The story of the scurrying, scuttling, scampering year California's Dungeness crab industry almost cracked apart (but didn't).
San Francisco magazine
July 26, 2016
Lori French, the daughter-in-law of a crab fisherman, the wife of another, and the mother of a third, placed two large bowls on a table. The one labeled “California” sat empty. The other, reading “Oregon,” was filled to the brim with bright-lavender-and-orange Dungeness crabs. It was early February, the night before the annual hearing of the Joint Committee on Fisheries and Aquaculture at the state capitol, and French, who’s the president of a nonprofit called Central Coast Women for Fisheries, had organized a banquet that was part festive crab feed, part bare-knuckled lobbying effort.
For the benefit of her attendees, who included elected officials, bureaucrats, scientists, and fishermen and their families, she had shipped hundreds of pounds of Dungeness down from Oregon, where, unlike in California, the annual crab season was already under way. She believed that state officials were being too cautious in prohibiting commercial crabbing due to an outbreak of toxic domoic acid, an embargo that had decimated the fortunes of some 1,800 crab-fishing captains and crews in California. Domoic acid, she pointed out, had neither killed nor caused a reported sickening of anyone so far this year. Washington State had let commercial fishermen on the water. Why not reopen the waters in California?
It wouldn’t be that easy. The California Department of Public Health requires scientists to confirm two consecutive clean tests for potentially harmful toxins in locally caught crabs. Since the fall, at least one of every two tests had reported unacceptably high levels of domoic acid, which can poison all kinds of sea life and can sicken and potentially kill humans. By the time I caught up with French again in mid-March, several weeks after the banquet, the state’s crabbers were still out of luck. One recent test had come back clear, French told me over the phone. With one more clean bill of health, her husband and hundreds of other fishermen working the coastline from Santa Barbara up to Crescent City would have been able to drop pots and catch crabs. But when the subsequent test results came back, they weren’t good: A crab had been found with domoic acid levels in its organs at 38 parts per million, 8 above the cutoff level. French was devastated: “Our last bit of hope was just jerked away,” she said.
Through her organization, French knows fishermen and their families across California. The day before our chat, she’d spoken to one fisherman whose house was on the verge of foreclosure. Today she’d talked to another who had found a job in Washington but needed $200 to travel there. Despite fundraising dinners held in port towns along the coast, need outpaced money. French was amassing a long waiting list of fishing families requiring assistance. Pain crept into her voice when she talked about the food banks that had sprung up at the docks: “We’re the people who provide food, and we don’t have any.”
The Frenches are better off than many of the families for whom crab fishing is a way of life. Lori’s father-in-law bought agricultural land on the Central Coast in the ’70s. After he was killed coming back into the Morro Bay harbor in 1987, the farm—on which they grow avocados—passed to her and her husband, Jeff. Jeff has been in the fishing business since he was 16, and the Frenches now own two boats: the Nadine, a 53-footer, and the 42-foot Langosta II. But with the boats both idle, the Frenches had to rely solely on their other sources of income. They sell eggs to pay the grocery bills, and Lori works part-time as an office manager for a construction firm. Now they were considering putting the back bedroom up on Airbnb.
After we talked, French sent me an email. Make sure, she wrote, to emphasize that nobody had gotten sick this year from eating crabs. In fact, the Frenches knew some fishermen who had eaten Dungeness just the other day and had no problems. They would never want to sell something unsafe, she said, and she was sure that the crabs along California’s coast were harmless. “We’re not Chipotle,” she said.
It’s hard to imagine any Northern California food industry more local and sustainable—call it ocean-to-table—than crab fishing. A crew of guys (they’re almost always guys) on a boat drop big metal pots rigged with bait—squid, mackerel, maybe clams—into the water directly off our coast. Then, a day later, they come back and lug the pots up, loaded with crawling, snapping Metacarcinus magister, bound for markets and restaurants mere hours (or minutes) away from the point of capture.
