

Now is the season to savor the rites of crab.

By: Frank Robertson

Nov. 21, 2011


One of the joys of winter in Sonoma County is the crab season. They say this may be another exceptional year.
“It’s going to be good,” said the busy redheaded woman behind the counter at Bodega Bay’s Spud Point Crab Company.
It was mid-October with the season four weeks away. Circular steel crab traps were piled high at the Spud Point Marina and on the dock at the Tides Wharf. “Very good,” nodded the Latina woman at the Tides fish market when asked how the new season looked. She smiled broadly when she said it.
In Sonoma County, the annual Dungeness crab season opens on November 15, but whether anyone is actually fishing that day depends on the vagaries of weather and the inevitable haggling among crabbers and wholesalers over a fair price per pound.
I seldom worry about the money other than to hope they agree before Thanksgiving. A crab season delay can be slow torture. Remember 2007? When a Chinese tanker ran into the Oakland Bay Bridge and spilled 58,000 gallons of oil into San Francisco Bay?
The spill polluted some coastal beaches and raised concerns that even one oil-tainted crab would wreak havoc on the Dungeness crab market. Everyone went into a fine tizzy while Governor Schwarzenegger put the season on hold until December. Thousands of anticipated Thanksgiving crab feasts had to revert to plan B.
Enduring these little opening day uncertainties is one of crab season’s familiar rituals. We get used to it, maybe even anticipate it. Another ritual is driving out to the coast on a late fall day when autumn leaves drift across empty roads textured with fuzzy redwood duff. We gladly drive to the coast for crab in a foggy winter drizzle, too, and it’s just as vivid: solitary and cold but with the same sense of mission.
And then you arrive in Bodega Bay, where everything is picturesque right down to the last weathered dory with a seagull perched on the bow.
I carry my blue cooler out to the end of the pier where Paisano Brothers sells crabs off-loaded from fishing boats moored at their dock. Rich Franceschi or one of his men will ask “How many?”
Hundreds of live crabs swim in a large tank filled with salt water. A man’s bare hand reaches into the froth and pulls out a mottled ruddy brown-and-white crab with its legs and pinchers writhing.
He drops the crab into my cooler resting on his scale. A good-sized Dungeness weighs two-and-a-half or sometimes three pounds, plenty for two people. Two hefty ones will feed us and provide leftovers for crab cakes.
We await this winter harvest as affectionately as kids dreaming of Christmas. What will we find? Bounty or scarcity? It tells us how the world does.
“While we expect an above average season it won’t be anything like last year’s opener of 30 to 40-plus crabs per pot,” said the online Bodega Bay fishing report this year.
Crabbers say last year was “the best ever” for the California commercial Dungeness crab season south of the Sonoma-Mendocino County line. They caught more than 19 million pounds of crab, nearly four times more than the year before when it was closer to four million pounds. A one- or two-million pound catch may be closer to the norm.
The Dungeness crab population is cyclical, depending on environmental factors ranging from ocean temperature to pollution, wind and currents.
Last year’s unusually humongous catch came just as new state legislation was in the works to limit the number of traps a commercial boat can set. State Senator Noreen Evans introduced the law to reign in what had become the commercial crab industry’s annual “race for crab,” in which large commercial boats with hundreds of traps swooped down from Oregon and Washington early in the season and took most of the harvest.
This “race for crab” was dangerous, depleted the supply and left smaller local crabbers with empty traps and not much of a crab season after the big boys left, said Evans, whose bill was signed into law in September by Governor Jerry Brown.
In Bodega Bay, in mid-October, no one was predicting the price of crab this year. The redheaded woman at the Spud Point Crab Company said “I have no idea.” She gave me a funny look, as if to say “What? It’s going to be a couple of bucks a pound. Who cares?”
From a consumer’s perspective it did seem irrelevant. It’s not as though I was planning to feed a big crowd, although that happens often in Northern California, where this time of year there are plenty of fundraising crab feeds.
The Rotary Club of Healdsburg will hold its 32nd annual crab feed on Dec. 10 at the Villa Chanticleer. Last year it sold out, drawing more than 450 people.
Sebastopol Rotarians will host theirs on Feb. 12 in Holy Ghost Hall on Mill Station Road near Highway 116 North.
The Russian River Rotary Club holds its 25th annual crab feed in February at the Guerneville Veterans Auditorium.
Right, said the little voice in back of my head, “Who cares about the price?”
You don’t really have to go to the trouble of driving all the way out to the coast to buy a crab in order to save money—although you will save some buying live crab, maybe two or three dollars a pound, depending what the retailers are charging for cooked crab at the Tides Wharf Fish Market, Sebastopol’s Pacific Market, or Big John’s Market located ?in Healdsburg.
Maybe what I should be asking is, what is it worth to live close enough to the Sonoma Coast to come home with a fresh Dungeness crab?

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