By Julia Prince
“It’s all about crab at this time usually,” Hapuku Fish Shop chef/manager Evan Martin says with an accepting shrug.
Martin is referring to California’s Dungeness crab season, usually running strong now, but closed this year due to toxic levels of domoic acid in the waters. However, enthusiasts of the Bay Area’s beloved crustacean can still satisfy their Dungeness cravings at Martin’s shop, which is located at Rockridge Market Hall. He says they are sourcing crab from Alaska instead. Martin believes it might be best for fishermen at this point if the season does not open at all so they can still receive disaster relief benefits.
Staff at Bonita Fish Market in downtown Berkeley say they hope help from the government will be enough. The fishermen who run this shop catch a third of the product they sell themselves, and the remainder comes mostly from fishermen working out of Bodega Bay. With crab boats stuck at the docks, Dungeness is off the menu altogether. “We have never done non-local crab,” says the market’s owner, Truc Vuong, who claims, “It just doesn’t taste the same.” The wall behind his display counter, which used to be lined with crab tanks, is now adorned with a freshly placed photograph of coastal scenery. But the charming artwork is not making up for the business they are missing.
The closure is not only hurting California crab fishermen and local restaurants: Fisheries in Oregon and parts of Washington are also closed. With prices for Dungeness up, seafood purveyors and retailers suffer the unusually high expense as the creature holds a large share of their profits in its claws. Demand is deflated due to various factors including preference for local product, raised prices, and fear of toxicity, even though Alaskan waters are suitable for crabbing. “We’ve been stumbling ourselves to come up with interesting things,” Evan Martin willingly admits.
Seeking the silver lining, Martin urges his customers to look forward to next year. He suspects that with pressure off the Dungeness fishery this season, next year’s stocks could be unusually fruitful. In early January, the San Francisco Chronicle reported on the toxin levels, quoting Raphael Kudela, a professor of ocean sciences at UC Santa Cruz. “It’s slowly, slowly decreasing,” he said of the poison floating around in the ocean, “but it can take several months to get rid of the toxins in their bodies.”
In the meantime, crab-loving locavores can satiate their taste buds with California seafood gems that traditionally languish in the shadow of our usual wintertime favorite. Martin thinks the shift of focus away from crab could be an opportunity for California caviar companies. “People love it,” he says, adding that his customers are also discovering black cod (also known as butterfish) with its velvety, oily, mouthwatering texture. Two of Martin’s other local favorites include rock cod and Point Reyes oysters.
So, let’s clap our claws for the underdogs and make the best of what our coast has to offer this winter.