But crab fishing is sustainable only if the ocean waters that the crabs swim in aren’t poisonous—and for five months of the 2015–16 crabbing season, they were. A vast toxic algae bloom, one of the largest ever recorded, produced enough domoic acid to effectively kill most of the season, and although the crab fishery finally did open, an ominous shadow had fallen over the entire coast. And not just for people who rely on crabbing for their livelihood: The great crab shutdown of 2016 was one of those events that inspire ominous thoughts in many coastal dwellers about the fragility of our food supply and the vulnerability of our producers. We’ve gone in just a few short years from theorizing about what might happen someday in a changing climate to grappling with the harsh realities of the Anthropocene—the geological epoch in which human impacts on the environment can no longer be ignored. This is a story about the instability of the seafood we eat and the degenerative health of the water it comes from. But mostly it’s a story about people who fish for crab and what happened the year they couldn’t.
In the same way that Hemingway described going bankrupt, the 2015–16 Dungeness crab season fell apart gradually, then suddenly. In the winter of 2012–13, an area of high atmospheric pressure parked in the northeastern Pacific Ocean. Dubbed the Ridiculously Resilient Ridge by a graduate student at Stanford, it deflected westerly winds away from the state. Normally, those winds churn the oceans, helping cooler water at lower depths well up toward the surface. With lower rates of upwelling, the water off the Pacific coast reached warmer temperatures than ever before recorded. At their peaks in 2014 and 2015, water temperatures were recorded at more than five degrees Celsius above normal, according to Clarissa Anderson, a biological oceanographer at UC Santa Cruz.
Nicholas Bond, the state of Washington’s climatologist, nicknamed the patch of warm water, which at times reached all the way from Alaska to Mexico, the Blob, and like its B-movie namesake, it wreaked havoc. The atypically warm water likely played a role in nourishing a vast algae bloom stretching from Santa Barbara to Alaska, 40 miles wide and 650 feet deep, whose poisonous by-products included domoic acid and paralytic shellfish toxins. Charismatic megafauna like sea lions washed up on beaches, apparently starving. You probably saw stories on Facebook about an inordinate number of sick seal pups being taken to the Marine Mammal Center in Marin to be rehabilitated—it was all connected. Although this year’s El Niño caused the algae bloom to more or less dissipate, the closure of the crab season had been set in motion.
In May 2015 at the docks of the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, scientists launched person-size robotic submersibles packed with sensors and instruments. By the end of the month, these “biochemistry labs in a can” had returned with the news: Domoic acid, a naturally occurring organic molecule that usually dissipates harmlessly, was gathering at alarming rates. During a normal year, concentrations of 1,000 nanograms of the acid per liter of seawater would count as high. Last spring, Monterey Bay reached 10 to 30 times that level. By June, dead anchovies were washing ashore at Moss Landing, between Santa Cruz and Monterey, showing high levels of domoic acid in their bodies.
Biologists and public health officials were understandably alarmed by the findings. After the continent’s first recorded outbreak of domoic acid poisoning, which sickened at least 107 people and killed 3 in Canada’s Prince Edward Island in 1987, scientists began to study it in earnest. The U.S. National Library of Medicine’s Toxicology Data Network keeps a dossier online: In 1991, domoic acid was discovered in the bodies of dead pelicans and cormorants in Monterey Bay—and soon after in the bodies of razor clams and Dungeness crabs in Oregon and Washington. Over five days in January 1996, 150 brown pelicans died at the tip of Baja California, likely after they’d eaten contaminated mackerel. Researchers have tied a series of sea lion miscarriages and pup deaths in the Channel Islands to domoic acid poisoning in the brains and bodies of the fetuses and newborns. In February of this year, Frances Gulland, a scientist who works at the Marine Mammal Center, published a paper reporting domoic acid poisoning in marine mammals off the Alaskan coast—the farthest north ever detected. Thirty large whales died in the Gulf of Alaska last summer, with domoic acid as a prime suspect. Domoic-acid-producing toxic algae blooms (the algae’s scientific name is Pseudo-nitzschia) have been found around the world, including off the coasts of Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Texas, the Netherlands, Japan, Korea, Spain, and New Zealand and, closest to home, in Monterey Bay last May.
