Sun, Nov 20, 2005 - Page 11 News List

Fishermen, `Wal-Mart of the Seas' clash over crab prices

DISPUTE The central California crab season has been put on hold after fishermen refused to take the price offered by the US West Coast's largest fish processor


Crab fisherman John Mellor sits on a stack of empty crab traps on his boat in San Francisco on Friday. The crab season opened on Tuesday, but has been brought to a standstill by a price dispute between crab fishermen and processors, which has kept boats tied to the docks.


Larry Collins thought he'd be at sea now, furiously hauling tire-sized traps teeming with the city's famous Dungeness crabs during the frenzied first days of the season.

But on Friday, more than three days after the central California crab fishery opened, Collins' boat remained tethered to Fisherman's Wharf as he joined crab fishermen in refusing to take the price offered by the West Coast's largest processor: Pacific Seafood.

"I've got to make a living, but I'm not going to be some slave boat for some processor," said Collins, vice president of the San Francisco Crab Boat Owners Association.

"We love to fish, but we can't keep doing it if it's a losing proposition," he said.

The dispute that stalled the opening of the Dungeness crab season highlights the increasingly bitter struggle between commercial fishermen and Pacific Seafood, the company that dominates the West Coast's seafood industry.

Industry critics call the company the "Wal-Mart of the Seas" -- a symbol of what's wrong with the seafood business. They complain the company has become so powerful its uses its dominance to dictate lower prices for their catch and also drives small processors out of business.

"It's the Wal-Mart syndrome," said Pete Leipzig, who heads the Fishermen's Marketing Association. "They are so large that they dictate to companies what to produce and what to pay."

Pacific Seafood officials say they offer prices based on an increasingly global market.

"The fishermen are still independent. They make the choice on where to deliver," said Tim Horgan, the company's chief operating officer.

"We can't force them to do business, nor can we force the other processors to pay a lower price," he said.

The Central California Dungeness fishery, which stretches from Monterey County to Mendocino County, officially opened after midnight on Tuesday.

But in an unusual show of solidarity, crab fishermen in the region's three main ports -- Bodega Bay, Half Moon Bay and San Francisco -- have stuck together in what has amounted to a fishing strike after failing to agree on catch prices with Pacific Seafood and other processors.

The fishermen originally asked for US$1.85 per pound (0.45kg), while the processors offered to pay US$1.50 per pound. After negotiations between crabbers and processors at the three ports, Pacific Seafood raised their offer to US$1.65 per pound by midweek, but the fishermen wouldn't go lower than US$1.75.

Pacific Seafood lowered it's offer to US$1.25 on Friday, saying the fishermen had missed the deadline to meet the lucrative market for the weekend before Thanksgiving.

The fishermen said fuel and bait expenses have nearly doubled and they can't afford to fish for US$1.25 per pound, US$0.50 below last year's rate.

"The price of everything has gone up except the price of my crab," said Dave Shogren, 60, whose boat Aleutian Storm sat idle on Friday.

The processors said they were also dealing with higher energy prices as well as weaker demand because Hurricane Katrina had wiped out casinos and hotels that have become big crab buyers in recent years.

"Everybody's got higher fuel costs. With the amount of money it would cost us to process, we gave them the best offer we could this year," said Joe Cincotta, who manages Pacific Seafood's San Francisco plant.

The standoff left San Francisco Bay area retailers and restaurants without the fresh crabs consumers have come to expect in mid-November -- two weeks before the opening of fisheries further north and just in time for Thanksgiving.

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