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Despite Toxic Harvest, Dungeness Crabs Make Their Way to Seattle Markets

Still, local restaurants are feeling the bans in California and Oregon.

Dungeness crabs.
Dungeness crabs.
Flickr/Tony Fischer

California and Oregon crab lovers were hit hard this year when fisheries shut down along the coast in both states due to unsafe levels of toxic domoic acid, the byproduct of an unusually abundant algae bloom.

Then in late November Washington joined with Oregon in postponing the opening of its crabbing season. But to talk to the fishmongers in Pike Place Market, you wouldn’t know there’s a problem. A fishmonger from Pure Food expresses the common sentiment: "That’s only happening in California and Oregon. These are Washington crabs, the best in the world." At City Fish Co. the assertive claim is, "Fresh, not frozen."

If we opened up this 13-mile stretch, we’d draw all the crabbers from Oregon. It would be difficult to establish the boundary, and we’re worried the area could be over-fished.

So what gives? "It’s complicated," says Dan Ayres, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife's coastal shellfish manager. The opening of the southernmost thirteen miles of the Washington coast, along the Long Beach Peninsula —  typically open for commercial crabbing December 1 — is postponed this year, not because of unsafe levels of domoic acid, but because of the Oregon ban. Ayres explains, "If we opened up this 13-mile stretch, we’d draw all the crabbers from Oregon. It would be difficult to establish the boundary, and we’re worried the area could be over-fished." He frames it as a temporary issue. "We’re working with Oregon toward an early January opener."

Farther north on the Washington coast the commercial season is scheduled to start January 4, but tribal crabbers, who by treaty rights have claim to fifty percent of the annual yield, got an early start—beginning this year on November 19. "Those crabs are safe," says Ayres. He speculates that’s where Seattle vendors are getting their supply. At Pike Place Market, a fishmonger at Jack’s Fish Spot confirms that his crabs are coming from Westport, which falls within the tribal range. A buyer from Pure Food will only say that theirs are from Washington and British Columbia.

Local restaurants have been feeling an impact in their pocketbooks. According to Chris Schwarz, Corporate Executive Chef of Tom Douglas Restaurants, "The biggest effect on us currently is the price increase due to the closures and demand."

Chef John Sundstrom at Lark was prepared for potential problems. "We started making plans to take it off the menu once we heard about the California ban back in November, on the outside chance that we might be affected. In general we only seek out Puget Sound Dungeness crab. It's generally regarded as the best."

The waters of Puget Sound are free of dangerous toxin levels, and when the season opens there later this month it will bolster the crab supply. The annual harvest from the sound typically ranges from six to nine million pounds— a lot of crab, but about half the normal yield from the coast.

Some restaurants call on other crab varieties to compensate for a smaller Dungeness supply. "It's the ideal time of year to feature king and snow crab from Alaska," Sundstrom says. "We just received a shipment of beautiful Bairdi snow crab legs, and plan on using it in the weeks ahead."