The question everyone wants the answer to, of course, is whether the extraordinarily large algae bloom that led to this year’s domoic acid outbreak was caused by global warming. Scientists are hesitant to assign a single cause to such phenomena, but they are fairly uniform in their conclusion that catastrophic natural events like the drought-worsening Ridiculously Resilient Ridge and the Pseudo-nitzschia-spawning warm-water Blob are a preview of worse times to come. Writing in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, a team of Stanford scientists said that events like the Ridiculously Resilient Ridge “occur much more frequently in the present climate than in the absence of human emissions.” (A follow-up paper this year by the same team buttressed that conclusion.)
Though they are reticent about dealing a final verdict, scientists are increasingly worried that the anomalous could become the norm—that algae blooms and toxin outbreaks may well happen again, and with increased frequency and potentially worse consequences, as the climate changes.
Bodega Bay is “about an hour and a half on the freeway. Or two if you take the coast highway.” So says a character to Tippi Hedren in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds, which, coincidentally, was partially inspired by a mass die-off of seabirds in 1961 that scientists now link to a domoic acid outbreak. I drove up on the freeway, but it took me over two hours to putter from my apartment in Oakland to the Fishetarian restaurant in Bodega Bay. There, on a weekday morning in March, I met Shane Lucas, who paused from slinging fried cod sandwiches (mayonnaise, hot sauce, delicious) to talk about the season. After watching the wholesaler on the dock next to his sell Dungeness for years, he finally leased a boat with a permit and bought $50,000 worth of crab pots. “I thought I could make it back in two weeks,” he said. Now the pots were in dry dock under a nearby tree. “At least they look pretty, and they’ll keep until next year.”
Once you notice the pots, round metal wire traps about 18 inches high and a yard across, you see them everywhere, piled in backyards and lining the roads, standing at attention like an army that hasn’t left the barracks. There must have been dozens at the Tides, the town’s main wholesaler. Inside, a sign on a bulletin board had a forlorn message: “Help Our Fishermen. Bring food donations to the Spud Point Marina Office. Monday to Friday, 9 am to 5 pm.”
At the entrance to the Spud Point Marina, hundreds of crab pots dried in the sun. Across the street, the Spud Point Crab Co., a restaurant housed in a small shack, looked deserted. I was there to meet Dick Ogg, the captain of the fishing boat Karen Jeanne. He rested his weathered hands and chipped fingernails on a table inside the boat’s cabin as his two dogs, Buster and Nessie, ran around. Had this been a rough season for him? I asked, a little weakly. “Rough?” he chuckled. “That’s kind of an understatement.”
Ogg, 63, has fished recreationally his whole life—he still free-dives for abalone. Around 2000, he began to transition away from his job as an electrician and move into commercial fishing; now he and his crew fish for Dungeness, salmon, and black cod. He proudly showed me pictures of cod he’s caught, beaming like they were his grandchildren. The captains and deckhands in Bodega Bay rely on salmon in the summer and Dungeness in the winter. Last year’s salmon season was a disaster, but at least it opened. Ogg had hoped a strong crab season would pick up the slack. This, too, would be a disappointment.
In a typical year, it would have gone like this: About 60 days before the start of the season, Ogg and his two deckhands would have begun to prep the Karen Jeanne. Then they’d have waited for the all clear from the state, which usually happens in November. As a group, the fishermen would have negotiated a price for their catch with wholesalers before heading out. “If the weather allows, we’ll fish every single day” from around Thanksgiving time through Chinese New Year in February. Crabs depending, they’ll sometimes even fish into April, Ogg said.
The job is exhausting, but it pays. The first time that Ogg worked with his current crew, a few years ago, they pulled 70 pots loaded with Dungeness out of the water—over 7,000 pounds’ worth—in a single run. After they off-loaded, the crew wanted to call it a day. Ogg wanted to head out again. “They said they were tired. I said, ‘OK, but you realize that run was roughly $18,000. You want to give up another $18,000 tonight?’” (Ogg rules with a light hand—the crew won a rest.) Generally, deckhands receive between 10 and 15 percent of the proceeds from the catch, although some captains deduct costs before splitting the money. (Ogg doesn’t.) The most profitable part of the season is around the holidays. Between Thanksgiving and New Year’s, a crew member can make $30,000, amounting to 80 percent of the year’s income.
