A strike by fishers who account for almost half the Dungeness crab catch in California is adding a new twist to a season that was already dogged by delays and uncertainty.
“The fishermen in Humboldt Bay have tied up, and the tie-up has spread as far north as Washington and as far south as Bodega Bay,” said fisher Ken Bates, vice president of Humboldt Fishermen’s Marketing Association near Eureka.
The West Coast Dungeness crab season opens in waves, and this year some parts of the season were delayed on the Northern California coast, Oregon and Washington because tests showed the presence of domoic acid, a naturally occurring neurotoxin, in crabs.
Crabbers whose season already opened had negotiated a price of $3 a pound in California and Oregon, so when Pacific Choice Seafood — a Humboldt County wholesale buyer owned by one of the West Coast’s largest seafood processors — dropped its price to $2.75 earlier this week, fishers in Humboldt Bay went on strike. They were followed in solidarity by fishers south to Bodega Bay and north to Oregon and Washington.
Fishers in Half Moon Bay and San Francisco are still fishing, though they are catching much less than they did in the beginning of the season.
Bates said the 25-cent difference in price could cost each boat $7,000 to $10,000 over the next few months.
“Generally speaking, in a normal season prices tend to go up as the season progresses and as the crab volume diminishes,” Bates said.
The North Coast is a sizable part of the state’s crab fishing industry. In 2014, fishers brought in 8.1 million pounds of crab from Bodega Bay north to Eureka, compared with 10.2 million pounds that were brought in from San Francisco south to Santa Barbara.
Since Nov. 15, different parts of the coast have opened after the California Department of Public Health issued an all-clear that the crab were safe to eat. One area, from Ten Mile in Mendocino County to Shelter Cove in Humboldt County, remains closed. Fisheries in Oregon and southern Washington were also delayed, though southern Oregon and other parts of Washington have since opened.
The strike comes right before one of the last big holidays for fresh Dungeness crab, New Year’s Eve. Bates said waiting out the holiday is worth it for fishers who wouldn’t be able to make up the difference in cost over the season.
But for Shane Lucas, a fisher who also owns the Lucas Wharf and Fishetarian restaurants in Bodega Bay, the impact was immediate.
“This is one of our busiest weeks of the year, from Christmas to New Year’s,” he said. “It’s gonna hurt our sales when I run out of crab this afternoon.”
After New Year’s, the majority of Dungeness crab goes to the frozen market.
It’s unclear whether retail Dungeness crab prices in Bay Area markets will be affected by the strike. Last time there was a strike, in 2012, it was over the same price difference. The strike kept crab out of stores for 11 days until crabbers got the $3 a pound they wanted.
On Thursday, cooked Dungeness crab was $9.99 per pound at Mollie Stone’s in Twin Peaks in San Francisco, a price that hasn’t changed since the days after Thanksgiving.