Dungessness Crabs from California.

In the News: Deluge of Dungeness

Excerpted from The San Francisco Chronicle
by George Snyder, Special to The Chronicle,
Friday, December 3, 2004

With claws snapping and legs scrambling for an ocean bottom they'll never feel again, crabs have been pouring onto the wooden docks at Bodega Bay. The deluge follows the opening of the commercial crab season off the Sonoma coast just before Thanksgiving.

Annabelle.With good luck and fair weather, this year's commercial catch could match or even better last year's haul of 1.4 million pounds of delectable shellfish. "By the end of the day today, I figure we will have pulled in about 170, 000 pounds of crab since the opener," said Ricky Franceschi, North Coast Fisheries dock boss. "It's been a good start. It should keep up."

Franceschi read out the weight of the catch from a digital scale attached to a large, rectangular bucket as he tipped hundreds of the claw-flailing crustaceans into giant plastic loading bins. As the bins filled, a dockworker on a forklift hauled them away. The bucket, swung by a crane from the dock to the fishing boat, was carefully loaded by hand. The crabs, constantly pushed up from the cold belly of the fishing boat Haida Queen by hydraulic lift, dripped with the seawater pumped into the hold to keep them alive.

Understandably unhappy at their new circumstances, the crabs kept the deckhand's fingers dancing around pincers as they picked out new candidates for the bucket. In a matter of hours, the crabs would be shipped live from the dock to Santa Rosa for both the fresh and cooked crab market in area stores.

About 17 of the 50 or so crab fishing boats operating out of Bodega Bay this season unload at the North Coast Fisheries dock, working about 6,000 crab traps among them. That gives an idea of the scope of the crab fishery off Bodega Bay. Six hundred thousand pounds is considered normal for a season, which runs through June. Most crabs, however, are brought in before the end of January.

Last year, Bodega Bay fishermen brought in 1.4 million pounds of crab, getting $1.75 a pound -- the same price as this year. In 2002, they brought in 1.6 million pounds, more than $2 million worth.

Down on one of the Spud Point docks near his boat, Juliet, Chuck Wise, president of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations, and past president of the Bodega Bay Fishermen's Association, was upbeat about both the season and the local fishery in general. Wise, 63, a former police officer who served in Concord, Pleasant Hill and at Lake Tahoe, has been fishing commercially since 1966. An avid sport crab and salmon fisherman "since I was a kid," he put in eight hours on his day job and commuted when he could to Bodega Bay to fish before he decided to go commercial. "We're pretty pleased about the crabs and the outlook in general," he said. "The ocean's been alive for the past three or four years with lots of food, and it looks like it will be a good salmon season coming up as well. There's been some bad years, but the crab and salmon are two healthy fisheries right now, and I think we're really on the upswing."

Dungeness crab, Cancer magister, is unique to the Pacific Coast of the United States. Legend has it the crab takes its name from a small fishing village on the Strait of Juan de Fuca in Washington state. One of the largest edible crabs along the coast, Dungeness can attain a width of 9 inches across the back and are most commonly found from Santa Barbara north to Alaska, although most fishing for them is done north of Monterey. The species reaches sexual maturity at about 3 years of age. Mating generally occurs in summer. The females carry as many as 2 million eggs, which hatch from mid to late winter.

Crab Traps Photographed by Dianne Levy. Most commercial crab traps are a little more than a yard in diameter and about 14 inches deep and weigh as much as 100 pounds. Since most commercial boats will put out several hundred traps a trip, it makes for hard work.

"It's pretty physical," said 26-year-old Bodega Bay fisherman Mark Anello. He was taking a few hours off to help his mother, Carol, and his sister, Lisa, run the family crab shack, the Spud Point Crab Company, just across the road from the county-run Spud Point Marina. "We run about 550 pots, generally with a captain and two crew, so it's work . . . But I really like fishing; it's what I want to do," said Anello. During the season, he rises at 1:30 a.m. to start his day aboard the Sea Farmer where the crew baits and checks traps generally dropped at Point Reyes, a two-hour run to the south, and the mouth of the Russian River, a few miles north. Anello said the Sea Farmer can put as much as 12,000 pounds of crab into her hold before heading home.

Carol in the KitchenCarol, whose husband, Tony, has been fishing for 37 years, said her son's affinity for the job runs in the family. "It must be in the blood," she said while dumping fresh crabs into the cook pot as customers dropped by for a look. "His great-granddad on his father's side was a fisherman in Italy.

You know, the fishing tradition has taken a hit. A lot of the boys go out with their dad but don't want to stay in it. It's a lot of hard work and not too much money. "But Mark's different," Carol Anello said. "He had a commercial boat before he had a driver's license."

A healthy crab season is good news for people like the Anellos. "As long as they bring them in," she said, "we're going to sell them."

The sport crab fishing season off the California Department of Fish and Game's central coast marine district, which stretches from San Mateo County to Point Arena in Mendocino County, began Nov. 6 and runs through June 30.

The sports season north of Point Arena through portions of Del Norte County began Nov. 27. It ends July 31.