Food & Drink

Coping with the Dungeness crab crisis

In this photo taken Tuesday, Nov. 10, 2015, Jinsen Zhao pulls an imported Dungeness crab from the Northwest out of a cooker at Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco.
In this photo taken Tuesday, Nov. 10, 2015, Jinsen Zhao pulls an imported Dungeness crab from the Northwest out of a cooker at Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco. AP

California’s highly anticipated Dungeness crab season is a no-can-do so far this year, thanks to El Niño, a warming Pacific Ocean and an algae bloom. Add it all up and you have a population of coveted crabs with unusually high levels of domoic acid, which can pose potential health risks to humans.

These health concerns led the state Department of Fish and Wildlife to indefinitely delay the start of Dungeness crab season. The species of crab has long been considered a delicacy – prized for its uncommonly sweet, tender meat – and the focal point of many a holiday dinner table.

Panic? Not so fast, says Jerry “Mahoney” Jones, founder and owner of Mahoney’s Seafood in Rancho Cordova. The family-owned business supplies wholesale seafood to restaurants and organizations holding crab feeds, many of which occur from January to April.

Though Mahoney’s, founded in 1989, doesn’t expect to be selling Dungeness crab from California anytime soon, the business is “working with licensed packers operating under HACCP (Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point) plans in Washington, Alaska and Canada to source our Dungeness crab,” the company wrote on its website. “It is our sincere hope that ocean conditions change and California crabs will be fit for market again. Until that happens, we will look to other sources for crab. If conditions change, we will update our customers.”

(Since that statement was released, Washington and Oregon also delayed the start of their commercial crab seasons for health safety reasons.)

What’s so great about Dungeness crab, anyway? In Sacramento and much of California, seafood lovers take pride in the state’s bounty of Dungeness, insisting our crabs, thanks to warmer waters, are bigger than those to the north.

Jones, who began fishing in the Pacific 52 years ago, says Dungeness crab was much more popular – and affordable – 40 years ago.

“When we first started, we used to sell the crabs for 25 cents a pound,” he said. “Now, they’re typically about $6 to $8 a pound, with the typical crab weighing an average of 2 pounds.”

At midtown’s Sunh Fish, Dungeness crab from Canada is selling for $10.99 a pound.

“Even during great years for Dungeness, I’ve always felt Canadian crab is better than local (California) crab,” owner Nguyen Pham said. “They come from colder waters, they’re a little bit bigger and they taste a little sweeter.”

Pham says the appeal of Dungeness at Sunh Fish has always been that “you can buy them live in the tank and we will clean and cut them for you.”

The supply and demand from the season’s delay means consumers are paying about twice what they did a year ago. Last year, the Dungeness season in California opened on Nov. 15 and Sunh Fish was selling them for $5.99 a pound.

King crab legs are an alternative, but be prepared to pay luxury prices. Pham said king crab is most often available cooked and frozen. The price now is $17 a pound. “We can find them fresh, but they are extremely expensive – about $40 a pound,” he said.

Asked if there might be something positive in the California Dungeness situation, Pham said: “I always try to look for a silver lining in everything. All those crabs that aren’t going to be fished are still going to be there next year. They’re going to be bigger and better, and hopefully that domoic acid is going to be cleared from their system by then.”

While you won’t get much argument from locals about the appealing flavor and texture of Dungeness crab, East Coast seafood lovers are bound to scoff, insisting that the taste of blue crab, aka swimmer crab, is superior. They’re common in the Chesapeake Bay.

If you want to taste them for yourself, there are plenty of online companies that will ship them overnight packed in dry ice. Expect to pay upward of $50 for a dozen.

If you do get your hands on some Dungeness, the best way to cook it is to simply boil or steam it and eat the meat directly out of the shell.

According to “Field Guide to Seafood” by Aliza Green (Quirk, $15.95, 309 pages), “Dungeness crab is one of the Pacific Northwest region’s greatest delicacies. Dungeness, with its sweet, moist flesh and briny tang, has extraordinary flavor and buttery richness. … Dungeness crabs have been harvested off San Francisco Bay since 1848, and the crab industry is considered to be one of the best managed in terms of sustainability.”

Live Dungeness crabs are a reddish-brown color, but when cooked the shell turns orange. The cooked meat is an opaque white.

But don’t devour everything with reckless abandon. The internal organs are not to be eaten – they are bound to have a toxin that can lead to paralytic shellfish poisoning, according to “Field Guide.”

Dungeness crab is popular with a variety of groups, Jones said.

“It’s almost like turkey for Thanksgiving,” he said. “At the holidays, the tradition is to use it in gumbo. The Italians want it for cioppino. It’s probably most popular in Asian restaurants.”

If you’re going to eat crab, freshness is key. Try to secure crab that has been caught within 24 hours. Like many kinds of seafood, the flavor and quality begin to decline by the hour.

Canned crab, however, can be a viable option. The Bee’s Allen Pierleoni recently tracked down tasty canned claw meat from wild-caught blue crab. In that form, the crab can be used for crab cakes, a crab Louie or in a crab salad.

When will we see California Dungeness again? No one knows for sure. But after five decades in the seafood game, Jones has seen it all, and he says this, too, shall pass.

“Right now, I wouldn’t panic for the holidays. My sources say the crab in Oregon and Washington is safe and they are awaiting the tests there (as of press time),” he said. “There are lots of alternatives with crab in Canada.”

Asked how he likes his Dungeness crab prepared, Jones chuckled and said: “I don’t really eat crab anymore.”

A massive coastal algae bloom fueled by El Niño has prompted a warning of potentially fatal toxins in California crab meat and could delay the start of Dungeness crab-fishing season indefinitely.

Blair Anthony Robertson: 916-321-1099, @Blarob

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