The taste of fresh Monterey Bay crab will have to wait for most consumers this winter.
(Courtesy John Teeple)
Local Business

No Crab for Christmas? Season to open, but fishermen holding ground on price

After a series of delays, commercial crab season finally opens Wednesday, but don’t expect crab for Dec. 25. Fishermen are keeping their crab pots docked as they try to negotiate better selling prices as a group.

Dungeness crab is a holiday staple in Santa Cruz, but now that tradition is yet another casualty of 2020.

The commercial season was originally scheduled to open on Nov. 15 in the Monterey Bay area, but was delayed three separate times due to new state regulations to protect whales. It finally opens Wednesday. But local fishermen say no one is going out.

The California fleet of commercial fishing boats is in the midst of price negotiations with the big corporate buyers, companies like Pacific Seafood, based in Oregon, which process and freeze most of the crab caught here.

Fishermen say the price they’ve been offered is too low, so they are standing in solidarity, on dry land, until they get a better one.

Dave Toriumi is a local crab and salmon fisherman who grew up in Watsonville and now has boats docked in the Moss Landing and Santa Cruz harbors. He says he fills an unofficial role as an organizer and spokesperson for the younger generation of commercial fishermen in the Monterey Bay.

“It’s a mess, this whole thing is an absolute mess,” he said. “We’re all going broke just sitting here.” He usually relies on crab for about 50% of his income.

Once the season start date was delayed all the way until Dec. 23, it was always going to be a rush to try and get crab on consumer tables by the holidays. Difficult, but not impossible.

“For the smaller buyers who bank upon live markets, they could, theoretically, if they get product in by noon on the 23rd, they could have some products out and available at some point on Christmas Eve,” said Mike Conroy, executive director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations. “[But] the fleet is really looking at this from a unity standpoint.

Dave Toriumi fishing on his boat in the Monterey Bay
(David Hills c/o Monterey Bay Fisheries Trust)

“If a guy can get 50 cents a pound more to go out and serve the live market right now, the fear is that everybody else is going to untie when they see one boat untie. Then the low ball price that was offered yesterday becomes the price.”

The process of price negotiations between fishing fleets and the seafood processing plants is a relatively informal congregation of parties, so the decision not to fish for crab at the current price is not a hard and fast rule. But Toriumi and Conroy say most of the people they know seem to be planning to abide by it.

Fishermen were allowed to start deploying their traps beginning Monday. But in the harbor on Tuesday dozens of crab pots were still stacked on dry land.

Sources close to the negotiations said one of the biggest buyers is offering somewhere around $2.25, but the fishermen want a price in the mid $3 range.

The obvious factor keeping prices low is COVID-19, which has shuttered restaurants up and down the West Coast. Crab they bought earlier in the year is likely still in their freezers, throwing off the usual balance of supply and demand.

In an email, Pacific Seafood, one of the largest buyers, said, “We are one of many buyers, but we’re actively working with the fishermen who fish for Pacific Seafood and the fishermen associations in the ports we do business. This year is especially challenging for all parties involved given the significant drop in demand due to restaurant closures and event cancellations.”

Pacific Seafood added that “The associations have communicated to us that they would like to postpone crab negotiations until after Christmas. Discussion will continue after Christmas and Pacific Seafood looks forward to deliveries of fresh, Dungeness Crab soon.”

So the chance of fresh crab this Christmas is pretty much zero unless you catch it yourself (recreational crab fishing is open).

Crab traps sit unused in the Santa Cruz Harbor on Tuesday, Dec. 22.
Crab traps sit unused in the Santa Cruz Harbor on Tuesday, Dec. 22.
(Kevin Painchaud/Lookout Staff)

Toriumi, who has two young children, says all the delays in the crab season because of the new whale protections, which began last year, combined with COVID-19, have taken a huge toll on his finances. He hasn’t been able to contribute to the mortgage on his house the past three months.

He also just bought his crab boat and permit a few years ago, and is still paying it off.

“I literally am not going to have money to put diesel in the boat to go out crabbing,” Toriumi said. Even though he loves fishing and can’t think of something else he would be doing, his financial obligation might be the only thing keeping him in the game.

“Honestly, if the boat were in my name, I would probably be selling out,” he said. He knows at least four others facing a similar predicament, who told him they wished they had sold last year, and are planning to get out as soon as this season is over.

Dave Toriumi
Dave Toriumi, a crab and salmon fisherman who works locally. He says he won’t be going out for crab until the fleet can negotiate a better price.
(David Hills c/o Monterey Bay Fisheries Trust)