San Francisco Crab Industry Kept Afloat After Devastating Fire — By Direct Sales Program

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A close up of a Dungeness crab in a pile of crab.
A Dungeness crab sits in a bin after being offloaded from a fishing vessel on Nov. 17, 2010, in San Francisco. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

In May of 2020, fisher Nick Krieger bought all new traps for the next rock crab season. He stored his new crab pots, like nearly all other fishers in San Francisco, at Pier 45.

That same month, a four-alarm fire broke out at the pier. When it was finally extinguished, over 30 crabbers had lost a combined 8,000 crab, shrimp and black cod traps and pots. It essentially halted the entire crab fishery. Krieger was despondent.

“I hadn't even put it in the water. I had it all rigged and ready to fish. The idea of just starting all over with that is kind of painful to think about," Krieger said.

Despite some financial assistance, flagging sales due to the pandemic also threatened crabbers. It seemed like some fishers, who usually catch nearly 2 million pounds of crab a year, might hang up their crab pots for good.

But a new pilot program started by the Port of San Francisco is breathing new life into the pandemic-weary wharf.

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On Dec. 29, the Port of San Francisco authorized off-the-boat Dungeness crab sales — meaning fishers can sell their catch directly to members of the public. Since that announcement a week and a half ago, the program has surpassed all expectations.

Crabbers Matt Juanes and Bradlee Titus have been selling live, freshly caught Dungeness crab since the pilot began.

“It's an overwhelming success. We didn't think it would be this great," Juanes said.

A view of a small boat from above, with two fishermen pulling crab out of a yellow box and putting them into a small plastic bag.
Crabbers Matt Juanes and Bradlee Titus offload crab from their boat on San Francisco's Pier 47. (Azul Dahlstrom-Eckman/KQED)

On the first Sunday of sales, he stood on his boat, the Plumeria, surrounded by bubbling tanks capable of holding 400 pounds of crab. A line of about a dozen people waited to buy from him while his assistant, Bradlee Titus, handled sales, trading cash for crab while negotiating the ladder between the boat and the pier. Juanes pulled the 2-pound crabs out with his bare hands and put them in bags for his customers.

Juanes says he knew the program was something special on New Year's Eve. That day, social media posts documented long lines snaking out of Pier 47 and around the corner, down Jefferson Street, even putting the nearby, notoriously long In-N-Out line to shame. There were two boats selling that day and they both sold out, selling 1 ton between the two of them. Juanes knew they would have to bring more to satisfy demand.

The Pier 45 Fire Devastates Local Crabbers

Freshly caught fish, sold straight off the boat — it’s a scene as old as fishing itself. But it’s also a relatively new development in San Francisco. For years, no off-the-boat sales were permitted in the city.

That changed in 2017 when the port authorized a pilot program allowing off-the-boat sales of fish — no crustaceans allowed. Seeing success last November, the port made that program permanent, and approved the pilot to sell crab off the boat.

Edwin Gonzalez came from San Mateo to buy. He says buying straight from fishers is about more than just the crab itself.

“I'm glad we're able to help out locals. That's the other thing. I'm trying to get the economy back up,” said Gonzalez.

Selling directly cuts out a lot of overhead for crabbers, so they can keep more of the profits for themselves. Juanes says he can only sell crab to a wholesaler for about $5 a pound, but he can get double that selling to the public.

The remains of Warehouse C on Pier 45 in Fisherman’s Wharf on May 26, 2020, after a fire destroyed the building on May 23. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Not everyone was in favor of the pilot, though. Some traditional fish sellers say the pilot creates an unfair business advantage. Angela Cincotta of the historic Alioto-Lazio Fish Company spoke against it at an October 2020 port commission meeting.

“Once a boat becomes a direct seller, the boat now becomes a brick-and-mortar business, just like all of ours,” Cincotta said. “The same rules should apply, but will not. For $225 a year from one boat, you will be jeopardizing the thousands of dollars you received monthly from the other brick-and-mortars. The money does not equate.”

