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The History Of Dungeness Crab Season In San Francisco

Updated: Nov 07, 2023 08:49
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Dungeness crab season is back and in full effect! Hooray for the cherished San Francisco tradition of chowing down on locally caught crab for Thanksgiving and Christmas. 

To celebrate the return of this outrageously delicious seafood that it is outrageously hard to dig out of its shell, the Broke-Ass Fish, Game and Wildlife Commission looks back with fondness on the 170-year history of Dungeness crab season in San Francisco.


Image: San Francisco Historical Photograph Collection

The opening of Dungeness crab season in San Francisco was once the tourist-attracting street party equivalent of SF Pride or the Folsom Street Fair. In the pre-Sexual Revolution and Summer of Love eras, tourists would flock to San Francisco just to get those delicious little fuckers boiled and served fresh-caught from the Bay.


Image: Northeast Fisheries Science Center


There didn’t used to be a “Dungeness crab season”. Bay Area fishermen just caught, sold or served whatever the fuck they wanted before the establishment of a regulated marine calendar. (NOTE: Thousands of people died of food poisoning because of this lack of a regulatory framework.)

Chinese fisherman and Italians with their lateen-rigged Genoese sailboats, found crabs in plentiful supply from the Straits of Carquinez on the inland reaches of San Francisco Bay to the sandy shorelines off the East Bay,” notes “Over the years, clams, the natural food of the crab, disappeared from the Bay. The best crab catches were made just outside the Golden Gate.”

But San Francisco marketed itself as a bastion for fresh-served crab in the late Autumn months, helping establish Fisherman’s Wharf as the tourist trap that it remains as today.  


Image: San Francisco Historical Photograph Collection


Crabbing became a big part of the San Francisco economy, leading to disputes between the low-paid fishermen and booming hospitality industry. “Deep sea crabs have hit an all-time low at San Francisco, as a result of a tilt between the Crab Fishermen’s Protective Association, whose members operate 300 fishing boats, and dealers along the picturesque Fishermen’s Wharf, where crabs are cooked in cauldrons on the sidewalk,” according to reports from the San Francisco Library archives. “The fishermen charge that a huge proportion of the crabs sold in San Francisco are shipped in from other places, to the detriment of the fishermen. As a protest, the fishermen’s organization has gone into the retail business at San Francisco – with live crabs selling at a dollar a dozen.”

Image: San Francisco Historical Photograph Collection


The wealth disparity between fishermen and the barons who profited from their popular crab catches would continue for decades, until a Sicilian immigrant crab salesman named Sam Alioto (pictured above) brokered a deal that mollified both factions and established his family as a local political dynasty.

His son Joe Alioto would go on to serve as San Francisco mayor from 1968 to 1976. His granddaughters Angela Alioto served on the SF Board of Supervisors for eight years (1988-1997) and Michela Alioto-Pier did the same (2004-11).


Image: San Francisco Historical Photograph Collection


The 1971 San Francisco Bay oil spill disrupted the crab harvest for a couple of years. Two Standard Oil tankers collided to create the worst oil spill in Bay Area history. The public response helped start what we now know of as the environmental movement, and  Standard Oil spent a million dollars on the cleanup effort. That was considered a lot of money at the time!



Another oil spill in 2007 disrupted that year’s crab harvest, though not as profoundly. By then, crab-catching in the San Francisco Bay had already been made illegal. You cannot catch crab from the San Francisco Bay or San Pablo Bay, as these are considered breeding and hatching grounds. The Dungeness crab we eat in this town is generally caught from regions like the Farallon Islands and Pacifica.

That’s right, the San Francisco Dungeness crab is not caught in San Francisco. But those tasty little fuckers are back in season, restoring a San Francisco treat that dates back to the Gold Rush days. 

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Joe Kukura is a two-bit marketing writer who excels at the homoerotic double-entendre. He is training to run a full marathon completely drunk and high, and his work has appeared in the New York Times and Wall Street Journal on days when their editors made particularly curious decisions.