The Dungeness crab harvest--most of which, in normal seasons, would be almost half over--finally got started last week with the settling of a crabbers' strike that had sidelined the fishery for more than five weeks.
The season traditionally begins Dec. 1, with 75% of the annual catch coming in the next eight weeks. The actual start is frequently delayed by strikes or by rough winter weather, but this year's catch got off to an even more ragged start than usual.
After one early strike was settled, bad weather stuck much of the fishing fleet in port. Almost as soon as that storm passed, there was another strike.
All that is settled now (the fresh-off-the-boat price for Dungeness crab is $1.15 a pound), so the harvest is getting underway. Prices are lower than they have been in a couple of years and--because of the late start--the crabs have had another month to fatten up.
The best way to buy crab is live. Choosing one is fairly simple--pick a crab with plenty of fight. But in a normal year, 60% to 75% of the crab harvest is sold fresh-cooked. Choosing a cooked crab is a bit more difficult.
The best thing to do, says Nick Furman of the Oregon Dungeness Crab Commission, is to get aggressive. "You should feel bold enough to ask the personnel at the fish counter to let you feel the crab," he says. "First, it should have some heft to it. Crabs that are light were harvested too soon after molting, and there won't be as much meat. Also, check for things like broken legs and cracks in the shell. It should also smell like crab; if it's real strong, it's probably got some age to it."
With modern processing, Furman says, the typical cooked crab goes from dock to store in less than 48 hours: "They might not have slept in the ocean last night, but certainly the night before."
Cooked crab will last a week at most and keeps best in a cold, wet environment. Because the refrigerator is very dry, keep the crab on ice until you are ready to eat it.