The hopes for a year like that were dashed early on, when the state closed the commercial crab fishery on November 6 of last year. The Department of Fish and Wildlife tapped Ogg as one of its unpaid volunteers to collect crab samples, which were then delivered to a lab in Richmond to be tested for domoic acid levels. So instead of hauling hundreds of crabs, the Karen Jeanne spent the winter catching six at a time—no more, no less—from three different depths at predesignated locations. Up and down the state, nervous fishermen reloaded Fish and Wildlife’s website every morning to see whether the little red dot next to “Dungeness crab” had turned green, indicating that the season was open. “When I started realizing this wasn’t going to happen,” said Ogg, “my objective was to find income for the deckhands. Most of the captains can tough it out, but the crews don’t have anything. They are young families, young guys, just hoping and waiting that everything will work out.”
The Spud Point Marina Advisory Board collected donations and passed out $100 Safeway gift cards to the crew members every month. Community members started a food bank in the harbor office. Some guys moved to live on the boats. Nobody wanted to say it, but drinking, always a problem among fishermen, became a bigger one. Although it was possible to find jobs on land, it was difficult, because the crabbers needed to be ready to fish at short notice. Ogg helped arrange day jobs for his crew doing electrical work. Others worked as substitute teachers, day laborers, or Christmas tree sellers.
Over a life on the water, Ogg has watched the changes roll by like waves. Forty years ago, he could find salmon in Bodega Bay. Not anymore. Albacore and rockfish would congregate in the Cordell Banks to the south, but it became a marine sanctuary in the ’80s, so he can no longer fish there. Last year, the salmon, starving, possibly because of low supplies of krill, turned to eating hard bait like anchovy and sardines. Usually the salmon’s flesh is red, like the licorice rope that the crew keeps on the boat, but last year it turned dry and tasteless and an unhealthy-seeming pink. During this last year, Ogg witnessed the most significant changes in the ocean that he’d ever seen: “It went from a cooler, krill-laden ocean to basically sterile up and down the coastline.” The domoic acid, he thinks, may have even affected whales. “They came right under the boat—that’s the first time that’s happened,” he said. “When we’re pulling, the whales will come up to sit and watch. They never used to do that. I keep thinking they are eating [domoic acid] and getting drunk.”
I mentioned that domoic acid causes amnesia and disorientation, and that the whales may indeed have been poisoned. He nodded sadly. I changed the subject and asked how he likes to eat crab. Cioppino or cracked? He lightened. “I’ll eat crab occasionally, but after you’ve seen hundreds of thousands of them, you don’t want to see it anymore. The boys”—that’s what he calls his crew—“eat it, though. It’s good for them.”
I asked him whether he thought that this year was an anomaly or part of a longer trend. The mood darkened again. Although he thought that much of what happened this year was cyclical, he was worried about the long term. “There’s a lot of young people in this business,” he said. “We have to do something to promote them. Otherwise, the industry is going to pass away.”
Although wounded, the state’s fishermen pulled through. The end of the closure came as a shock, a welcome surprise. On March 26, a few weeks after I’d chatted with Lori French and visited Dick Ogg, the little dot next to “Dungeness crab”on the Fish and Wildlife website turned from red to green. Crab season was back on, albeit five months later than normal. On Twitter, food writer John Birdsall called it “basically San Francisco Christmas.”
