California fishermen strike over crab prices
By Colleen Valles
SAN FRANCISCO Dungeness crab season should be in full swing along the California coast, but most fishermen's boats are docked as they protest the prices they have been offered for their catches.
Domingo Chavez, of Alioto's restaurant, prepares Washington crabs at Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco. Restaurants are importing crab from the Pacific Northwest because of California fishermen's protests.
California fishermen are asking for $2.25 a pound for their crab, but they're being offered $1.75 a pound by distributors and wholesalers. California fishermen got $2.25 a pound at the start of last season.
"What we produce is the very best you can get, and they pay us less for it," said David Capp, who has been fishing for crab for the past 30 years.
But wholesalers say with the economic downturn, they can't sell the crab for enough to cover the asking price of the fishermen.
Most of the crab caught around the San Francisco Bay Area is shipped live or cooked locally, said Duncan MacLean, a crab fisherman and president of the Half Moon Bay Fishermen's Marketing Association.
Consumers are already being affected. There's still crab available, but it comes from Oregon and Washington.
"It makes a shortage of crab, and the price of what crab is available is high," said Rick Geraldi, manager of Fisherman's Grotto No. 9 on San Francisco's Fisherman's Wharf, which is selling Washington state crab for $8.75 a pound.
Still, customers are buying, he said.
"It's Thanksgiving. Everybody wants crab," Geraldi said.
Thanksgiving is a busy time for crab fishermen, and early indications showed that this season should be normal to slightly above average, MacLean said.
"We sell directly to the public now, and in the past, that's helped keep the buyers a little bit honest," he said. "There's a little too much produce to sell to the public and still get a good price."
The season around the Bay Area started Nov. 15, and it opens Dec. 1 for fishermen north of Point Arena in Mendocino County. It's unclear whether the Northern California fishermen will join in the strike. The season ends in June.
In Washington, crab season begins Dec. 1, but Indian tribes can begin fishing Nov. 1, giving California crab fishermen a run for their money.
One crab fisherman has broken ranks, and fished from Half Moon Bay. John Dooley caught 15,000 pounds and got $2.60 a pound. But for that, he said he found the lines of 400 of his more than 900 crab pots cut.
The Dungeness crab industry brought in $13.5 million last year, with about 8 million pounds landed annually in California. The crabs get shipped nationwide and as far away as Japan.
Capp said if he had been fishing since the start of the season, he could have made between $10,000 and $40,000, depending on how the crab are doing, he said.
Capp's business is one of the smaller ones. He has about 225 traps, while larger operations have 700 to 1,000. He has instead been spending his time doing maintenance on his boat and traps.
He said he has paid his bills and will wait out the strike.
"The crabs are still out there," he said. "And they're getting fatter every day."