Wednesday marks the official — very late — start to Dungeness crab fishing season for the coastal waters off the San Francisco Peninsula, Marin County, and Sonoma County. And that mean's today you'll also get to buy crab directly from crab fishermen at Fisherman's Wharf for the first time in, probably, 100 or so years.
The San Francisco Port Commission voted in November to change longstanding rules about how crab can be sold in the city, approving a one-year pilot program that allows crab fishermen to sell whole, live crab from their berths at the Wharf. It's an expansion of a program that's been going on since 2017 that allows commercial fishermen to sell other fish directly to consumers, straight off their boats.
Other ports, including Bodega Bay, Santa Cruz, Monterey, and Moss Landing, have long allowed the practice of selling live crabs directly off boats. And the SF Port Commission decided to change the rules here following pandemic-related impacts on fishermen and the Wharf in general.
Starting at 3 p.m. Wednesday, as KPIX reports, off-boat crab sales begin — and five crab boats have gotten licenses to do so. The sales will occur from the vessels themselves — no stands are allowed to be set up on the docks or in parking lots.
"Crab fisherman are hoping for a prosperous and safe season, and I’m sure the public is excited to get fresh local crabs on their table," said Crab Boat Owners Association President John Barnett in a statement. "Good for the consumer, the fishermen, and the environment. They can also be purchased the same way as before at your favorite grocery store or fish market."
Mayor London Breed also offered her cheers for the rule change, saying, "The kickoff of San Francisco’s commercial crab season is a highlight for so many of us, especially with it coming just in time for New Year’s Eve." Breed added, "This new program will support our family-run businesses and provide the incredible experience of being able to buy directly off the boats from the fisherman who are out there on the water. We hope buying direct from the boat will be the start of a new tradition for residents and visitors, and yet another reason to come on down to Fisherman’s Wharf and celebrate San Francisco."
We don't have records handy of the exact dates, but San Franciscans certainly did a lot more direct dealing with fishermen in the early days of this city. But in more recent decades, rules have forced the fishermen to first sell to wholesalers and wharf-based mongers, like the Alioto-Lazio Fish Co. — which voiced strong opposition to the rule change.
As longtime SF resident Michael Russom told the Chronicle after the Port vote in November, "Cutting out the middleman can benefit both the consumer and the fisherman, I would hope. To have a direct connection with the people who risk their lives to go out and catch these things — it’s kind of a romantic notion to me."
As you likely know from the many news reports about it, Dungeness season has been delayed several times since its usual early November start date, due to migration patterns of humpback whales. The whales tend to get caught up in crab-fishing gear, and the last couple of seasons have been delayed as marine biologists tracked the extended movement of the whales south to their southern breeding waters for the winter.
In recent years, Dungeness crab season has also been hampered by algae blooms caused by warmer-than-usual waters in the Pacific, which in turn lead to the buildup of toxins harmful to humans in the crabmeat.
But this year, we can finally eat local crab and get it cheaper for a change!
You can also expect a boom in crab dishes on local restaurant menus in the coming weeks.
Photo: Anderson Djumin