Feeling Crabby

You might think that the state health department's new warning against eating raw Sawagani crabs imported from Japan would constitute good news for San Francisco's beleaguered crab boat fishermen. Well, you'd be wrong.

The freshwater Japanese species that officials warned consumers to avoid eating raw or undercooked after several people were sickened in recent weeks isn't much competition for local fresh Dungeness — the delicacy that each year brings new life to Fisherman's Wharf. But with the start of the Dungeness crab season set to begin Nov. 15, local fishermen have another reason for concern: an anticipated onslaught by mostly larger fishing vessels from Oregon and Washington (where crab fishing isn't permitted until December) horning in on the locals' territory.

If it happens — and it almost certainly will — expect crab fishermen to point a gnarled finger at Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who last October vetoed a bill by Assemblyman Mark Leno (D-San Francisco) that was intended to help keep out-of-state boats at bay.

“It's really become a tug-of-war between the big fishing and processing interests and the little guys,” says Zeke Grader, executive director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations, whose members are mostly small- and medium-size fishing operators.

Local fishermen complain that a “northern fleet” of vessels equipped with as many as 1,500 crab traps each (as compared to those of locals, which normally run a couple hundred at most ) snap up the available catch in waters off the city each November in advance of the start of the Pacific Northwest season. The result, they say, is that most fresh local Dungeness disappears a few weeks into the season (which runs from November to June), leaving local fishermen — and restaurants — out in the cold.

“When the fresh local crab is gone, it's gone,” says Larry Collins, vice president of the Crab Boat Owners Association of San Francisco.

Leno's bill would have kept much of the northern fleet out by limiting to 250 the number of crab traps with which boats may be equipped. In vetoing the measure, the governor called the trap limit arbitrary and said fishery policy should be made by the California Fish and Game Commission, not the Legislature.

Local fishermen say they're losing in the political arena to big fishing and processing interests, whom they accuse of freezing and hording Dungeness crab for sale to cruise lines and casinos. And as the season approaches, their concerns have intensified.

“[The big operators] are coming down and taking as much crab as they want, with little left for the local fleet,” Grader says. “Does that have fishermen worried? Sure it does.”

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