DUNGENESS: Elusive and Expensive

Times Staff Writer

The frenzy of several weeks ago has subsided here as another poor fishing season for Dungeness crabs fades with many boat owners mourning the continuing decline of this prized crustacean.

Once again, supplies of the popular Dungeness are well below normal, thus creating a shortfall that has sent prices to record-high levels.

The reason for the crab's periodic elusiveness remains pretty much a mystery. Historically, each season's harvest is tied into a 10-year cycle with a series of lean years offset by plentiful ones. Now, however, those involved in marketing this celebrated Pacific Ocean crab are still waiting to hit bottom.

There are bountiful explanations for the current Dungeness decline, but all variations of the story contain the same ending. The once-plentiful seafood that made San Francisco's Fisherman's Wharf famous is now a luxury with retail prices hovering in the $16-a-pound range for the shelled, tender, flaky white meat.

The price for whole cooked crabs, those normally accompanied with mallet, nut cracker and reams of napkins, hovers around $5 per pound. Even so, the Dungeness crab's flirtation with the luxury market has not deterred sales, according to one seafood broker.

"People still buy Dungeness, and when they want it they will pay any price to get it," said Joe Svedise, owner of United Shellfish Co. in San Francisco.

Nevertheless, Svedise called the current Dungeness supply situation the worst he's seen in 37 years. Indicative of the slide is that fewer than two dozen crab boats currently work out of the San Francisco Bay--a long cry from the 1960s, when there were 125.

Today, most of the state's crab fishing is centered in this drab, somber town on the steel-gray calm waters of Humbolt Bay. Here, an estimated 350 boats furiously chase Dungeness when the season opens Dec. 1, with some crabbing around the clock. Though the boats are allowed to set crab traps, or pots, until July 15, the season is effectively over in February, if not before.

There is frustration and anger among those who make a living by catching Dungeness. The hostile feelings are directed everywhere, including at the government, the weather, the seafood middlemen, even at the crabs themselves.

The disenchantment can be traced to the figures available on this year's Dungeness season. Ninety percent of any year's total catch is brought to port during December, so the month becomes a good barometer for the season.

There were 3.3 million pounds of crab caught this past December versus 3.6 million pounds during the same period in 1983.

Preliminary statistics indicate the Dungeness harvest is also down in Oregon, Washington and Alaska. In fact, the Alaskan catch has declined by about 2 million pounds over last year's total haul of 11.8 million, according to figures compiled by the West Coast Fisheries Development Foundation in Portland.

"The situation seems bad, but there is a lot more (competition among fishers) these days than there used to be," said Ron Warner, marine biologist with the California Fish and Game Department. "The number of crab boats has stayed level, even though the volume of crabs has dropped. So there's a smaller piece of the action for the fishermen and less product to go around."

Warner said that the best year for California Dungeness was the 1975-76 season when Eureka-based boats landed more than 25 million pounds of crab. This year, the same fleet will be lucky to top 4 million.

The situation has not reached a stage where industry observers are predicting the gradual disappearance of commercial supplies of Dungeness. Yet, the economics of setting traps for this unpredictable crab are becoming increasingly unattractive for the continuing glut of fishers.

The motivation that holds the crab fleet's interest is a potentially big payday. There are cases each year in which a fishermen gets lucky in the placement of his traps and brings in $100,000 worth of crabs during the season. However, most fishers work well below that figure, and a slight miscue on trap placement could result in small returns.

'Like Shooting Dice'

"This business is like shooting dice in Reno," said David Van Ness, a Eureka crab fisherman for the past 18 years. "You throw $30,000 (worth of crabbing equipment) into the ocean, and when you go back to get the stuff it might be there or it might not be."

Van Ness, caressing a foam plastic cup of coffee while balancing an always-present cigarette, said he calculates his annual gamble based on a $100 price tag for each of his 300 crab pots. The compartmentalized, wire mesh pots are simple inventions which lure Dungeness crabs into their confines with the scent of fish bait.

The crab pots are placed in water up to 180 feet deep and attached with rope to a buoy. Each fisherman charts the buoys' location and returns periodically to see if the round cages are brimming with crabs or simply anchored in the ocean's muddy bottom.

For instance, Van Ness thought that the seas off Crescent City, Calif., would be fertile crabing grounds this year and placed his traps several hours away from his home port. He guessed wrong and wasted several important days early in the season withdrawing his traps and placing them elsewhere.

'Others Had Better Season'

"Other boys had a better season than I did because I made the (Crescent City) error even though I had the right boat, 18 years of knowledge and good traps. This is why we occasionally run around out of our minds and mad at the world," he said.

Beyond the cost of traps are the boats themselves, most of which are 50 feet long and cost in excess of $100,000. In addition to boat maintenance, a crab fisherman is faced with expenses for fuel, bait and wages for an assistant who operates the hydraulic lift which reels in the crab pots.

"Here I have a $200,000 investment in order to catch $500 to $600 worth of crab on a good day. But you have to take the good with the bad and hope for the $100,000 season," Van Ness said.

However, bad luck was on the schedule recently when weather kept the crab fleet in port for almost two weeks because of high seas and gale-force winds.

At the time, Jim Walters, also a Eureka crab fisherman, said he had $18,000 worth of traps being tossed by the wild surf and was not optimistic about getting all of them back.

Oddly enough, the crab fleet's problems translate into record prices paid to fisherman for the Dungeness. The price for crab landed on the docks was $1.75 a pound in Eureka and $2.30 in San Francisco.

"The last couple of years we paid a high price for (Dungeness) crab . . . could be the highest ever," said Budd Thomas, general manager of Eureka Fisheries Inc. "But consumers absorbed the higher costs that fishermen demanded."

Prices May Go Higher

The prices are likely to go higher next season because there are indications that supplies will diminish further before improving, according to Warner.

"Next year doesn't look good, according to what I've been told and seen for myself," he said. "But I anticipate it will eventually improve."

Warner bases his optimism on the state's regulations designed to protect the species from overfishing by making it illegal to catch female crabs or those undersized. However, he does not foresee the sea off of San Francisco ever producing an abundant supply of Dungeness again.

One veteran of the seafood business has a theory on why the crabs do not populate the waters off the Golden Gate any longer and why they are unlikely to return.

"The only thing I can see (as to why the crabs are gone) is that they used to dump wet garbage off the coast 15 to 20 years ago from about four or five barges a day. That was food for the fish and crabs," said Svedise, the seafood broker. "Since they stopped dumping the garbage the crabs started to disappear. If they got food like they used to, then they would all come back."

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