Fresh Monterey Bay crab will have to wait for most people this winter.
(Courtesy John Teeple)
Food & Drink

Crab season delayed again; fisheries, markets, restaurants learning to adjust

After five years of delays in the commercial crabbing season, shortages of Dungeness crab have essentially become a foregone conclusion. This holds consequences for retail, restaurants and fishermen in Santa Cruz County, and it could soon change the way fishing operates both recreationally and commercially.

Anyone eager to dig into some Dungeness crab this holiday season might need to once again rethink their entrees.

The California Department of Fish and Wildlife has pushed back the commercial crabbing season until at least Monday, and has restricted recreational crabbers from using traps. They can still use nets and crab snares; however, those typically are not as successful as the currently prohibited crab pots.

And there’s no guarantee that Monday will be opening day. Last year, the season was delayed until Dec. 23 — a date pushed back three times. The 2021 season was supposed to begin Nov. 15, but will now be pushed back until state officials complete their next risk assessment, scheduled for Monday.

This news was all but expected for Santa Cruz County fishermen, eateries and fish markets, who have grappled with the crackdown on crab pot lines for the past five years. A short supply of fresh crab has become the new normal during the holidays.

Charlie Lambert, co-founder of Ocean2table, a community-supported fishery, says that the unpredictability in the start of the seasons has changed how commercial fishing operates.

“The nature of fishing is sporadic; you never know what you’ll get day to day,” he said. “Throw in extra variability in season start time and it forces fishermen to change course.”

Crab traps sit unused in the Santa Cruz Harbor.
Crab traps sit unused in the Santa Cruz Harbor.
(Mallory Pickett / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Lambert also said that more than ever, a fisherman needs to be a jack of all trades, making it an even more difficult job than it already was.

“Before, many fishermen were able to make a living off of just one species, but now they have to be versatile and learn how to fish for all kinds of species,” he said. “It is actually very hard on them.”

Due to the uncertainty and unpredictability surrounding the seasons, Lambert fears that the profession will be hit hard.

“This could lead to the collapse of the next generation of fishermen,” he said. “The constant changes can be discouraging and cause difficulty in passing on skills to the next generation.”

Even though certain commodities such as fresh crab will not be available all the time, Lambert says that Ocean2table is committed to supporting local fishermen.

“We can’t always have top-notch species, but we’re doing our best to introduce alternatives and other species that are more available,” he said, adding that sourcing crab from elsewhere is not a trade-off his organization is willing to make. “We really are a community and need to support each other.”

While the ramifications for wholesale and for those vying for home-cooked crab entrees during the holiday season are obvious, seafood restaurants are also feeling the effects of lower crab supply.

Lance Haggard, general manager of Firefish Grill, Dolphin Restaurant and Woodies Cafe on the Santa Cruz Wharf, says he has gotten used to the difficulty of obtaining fresh Dungeness crab.

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“We have to expect that commercial crabbing will be delayed, whether it’s due to the algae bloom or turtle and whale migration,” he said. “Because of that the price has gone way up.”

The cost of fresh crab has more than doubled: Haggard said it’s gone from $24 per pound to $57 per pound — a price he sees as too much to charge.

“We don’t have fresh crab on the menu at the moment,” he said. “Many do not want to pay that much for their meal, which means that we have to throw away a lot of unserved crab, causing us to lose money.”

Haggard said establishments often look into sourcing crab from elsewhere, such as the East Coast, but that doesn’t yield the same flavor found in fresh Dungeness crab.

While restaurateurs, retailers and fishermen are keeping their eyes and ears open for news about the start of commercial crab season, nothing is set in stone.

“It looks like it’s not going to begin until at least early December, but that could get delayed further,” Haggard said. “We just have to wait and see.”

Meanwhile, despite being forced to use less efficient methods, recreational crabbers haven’t given up.

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Frankie Marie, manager of Santa Cruz Boat Rentals, says plenty of people still come in for crab nets and snares — and, in fact, there has been an increase of people asking for the equipment.

“Since commercial crabbing has been delayed, recreational crabbers come in pretty often for equipment,” she said. “They figure, ‘Well, since they can’t get them, maybe we can!’”

Business has changed a bit, as the store used to have more crabbers taking their crab pots out into the bay for a larger catch. Unaware crabbers still attempt to use the prohibited pots before being stopped.

“Some people still come out here with their crab pots and I have to run out there and stop them,” said Marie.

While the options for crabbing methods are less than ideal for a high yield, she said she does not expect local crabbers to stop trying anytime soon.

“Whether they stay on the wharf or go out in a boat, they’ll find a way,” Marie said. “They always do.”

Coverage from crab season 2020