Crab fishing in Humboldt County has seen better days, but it’s never been as bad as this, several fishermen said Tuesday.
“We could use one word: it’s devastating,” said Harrison Ibach, president of the Humboldt Fishermen’s Marketing Association. “Everything has come to a screaming halt. And it’s not just the crab industry, it’s the entire seafood industry.”
Ibach and others estimated that the best market price for a pound of crab in Humboldt County — from the few buyers left — stands around $2 per pound, down from $3 at the start of this year’s season. For Ibach, “that’s the lowest I’ve seen in many, many years.”
The crabbing season naturally slows down in March, but the global coronavirus pandemic has brought unprecedented new levels of decline to the industry, fishermen said. It started when China — a top shipping location for live crabs — stopped taking in product from Humboldt Bay fishermen after the virus began wreaking havoc in the country.
In the couple of months that followed, the domestic market has similarly plummeted. Now that the ongoing statewide shelter-in-place order has closed most restaurants, almost no one in Humboldt County is buying crab.
The shelter-in-place order is intended to limit the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. It’s resulted in the closure of most public spaces, including dine-in restaurants.
That crab is a pricier food item has stymied income for crab fishermen, who say Americans prefer eating seafood when they go out instead of cooking it at home, making it difficult for fishermen to sell crab anywhere else.
Recent crabbing seasons have ended in hardship, including a state settlement in 2019 that prematurely closed crab fisheries over a series of whale entanglements off the California coast (one of them near Eureka).
Before this year’s season even started, crabbers like Scott Creps of Eureka were worried about whether it would go the distance. But no one could have predicted that the coronavirus would so rapidly dry up the market — to the point that Creps himself has thrown in the towel.
“We quit crabbing about three weeks ago and brought all our pots in,” Creps said Tuesday. “There just wasn’t any money in it… If the crabs were going to China, (the price) might be seven bucks right now, and everyone would be jumping up and down over that.”
Even with restaurants and bulk buyers pulling out of the market, there are still crabs for sale. More than one crabbing boat is selling seafood off the dock at Woodley Island Marina by the Eureka harbor. Families, most of whom want two or three crabs at a time, are buoying some of the fishermen’s revenue stream.
“There’s a couple guys doing that,” Creps said. “It’s a good plan, but (it) can only support so many guys.”
Not everywhere is in as bad a shape as Humboldt Bay. Up in Trinidad, there are still a fair number of small-market crab and seafood buyers, said Susan Rotwein, owner of Cap’n Zach’s Crab House in McKinleyville.
Cap’n Zach’s sells directly to customers and has been able to stay open amid social-distancing guidelines brought about by the COVID-19 shelter-in-place order. Those kinds of businesses are still buying all the crab that can be caught, Rotwein said.
In that case, why don’t Eureka crabbers simply make their way north?
“The fishing industry is a funny business,” Rotwein replied. “Typically, a boat or fleet has a market for your crabs that depends on you to produce. There’s a loyalty factor.”
In Eureka, there’s simply no market left. But fishermen hope that broader forces could turn the industry around, especially since Humboldt Bay is not alone.
“I was talking to fisherman today in Rhode Island, and was emailing back and forth with fisherman in England — it’s all the same deal,” said Ken Bates of the Humboldt Fishermen’s Marketing Association. “Right now, everyone’s waiting and seeing how to keep the supply chains running.”
Crab fishermen frustrated with two years of economic blows have difficulty finding other sources of income, having sunk investments into boats and equipment, fisherman Jake McMaster said. In the fishing world, however, there’s room to adapt.
“Fishermen are good at adapting and rolling with the punches, especially for the guys who only crab,” McMaster said. “I never fish salmon — just crab and albacore, but now, the way the season’s going, we’re going to go salmon-fishing!”
Shomik Mukherjee can be reached at 707-441-0504.