Dominic Moreno is maritime operations manager at the Port of San Francisco. He says the program is designed to help both the fishers and the local economy.

“The program was set up to create a new market and not disrupt what businesses were already there,” Moreno said. “You can still get cooked Dungeness from one of the crab stands, and the wholesalers are still able to purchase their crab from the fishermen. We identified that there was a market for people who wanted to come down and buy live Dungeness crab.”

And that's especially important, as it wasn't just the Pier 45 fire that set crabbers back. The waves of bad news kept coming: The pandemic shrank tourism at the wharf, which in turn has made crab sales suffer. San Francisco Travel Association reports total direct visitor spending sank 72% between 2019 and 2020 across San Francisco.

The start of crab season also has been delayed in recent years in an effort to protect migrating humpback whales and leatherback turtles from getting entangled in crab fishing gear.

And Juanes says what’s good for the fishers is good for the other businesses, too.

“When we sold out, there were so many people here. They went to all the local restaurants and bought all their crab and sold them out. So it's a win-win for everyone," Juanes said.

A fisherman and crabber sits aboard his boat in Fisherman's Wharf, in the aft section, in a navy blue shirt, staring out at the water.
Crabber Nick Krieger sits aboard the Amigo, a fishing boat, in 2020. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

So for all the fanfare from the public about this pilot, why haven’t fishers been allowed to sell their catch off the boat before? Until now, San Francisco was one of the only ports in California that didn’t allow off-the-boat sales. Fishers like Juanes and Krieger say they’ve seen crab boats leave San Francisco for places like Half Moon Bay where off-the-boat sales were permitted.

Many crabbers speculated that pressure from local restaurants and wholesalers, as well as the rise of Fisherman’s Wharf as a tourist attraction, played a role in banning off-the-boat sales previously.

John Barnett, president of the Crab Boat Owners Association, offered another explanation.

“It’s really infrastructure. That’s how I would explain it,” Barnett said.

Barnett said that ports like Half Moon Bay and Fort Bragg are better set up for the public to find easy parking and walk straight down to the dock. Now that Fisherman’s Wharf is primarily built to cater to tourism, it’s been harder to redesign the venue. Namely, parking is now scant and expensive.

It’s also hard to cook crab in a hotel room. As the wharf catered more and more to tourists, the economy shifted away from live crab to cooked crab. With the reintroduction of live Dungeness to the wharf, it brought about the return of another rare species there: locals.

Mark Allen came to buy some crab after rowing at the nearby Dolphin Club. “I think it’s great for these guys. I'm glad to see they can make maybe a little extra money this way,” Allen said.

Cooking crab can be entertaining, too, he said: “It's easy to cook and it's kind of fun. There's sort of a whole ritual of cracking them and sharing them and all that good stuff. So the whole experience is amazing.”

Dominic Moreno, of The Port of San Francisco, said it also gives the public a taste of home.

“They appreciate the authenticity of the experience. Learning where their food comes from and talking to the people that harvested it is valuable for a lot of people that come down to buy off the boats," Moreno said.

A pile of cooked crab sit on a skillet as the chef in an apron watches on.
A cook at Nick's Lighthouse in San Francisco prepares Dungeness crab. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

The fishers are using social media and a mobile app to let the public know what and when they’re selling. And Juanes is excited to sell more than just crab, perhaps expanding to salmon.

There have been some hiccups in the takeoff of the pilot. The fishers can run out of crab early if there's enough demand, and keeping regular hours can be a challenge, considering they must first fish for the crab, before they can sell it. Barnett also wanted to remind the public that part of the experience of buying directly from a fisher also means you're not buying from an experienced salesperson — sometimes the process can have some kinks to iron out.

While only five boats are signed up for the pilot currently, fisher Nick Krieger expects that number to double in the coming months. Juanes says he and Titus are committed to being at Pier 47 selling crab every Saturday, at least.

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The Port Commission will evaluate the pilot and make a decision on whether the program will continue in October of 2022. In the meantime, live Dungeness has given a reason for locals, and not just tourists, to return to the wharf.