The next day, I paid a visit to the docks near Pier 45 in San Francisco. Despite the Alcatraz Psych Ward sweatshirts and In-N-Out Burger, Fisherman’s Wharf still operates as an actual wharf for actual fishermen. You can find them, too, if you sneak out back, past the tiny wooden Catholic chapel that still holds a Latin Mass on Sundays, to the long pier that points toward the Golden Gate Bridge. Inside a prep room behind Scoma’s restaurant, a crew of white-clad cleaners sprayed down the rubber mats on the floors with big hoses. Across the water, a forklift moved stacks of crab pots a half dozen at a time to cranes attached to the dock, where they would be loaded onto waiting boats. Lines were untied. Equipment was loaded and unloaded. Decks were swabbed. Cigarettes extinguished. Nods were exchanged and final conversations in English, Spanish, and Vietnamese were held. By the time the city’s office workers had staggered to their desks, the boats were long gone.
The following morning, as the first loads of crab returned, I wandered inside the warehouse at Alber Seafoods, where workers were packaging the harvest and moving it onto waiting trucks. Two men unloaded live crabs into plastic bins filled with water. Last year, on the first day of the season, workers say they’d cleared an estimated 14,000 pounds. Today they’d pulled in 5,800. I asked one of the workers how the crabs looked: “Nice and full,” he said, but there just weren’t enough of them. “We missed it all.” At least, I suggested, there was pent-up demand. People must be dying to eat crabs, yeah? Maybe not. “Like I tell my wife, it’s like sex,” he said. “After a while, you’re just out of the mood.”
To test this thesis, I headed over to Nob Hill, where by 11:30 there was a line out the door of Swan Oyster Depot on Polk Street. In the window, fresh crabs sat on a bed of ice, their carapaces gleaming like gemstones in the sunlight. Waiting to get inside were representatives from every one of San Francisco’s jockeying demographics: a tourist; a college kid in a Cal football jersey; a pair of working-class dudes drinking beer from plastic cups; a couple of women wearing black leggings and sipping from water bottles, fresh from exercise class; a lady with dyed green hair wearing a “Humans for Bernie” T-shirt. Time for us to eat some Dungeness crab.
I paid $24 in cash for a half-cracked crab and an Anchor Steam. (The yellow viscera known as crab butter is safe to eat, too, but since domoic acid collects at higher concentrations there than in the meat, I avoided it. Also, I don’t really like it.) I piled the meat from a leg onto a thick slice of sourdough and splashed it with a goopy dollop of red cocktail sauce. So sweet, so cold, so delicious. The fisherman was obviously wrong. How could anyone not be in the mood for this?
In the dark before dawn on May 3, a little over a month into the abbreviated crab season, Dick Ogg guided the Karen Jeanne out of the Spud Point Marina. It was just after 5 a.m. on what would be their second-to-last crab run of the season, and ahead shone the lights of fishing boats that had left ahead of us. Onboard were Dick, the dogs, and his two deckhands. Hal, who works as a firefighter in San Jose, pulled his hoodie snugly against himself and napped inside the cabin. Joe, who works construction on the side, talked in nervous bursts of energy. As the sky began to lighten, Dick explained the day’s plan. They’d fish in the relatively shallow coastal waters of Bodega Bay, between their berth at the north end and Tomales Bay State Park to the south, where the federal government had recently forced the closure of the Drakes Bay Oyster Company farm. Filled with bait, their crab pots lay in rows by the dozen at the bottom of the water. When the boat passed by, Hal and Joe would raise them to the surface, hoping to find them filled with crabs. Normally, they would then add new bait and return the pots to the water, but today they’d stack the pots on deck to haul back with them.
It was a 15-mile run southeast to the first group of pots, the exact location of which I am bound not to reveal. The water was clear and calm. By 6:55, the sun had risen behind low clouds and we’d arrived. Joe elbowed Hal awake, and the two men put on rubber work clothes. “These days,” said Joe, “I run on 5-Hour Energy and attitude.” Dick climbed up to the top of the cabin, where another steering wheel allowed him to control the boat while keeping an eye on the buoys that marked where the pots sat in the water. I clambered up behind him.
