EMPTY POTS, EMPTY POCKETS The delay of the commercial Dungeness crab season has put the pinch on fishermen and local nonprofits that depend on crab dinners for fundraising.
All over the North Bay in recent days, crab committees have been meeting, boards of directors have been discussing, and nonprofit organizations have fretted over the question: What to do about our annual Dungeness crab feed?
The state delayed the opening of the Dungeness crab season indefinitely on Nov. 5 when a potentially fatal neurotoxin, domoic acid, was discovered in the Dungeness and in red crab, a year-round fishery which was also shut down. This was very bad news for a $60 million California crabbing industry, and especially for the commercial crabbers who haul the pots, but the closure has also rippled to dozens of crab feeds planned in the North Bay in coming months.
Some organizations have come to rely on the fundraising power of the popular Dungeness crab—tickets in the $40–$60 range are often sold out months in advance—and there is real pain afoot if the crustaceans aren't available in time for the events, many of which are held toward the end of the commercial crab season, in February.
"This is not chump change we're talking about, but some serious bucks for some serious projects" says Petaluma Rotary Club president Gary Brodie. His organization hosts an annual February crab feed in conjunction with a big raffle that has raised up to $35,000 for a range of programs: an annual $8,000 set-aside for gifts for needy kids around the holidays; a $5,000–$8,000 check to support a local free-dictionary program for third graders.
Brodie is hopeful that scuttlebutt about a season opener by early in the new year will bail out the crab season, even if the huge spike in demand could send the price through the roof. "At that point, we'll find out if it's going to reopen," says Brodie, who owns an auto shop in Petaluma. "If it doesn't, I'm sure we will replace the crab with some other food. We're in wait-and-see mode."
The Sonoma County Farm Bureau says it has been assured by its Bodega Bay crab wholesaler, the Tides Wharf, that come hell or high levels of domoic acid, there will be crab a-plenty at the organization's Feb. 6 event.
"People want the crab and want to know what we are doing," says Marisa Ruffoni, a spokesperson at the Farm Bureau. "We've gotten a few calls to see if we're going to stick to it."
They are. The Great Sonoma Crab and Wine Fest is in its 27th year and draws 1,200 or more people a year, Ruffoni says. The feed is held to raise money for scholarship and agricultural-education programs, and features a gigantic inflatable Dungeness crab that hangs above crab-laden tables at Grace Pavilion at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds. Ruffoni says the worst-case scenario is that the Farm Bureau may need to purchase crabs from Washington state (where there is no domoic disaster), via their Bodega wholesaler.
"I have heard that some are trying to find crab from elsewhere, and I think that might be a wise backup plan," says Jordan Traverso, a spokesperson at the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, which shut down the Dungeness and rock-crab fisheries. Traverso says the CDFW is itself in wait-and-see mode. "I really can't say how long this closure will last," she says via email. "The California Department of Public Health is doing testing, and once they see the levels go down to the point that it is not a significant human health risk, they could be compelled to lift the health advisory. Then the Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment could be compelled to change their recommendation to us regarding the closures. I really have no way of knowing how long that could take. We are operating from the recommendation of OEHHA."