Fresh Dungeness crab is a Christmas feast tradition for many, but this year Northwest residents will pay a premium for the crustaceans – if they can find them at all.
West Coast crab fisheries have been on hold because of a large algae bloom that increases levels of domoic acid in shellfish and can make them unsafe to eat. The problem has subsided, and Washington’s commercial crab season is expected to open Jan. 4.
Seafood markets and restaurants across the West have coped with a shortage of crab for the past couple of months.
Mike Offield was happy to see a truckload of crab arrive Tuesday at Williams Seafood on North Ruby Street in Spokane.
“Ours just got cooked yesterday and we’re unloading the truck now,” said Offield, the store’s owner.
He expects another shipment on Wednesday morning, for a total of 4,000 pounds this week.
“We got a fair amount, but they’re not cheap,” he said.
The retail price is $16.99 a pound, which is $4 more than last year.
“They raised the price on us and all we did is add the cost increase,” he said. “We didn’t increase our profit at all.”
Offield bought the crab from the Quinault Indian Nation, which opened its crab fishery Nov. 19 in Grays Harbor and the adjacent ocean area unaffected by the severe algae bloom. The Washington Department of Health has been testing the Quinault crabs regularly to verify they are safe for consumption.
“We worked really hard to get some from the tribal fishery up in the northern sound,” Offield said. “It’s a huge Christmas deal.”
On top of the limited supply, Northwest buyers are having to compete with Chinese markets.
“It’s getting to where you have to fight for all of it anymore, because they just have such buying power,” Offield said.
“I’m really hoping next year it goes back to normal, whatever normal is. But we can’t tell what the ocean is going to do and we can’t control the overseas market,” he said.
Eggers Better Meats and Seafood on South Perry Street also was expecting a load of Dungeness to arrive Tuesday.
“It’s not here yet. We’re thinking it’s hung up on the pass,” Renea Yamada, a manager at the store, said Tuesday afternoon. “I’m watching anxiously.”
Yamada said she still had about 300 pounds available for order, also at $16.99 a pound.
“It’s quite a bit higher” than the usual price, she said. “We were bidding against Chinese buyers. It took three days to get our guarantee.”
Bob Palm, owner of Fisherman’s Market Grill & Sushi in Coeur d’Alene, said he’s waiting for the larger Dungeness that will be available once commercial crabbing begins next month. The crab also should be fully developed by then, he said.
“The ones that we wait for are called ‘2 and ups,’ so 2 pounds and up. That’s normally what you see this time of year,” Palm said.
The current prices of the smaller, ocean-run crab from the Quinault tribe is pretty high, Palm added. Normally they’d retail for $7 or $8 a pound, he said.
Typically he’d sell around 200 crabs the day before Christmas. But he’s had very little come in for months now.
Customers this year are disappointed, Palm said, “but they understand, and they’re mainly going to shrimp and other stuff.”
Back at Williams Seafood, Offield said his crabs range in size from 1.5 to 2 pounds, he said.
“They smell so good. We snapped one open to try it, and it’s got great flavor,” he said.
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