The boat, rocking gently but persistently, pulled alongside a buoy that marked a pot’s location. “Coming up, coming up, coming up!” the crewmen called excitedly. Dick angled the approach so that the pot was close to starboard, where Hal waited with a hook affixed to a long pole. He attached a rope to an electric winch that pulled the pot up. Hal coiled the loose rope into an empty trash can, and Joe unclipped the buoy and cleaned it in a bucket full of bleach and water. When the trap emerged into the air, Joe and Hal took hold of it on either side and poured more than a dozen, maybe 20, crabs into a small holding tank. Joe hugged his arms around the sides of the pot and walked to the back of the deck, where he dropped it. They threw the leftover bait back into the water, which soon roiled with seagulls. When they had a moment, they used a metal tool to measure the length of each crab—61/4 inches was the magic number; any males smaller than that got thrown back, along with all the females. Joe and Hal tossed the keepers into a massive tank installed in the hull. The crabs’ claws twitched open and closed as they spun like Frisbees into the water.
The deckhands had about a minute before the boat, which never stopped moving forward, arrived at the next buoy, marking another pot. The day before, they’d pulled 160 80-pound pots out of the water, after which Hal had stacked them at Dick’s house past dark. The next day they would do it again, for the final time this season. Relatively speaking, these were slow, easy days.
By midafternoon, the crew had piled the back of the boat high with empty pots, and hundreds of crabs wriggled in the hold. The boat tipped noticeably toward its stern. Dick and the crew debated going after one more string of pots before heading home. They could do it either today or tomorrow, and as the boys began to call out, “One more! One more! One more!” Dick laid in the course.
They loaded until they had no more room, and then it was time to head home. At the Tides, they tied the boat up alongside a small crane, with which a worker pulled up the empty pots three at a time; another drove them away with a forklift. Once they had unloaded the pots, they pumped the water out of the hold and loaded crab after crab into crates. Beady eyes blinked and mouths gaped open and closed silently as the men grabbed them at the base of the back legs. Joe tried to convince the guys to buy his rare albino crab, which was actually an ordinary crab that he’d accidentally dropped into some bleach. No takers. He tossed it overboard.
The men had harvested just over 1,000 pounds. Two of the gorgeous little suckers came home with me in a box on the backseat of my Civic. For the 12-plus hours of work, Dick made a little more than $3,200. Joe and Hal each went home with $480. Not life-changing money, but a respectable haul—so much so that I asked Dick why they’d decided to call it a season. “It’s always good to stop,” he reasoned. “Nature’s telling me it’s time to move on.”
As summer began, life continued along the coast. Ogg motored the Karen Jeanne up to Washington, where he hoped the ship’s engine would be rebuilt in time for the late-summer salmon run. At the Marine Mammal Center, Frances Gulland braced for another year’s worth of dying sea lion pups. In the waters off Washington, scientists launched their own robotic “laboratory in a can,” similar to the one used in Monterey.
According to the preliminary figures from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, in March, April, and May, fishermen had caught 5.7 million pounds of Dungeness crab, almost all of that total in April. That was less than a third of the yearly average over the last decade. In Monterey Bay, scientists kept a wary eye on domoic acid levels as the annual algae bloom returned. Around summer solstice, the answer began to emerge: It was good news. Tests indicated that levels had crept up to only three parts per million in mussels—far below the level of concern. Although a larger bloom could still occur, the likelihood increased that the state’s crab fishermen would catch a break this November.
That victory, however, may not last. This year was a scary wakeup call for the crab fishers, and the scariest thing was that there was nothing they could do, save for changing professions, to mitigate the next disaster. Another strong algae bloom, the crabbers fear, could bring the industry to its knees. Two lost seasons in a row could all but destroy it.
Could the Dungeness crab fishery disappear entirely? Probably not. But then again, who really knows? These are dark and uncertain times. Someday, not so long from now, you might miss eating Dungeness crab. You’ll miss sitting around the kitchen table with your family, crabs splayed out on white butcher paper, everybody splitting legs open with a nutcracker. You’ll miss the ritual, how it made you feel connected to the place where you live and to the people who hauled your feast up from the seafloor. Maybe you’ll bore the grandkids one day, years from now, with stories about how you used to pile the empty shells in bowls until the bowls tipped over.