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Crabbers pinch supply to protest lower prices

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Posted: Thursday, December 6, 2012 1:12 pm

Angling for a better wholesale price, fishermen at Pillar Point Harbor are backing a commercial strike on Dungeness crab that started this week, leaving anyone seeking the tasty crustacean to feel the pinch.

Joining fellow fishermen at San Francisco and Bodega Bay, the Pillar Point fishing community voted to strike on Sunday evening to protest wholesale prices that were dipping below $2.75 per pound. Fishermen believe holding back the supply can force large buyers to go back to paying at least $3 a pound.

Local fishermen Jim Anderson said it was no easy task to convince dozens of independent fishermen to join ranks. But many commercial crabbers see a “soft” market following Thanksgiving and a looming threat that the Dungeness supply could be exhausted by Christmas, when demand is highest.

“It's unique that there’s unanimity, but there’s a lot of pressure,” he said. “Everyone has a different agenda, and it’s very difficult to keep everyone on the same page.”

Other factors are also at play in the decision to strike. Oregon could open for crabbing season next week, which could inject a glut of cheap crab into the market. While the Pacific Northwest is ramping up its commercial crab season, Northern California is tapering off with fishermen seeing smaller catches along the coastline.

Now three weeks into the commercial season, Pillar Point fisherman Bill Webb says he needs to drop twice as many pots to catch the same number of crabs he was bringing back last month. It was painful to stay docked in the harbor, he said, but fishermen had to seek a fair price to pay for the costs and dangers of fishing.

“We all need money and we all want to go out, but the cost of fuel and the cost of bait, it all goes up,” he said. “$3 per pound is not an unreasonable price.”

It’s unclear whether any fisherman this week has dared to cast off for crab. Any fisherman breaking the strike runs the risk of angering the strikers. In some years, fishermen have found lines cut on their crab pots in apparent acts of sabotage. During a similar strike last year, someone used a water hose to flood and sink the boat “Tonita”, even though the captain said he was fishing for rock crab, not Dungeness.

The crab strike is already beginning to take its toll on the supply at Northern California restaurants and groceries. The Pillar Point Harbor restaurant Princeton Seafood has been able to weather the shortage because the business keeps two large tanks of live crab. But manager Sean Drake said the restaurant’s crab supply is nearly running out after four days without a new shipment.

“Honestly, we kind of worry as soon as a strike happens,” he said. “That’s when the mental juices start flowing, ‘What do we do now?”

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