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Product Spotlight: Dungeness Crab

Record landings coincide with burgeoning demand from retailers and restaurants nationwide.

Many chefs consider meaty, flavorful Dungeness the best crab there is. - Photo courtesy of Oregon Dungeness Crab Commission
By Rick Ramseyer
June 01, 2005

Nick Furman, executive director of the Oregon Dungeness Crab Commission, has been marveling for months now about the state’s best-ever crab catch. Let’s just say he’s relieved there’s a growing market for Dungeness that extends well beyond the West Coast.

“If we’d had these kind of landings 10 years ago, we wouldn’t have known what to do with it all,” Furman says. “Processors’ freezers would have been full, and inventories, overflowing.”

He’s not kidding. As of late April, with four months left of the 2004-05 season, Oregon’s commercial Dungeness harvest topped 31 million pounds, nearly 25 percent higher than last season’s record haul of 23.4 million.

“Not only did we break the record, we obliterated it,” Furman says. “It’s the largest landing any state has produced in the history of the fishery, so we’re talking 150 years.”

The two other prime Dungeness-production states — California and Washington — are on track for huge hauls as well. All told, including the annual take from Alaska and British Columbia, the catch from central California to Alaska’s Aleutian Islands could easily exceed last year’s high-water mark of 90-plus million pounds.

Those hefty numbers, which industry observers attribute in part to ideal ocean conditions, will feed the burgeoning demand for Dungeness in hundreds of supermarkets and restaurants up and down the West Coast, as well as retail and foodservice outlets from Las Vegas to Denver and from Chicago to New York.

Moreover, a rising percentage of the Dungeness harvest is exported to places such as China, Hong Kong and Japan. (China, in fact, has become a major reprocessor of frozen crab sections and offers the picked meat for resale.)

The fuss over Dungeness crab (Cancer magister) is easy to understand. The meat is tender and sweet, with a slightly nutty taste, and the thick-shelled, white-tipped-clawed crustaceans yield plenty of product.

Dungeness are caught in circular steel pots, and only males with a minimum shell size of 6 1/4 inches are harvested commercially — translating to sizes averaging 1 1/2 to 3 pounds. Nearly 80 percent of the harvest comes during the fishery’s first eight weeks.

Typically sold live or whole and cooked (fresh or frozen), Dungeness also are available as sections, clusters and single legs, plus picked meat.

This season’s bonanza, coupled with an abundant supply of snow crab, has resulted in lower prices for processors.

“We had a lot of poundage, but no margins,” says Michael Lucas, owner of North Coast Fisheries of Santa Rosa, Calif., which seasonally handles up to 1.5 million pounds of the crab. “I don’t think many guys who are players in [Dungeness] made any money.”

Steve Spencer, vice president of processing sales for Pacific Seafood Group in Clackamas, Ore., agrees that the landings rise has “put a little bit of price pressure” on Dungeness.

“But it’s moving through the system fairly quickly, and I think our pack will be cleaned up if the pace continues,” Spencer says.

“Right now the main objective is to keep the retailers and foodservice customers on Dungeness,” he adds. “Because at the current pack we cannot afford to lose market share to another crab.”

Carvalho Fisheries of Eureka, Calif., which derives more than half its business from Dungeness, processed 3.7 million pounds of crab in December — well above the usual mark of 2 million to 3 million pounds.

Roughly 70 percent of Carvalho’s crabs are used for sections, which this season started at $3.70 per pound but ended up being sold mostly at $3.65.

“Here we are, five months later, and the price is even less than that,” says Bill Carvalho, the company’s owner and president. “So it was a falling market.”

Still, he sounds optimistic about the road ahead.

“The last few years, when snow-crab clusters were short [in supply] and more expensive, people tried Dungeness for the first time,” Carvalho says. “And a lot of them now prefer it.”

Furman of the crab commission also has seen acceptance swell. He notes that frozen Dungeness in particular is popping up in East Coast supermarkets, such as the 850-store Publix chain in the Southeast.

“And Wal-Mart made a big commitment last year to Dungeness,” Furman says.

Despite those inroads, the crab remains far more common on the West Coast, where it’s carried by scores of name-brand grocers and specialty shops. The Oliver’s Market in Santa Rosa, Calif., for example, often advertises whole-cooked crab for $3.99 as a pre-Thanksgiving promotion before boosting the price to around $4.99 to $5.99 a pound.

“There’s a little price war when the season opens,” says Mitch Castleberry, the store’s meat department manager. “We’ll go through anywhere from 1,500 to 2,000 pounds in four or five days.”

Whole Foods Market in Portland, Ore., meanwhile, receives daily in-season shipments of cooked Dungeness, which it displays on ice. The store also sells crabmeat ($24.99 per pound) and makes crab cakes ($5.99 apiece).

West Coast restaurants, too, have been touting Dungeness for decades.

“It’s the finest crab available, and I buy it live year-round,” says Todd Hansen, executive chef at A. Sabella’s Restaurant on Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco.

The latest A. Sabella’s menu features garlic-roasted Dungeness for $29, though the price sometimes hits $32.

“Our [raw] costs can go from $2.50 to $6 a pound,” says Hansen, who in busy months may purchase 5,000 pounds of crab. “So I have to make adjustments.”

Etta’s Seafood in downtown Seattle uses about 60 pounds of fresh crabmeat a week for three different dishes: a crab cocktail ($12), a crab salad ($15) and crab cakes ($24).

“It’s just such an indigenous product,” says Sarah Schaaff, Etta’s general manager. “It’s really popular.”

Norma Marshall, owner of The 3 Crabs — a landmark for almost 50 years on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula — describes the Dungeness draw a bit more bluntly.

“Our name isn’t The 3 Pigs, mister,” Marshall says.

Indeed, the restaurant is located near Dungeness, Wash., a fishing village credited with inspiring the crustacean’s unusual name. The 3 Crabs serves at least 10 different Dungeness dishes, including two whole crabs for $32.95.

Dungeness is showing up on more menus nationwide, as well, at places like the Bellagio Hotel & Resort in Las Vegas, the Del Mar Crab House in Denver, Shaw’s Crab House in Chicago and City Crab & Seafood in New York City.

Even Landry’s Restaurants, the casual-dining giant with headquarters in Houston, offers Dungeness clusters at several of its seafood concepts.

“We’ve made tremendous headway in the marketplace,” says Oregon’s Furman. “And the trend has been to expand east of the Rockies.”

Contributing Editor Rick Ramseyer lives in Cumberland, Maine

June 2005 - SeaFood Business


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