Monday, December 10, 2007

Crab Whisperer: A Conversation with Fisherman Duncan MacLean

People dreaming of a crab-filled Thanksgiving got their hopes drowned in oil—heavy, bunker fuel oil to be exact. The Nov. 7 Cosco Busan spill in the San Francisco Bay, which killed or injured more than 2,000 sea birds and other marine animal, also wreaked havoc on the local crab season, which typically starts in mid-November.

Now, more than a month later and after a delayed start and a freak storm off the coast of Half Moon Bay to boot, local crab is finally finding its way to markets and the dinner table. This Sunday, the Jack London Square Farmers Market in Oakland held a crab fest to kick up interest again for the Dungeness crab.

Selling fresh Dungeness right off his boat was Half Moon Bay fisherman Duncan MacLean, who’s also the president of the Half Moon Bay Fishermen’s Marketing Association. MacLean traveled on his boat, the “Barbara Faye” named after his daughter, from his dock at Pillar Point to Jack London Square.

I sat down with him when he took a break from selling crab (and a break from an odd “crab race” for the kids) to talk about this year’s unusual crab season, how to shop for crab and how he likes to eat these succulent and sustainable shellfish.

The following are edited excerpts of our conversation:

Chef Ben: How long does the typical Dungeness crab season last in the Bay Area?

Duncan MacLean: It starts in the middle of November and goes till the end of June. But 50 percent of what’s caught for the entire year is caught in the month of November. They only grow once a year, so they don’t replenish as the year goes on. You have one set harvestable amount.

CB: When was the first time you went out this year after the oil spill and the delayed start to the season?

DM: With the oil spill and everything else I think we got out Dec. 1.

CB: What was the catch like that first time?

DM: Pretty slim.

CB: Yeah, that’s what I heard.

DM: We’re kind of like on the downside of the cycle.

CB: And do you think it’s slim because you miss that beginning of the season?

DM: Well, that didn’t help any because the crabs have a tendency to move west as the year progresses and they go off the continental shelf and then it’s beyond our depth range to catch. That’s another part of the protection plan. They have places they can hide that we can’t get to.

CB: So are those initial crabs considered lost for the season?

DM: Yeah, that and the price. November, that Thanksgiving market, is our strongest period in the entire year. And we stood to get a $3 to the boat price if we went fishing in the middle of November. We started December first and we got $2. So we lost a third of our season right there.

CB: What kind of financial effects did that cause?

DM: The money’s not there and the money doesn’t trickle through the community like it normally would. It doesn’t just hurt me to not go fishing. It hurts the entire community.

CB: What’s the difference between Dungeness crab in the Bay Area and what comes in from the Pacific Northwest?

DM: They’re basically the same thing only there’s different molting cycles along the coast. Ours molt earlier in the year than they do up there. They harvest them probably a little bit prematurely so there are a lot more soft ones and they’re not as full as they should be.

CB: So does that mean that the Dungeness crab we see later in the season are probably from the Pacific Northwest?

DM: Well, they’re like us. Half of the crabs are caught in the first two weeks of the season and up there even more so because they have a lot bigger boats with a lot bigger gear. And they serve a whole different market. The fact is that most of the crabs are harvested right away. It’s a finite resource on an annual basis because they only grow once a year. Once you’ve taken them out you can’t expect more to show up because they just aren’t there.

CB: I wanted to turn to some basic tips about buying crab. I heard you can only buy males?

DM: Yes, we only sell the males of Dungeness. Rock crab is different, they can sell females.

CB: How can you tell which one is male?

DM: On the underside of the crab, there are long, skinny little kind of appendages right in the middle. On the female, it’s round and it’s real obvious.

CB: So do you have to pick through your catch to throw back the females?

DM: The females are generally smaller, so they get out through the escape rings. There’s an escape ring in each (crab trap) that will allow all the undersized male crabs and female crabs to escape without bringing them to the surface. In fact, 17 percent of what gets out of those escape rings are legal. So it helps perpetuate the species. You don’t have to worry about catching every last one of them.

That and with the biodegradable panels that are put in there, if a trap gets lost or cut off, the panels deteriorate and the trap opens up and the crabs go right back into the wild.

CB: So what should you look for when buying crab?

DM: You want the hardest ones you can find in terms of the shell because what happens is when they molt they throw the old shell and they’ll grow ¾ of an inch, and then their shell will redevelop and get hard again.

It usually takes about a month to do that. During that process, the meat is chalky, it doesn’t have any texture and very little flavor and it’s not very good. So when you buy one, you want to take it just above the claw in the back of it, you squeeze it right there and if it’s spongy at all, don’t buy it. You want one that’s rock hard. That’s the easiest way you can tell whether or not it’s a good crab.

CB: After you take it home, should you store it in any special way if you’re not cooking it right away?

DM: You want to cook ’em as soon as you can, at least no more than five or six hours of them dying. But generally speaking you want to cook ’em while they’re still alive. They’ll stay alive if you keep ’em in a cool place, out of the wind. They’ll stay alive for 24 hours.

CB: I’ve heard some people say you can put them in a paper bag with newspaper and put them in the refrigerator. Does that work?

DM: When you put ’em into something cold like that, they have a tendency to hibernate. They just go into a dormant state, so yeah, it does help to keep them a little bit. But by the nature of the refrigeration, it also dehydrates them and it dries out the meat and makes it harder to pick out the meat, even after they’re cooked.

CB: How do you usually like to eat your crab?

DM: Bar-B-Q.

CB: Oh, I never heard of that.

DM: You got to clean ’em live. You take ’em and you pull the tips of the legs off and you break it in half and you pull the legs up and you put them on a piece of aluminum foil with a pad of butter and a clove of garlic and wrap it up really carefully so you don’t pierce the foil. And wrap it again a second time. Put it on the barbeque for about 25 minutes, and it sucks all the butter and garlic right up into the meat and it’s just killer.

CB: Mmm, that sounds good. I bet you can do that right at the beach.

DM: Uh-huh. And you can do in a campfire. Basically all you’re doing is steaming it in butter. It turns out real good.

Many thanks to Duncan for taking the time to chat with me for my blog. He says he’ll be docked at Jack London Square in Oakland for the next few Sundays, so go check out his crab catch and get your local Dungeness crabs straight from the source, our local fishermen.


Unknown said...

that recipe for grilled crab does sound delicious. Interesting reading about crab culture too!

Anonymous said...

I'm planning to go to Pillar Point this weekend and it's a long trip so I want to make sure there are boats selling... do you have contact info for any of the boats selling crab directly to the public or for the Barbara Faye?

BTW your interview was very informative - who knew that crabs move west and off the continental shelf?

Single Guy Ben said...

Crabby, I don't have any contact info for Duncan MacLean, but if you plan to go to Pillar Point, you can call the "Fishfone" at the Pillar Point Harbor to check on availability. Supposedly crab is sold seven days a week. Fishfone is (650) 726-8724. Have a fun weekend!