The commercial Dungeness crab fishing season in Northern California is on hold indefinitely, as fishermen and wholesale buyers continue to haggle over prices.
"We're 50 cents apart," said local fisherman Dave Bitts. "It looks like, maybe, they just don't really want to buy crabs very bad right now, which means maybe the market is just soft. If that's the case, it doesn't really make any sense to deliver the crabs onto a soft market. If that's the case, we might as well wait."
While local commercial crab fishermen were given the green light to start fishing Dec. 1, they won't start until wholesale buyers agree to lock into a price. Currently, wholesalers are offering $2.50 a pound, while fishermen are asking for $3, the same price wholesalers agreed to pay in central California, according to Wild Planet Foods President Bill Carvalho.
The pricing standoff is par for the course, according to those in the industry, as fishermen want to lock in the highest possible price and wholesalers -- who already are selling fresh crab caught off San Francisco and the central coast -- don't want to commit to an inflated price when the market will likely soon be flooded with the crustaceans.
"It's not a new game -- they've been doing this since I was a little kid," said crab fisherman Paul Pellegrini, adding that with hundreds of fishermen and just a few wholesalers in the area, buyers try to present a united front and just wait for some of the fishermen to get restless. "They're waiting for us to self-destruct."
In the last eight or nine years, the starting dates in Northern California have synched with those in Washington and Oregon, which meant prices were generally set through a pricing compromise process mediated by the state of Oregon. With opening day in Oregon pushed back to Dec. 15, Northern California has been left to figure its own price this year, Carvalho said.
"Frankly, we're very out of practice in California," he said.
Carvalho said Pacific Seafood -- which handles about half the wholesale crab inventory on the West Coast -- basically drives the ship. Carvalho said that leaves his company, Wild Planet Foods, essentially on the sidelines watching the process unfold.
Pacific Seafood is currently offering $2.50 a pound, which was last year's starting price and a historic high. Fishermen are asking for the price their counterparts on the central coast are fetching. Carvalho said wholesalers aren't likely to pay that much -- a higher percentage of Northern California dungeness crab is likely to be frozen because the central California crab has beaten it to market.
"The difference between this starting price and that in San Francisco is that a much higher percentage of the crab landing here will need to be frozen," he said. "It's just too much volume for the market."
At Mr. Fish in Eureka, head fishmonger Mark McCulloch said he was able to meet the Thanksgiving crab demand locally by selling fresh crab caught on the central coast. He's hoping to be offering locally-caught crab on Christmas and New Year's Day, two of the busiest crab days of the year.
"There'll be lines out the door," he said.
Carvalho said he expects to see a price resolution long before Christmas, saying if local fishermen and buyers haven't reached an agreement before Dec. 15, they will likely just go with whatever price comes out of Oregon. In the meantime, local fishermen and buyers will continue to negotiate.
Pellegrini said he's hoping local fishermen stay united to get the best possible price, and he's looking forward to getting his pots in the water.
"I'm just sitting on the sidelines waiting for someone to say I can go fishing," he said.
Thadeus Greenson can be reached at 441-0509 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @ThadeusGreenson.