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Dungeness Crab Glut Hits Calif. Coast

November 22, 2002

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SAN FRANCISCO (AP) _ A booming season for Dungeness crab along the central California coast has forced fishermen to stop fishing for the crustaceans and could soon send prices for consumers plunging. The crab surplus has overwhelmed processors, obliging fishermen to store about 150,000 pounds on boats.

``Most times there’s been a glut on the market, the price has plummeted,″ said Rick Metheny, who has been crabbing for 25 years. Metheny still had about 3,000 pounds of crab left on his boat, which he operates for San Francisco’s prominent seafood restaurant, Scoma’s.

Along Fisherman’s Wharf Thursday, behind the restaurants and crab hawkers, boats lined Pier 45 two deep at some points, waiting to be unloaded. The larger boats are equipped with tanks with fresh seawater pumped into them continuously to keep the crabs alive, for about a week.

Fishermen have been waiting since Sunday for seafood processors to move the abundance so they can finish unloading boats and head back out. They’re also hoping the price they fetch for their catches stays up. Buyers are paying $2.25 a pound for the crab.

But for consumers, the glut means a potential drop in prices.

One restaurant on Fisherman’s Wharf was selling crab for $6.50 a pound. This time last year, the same restaurant was selling Washington state crab for $8.75 per pound.

But California crab fishermen still hadn’t started their harvest by late November in 2001. They were striking for a higher per-pound price for their catches, eventually settling, after three weeks, for $1.88 per pound.

This year’s harvest caught many by surprise. The season started last weekend and ends in June, but the best crabs are caught at the beginning, said Half Moon Bay crab fisherman Duncan MacLean.

``There was a pretty good influx and (buyers) got overwhelmed by it all,″ MacLean said.

Joe Cincotta, general manager of the San Francisco division of processor Pacific Seafood, said his company was among the last ones buying crab Thursday.

``I don’t think anyone thought the volume was here,″ Cincotta said.

The surplus, which a rough estimate put at about 150,000 pounds, has much to do with excellent ocean conditions, said Zeke Grader, executive director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations.

Heavier rainfall the past few years has meant more freshwater in estuaries, which is what baby crabs use as their nurseries. And good upwellings, which happen when currents bring nutrients up from the bottom of the sea, have resulted in more food in the ocean.

That means there are a lot of crabs, and to prevent the glut from continuing, fishermen are considering limits on the amount they bring in each day.

That also could help prolong the season, MacLean said. Crabs are in demand around Thanksgiving in San Francisco, and there’s also a big demand for them during Chinese New Year, often in February. But there is frequently a shortage of crab for that market, he said.

San Francisco crab fisherman Larry Collins said he expected to find his traps full again when he heads back out to sea.

``Hopefully,″ he said, ``the consumers are going to start gobbling the crabs faster.″

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