Artisan Producers, Cooking, Watershed

Crab’s Very Short Season

California’s commercial crab season south of Mendocino County commenced on Nov. 15 this year and the harvest is looking great, but Kenny Belov of TwoXSea can’t help but look ahead to its end. Because while California’s dungeness crab season stretches all the way to June, the animals themselves do not.

“The crab has been wonderful and delicious and all of the good things that you want it to be,” says Belov, whose company provides all of SHED’s seafood. “The problem is that, by the end of this month, we’re going to be wondering if we actually have enough crab for Christmas and New Year’s. There will be crab, but it may not be fresh.”

Belov has a boat fishing for crab right now off the coast of Bolinas in Western Marin County and reports that it’s “definitely been a good and strong harvest,” but can’t suppress a slight tone of pessimism. “Unfortunately for people like myself and those at SHED who would like to see a more spread-out season — as opposed to everything coming in all at once and disappearing — what we’ve had this year is a tremendous amount of crab that’s getting vacuumed up quickly.”

Belov calls the start of crab season “D-Day for crabs,” explaining, “The fishermen know exactly where the crabs are and, on the exact same day, they all drop their pots. The crabs just crawl in. The fishermen do this for a few weeks until the ocean floor is more or less cleaned up. The big boats can’t make a living at just five pounds of crab per catch, so they’ll stack their pots up and go home.”

Belov pauses. “That’s the nature of high-volume fishing,” he says. “It’s out there, let’s go get it.”

If humans didn’t excel at exploiting resources, be they buffalo or oil or carrier pigeons or redwood trees, we wouldn’t have enjoyed such species growth. Our approach to seasonal shellfish is nothing if not distinctly human. It’s there, it’s got value . . . let’s go get it. According to Belov, the problem is locally compounded by fishing boats from Oregon and Washington state that carry California licenses. The crab season up north began Dec. 1, so they had two full November weeks to harvest in our waters before returning home to glean their own treasures.

“And these aren’t boats,” Belov stresses, “they’re ships. That’s the nature of this fishery; it’s a sad part of this fishery.”

As it stands, local dungeness is “vacuumed up” by December’s end, cooked, and frozen to be consumed through the rest of the season. As an example, Belov describes a business neighboring his on San Francisco’s Pier 45 that right now is frantically cooking all of the crabs that Whole Foods Markets nationally purvey. All of them.

And in truth, most of California’s catch is exported, not only out of state, but out of the U. S. Too much just comes in all at once. “A small amount of the crab caught in this area is consumed fresh,” he says, “because it’s impossible for us to eat it fast enough.”

Belov, who owns Fish Restaurant in Sausalito with partner Bill Foss and is hugely involved in supporting sustainable, line-caught fishing practices, says that he got into wholesale seafood because he felt that he simply couldn’t ignore the current state of our oceans. “I had to do it,” he says.

He suggests that an answer to extending the crab fishery requires the same kind of thinking that has prompted many consumers to pay the true price for a dozen eggs or eschew tomatoes in January.

“We need to look at ourselves and wonder what the price threshold really should be and what we’re willing to pay [for crab],” Belov says. “The price of crab to the vessel hasn’t changed that much in the last decade and so, the only way you can sustain yourself as a vessel owner is to fish in volume. As consumers, we can argue that we’re willing to pay three times as much as we currently do, but are we? What is the price threshold that we’re willing to hold?”

Educating consumers and nurturing customers who understand the nature of the problem remains key. “It’s people like those at SHED who make my job much easier,” Belov says, “because they’ve already bought into this fight of sourcing renewable products that will shape our future. It’s very easy for me when I source something that’s the right season and the right flavor profile — they’re just ready to take it.”

But for now, the season is on, the pots are dropped, and the ships are still in local waters. The Great Crab Vacuuming continues. “It’s one of our great local products,” Belov says, “and I wish that more of it stayed local and I wish that the season was as long as it is supposed to be but I don’t have a solution other than to try to pay your fishermen as much as you possibly can and try to get customers to embrace the idea of riding the season out with the fishermen.”

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