What is the main ingredient for the largest crab feed in California? Crab, of course—but not just any crab.
Thanks to the Tides Wharf, year after year, the Great Sonoma Crab & Wine Fest has fresh, mouth-watering crab for over 2,000 people to enjoy.
Made famous in the early 1960s as the backdrop for scenes of Alfred Hitchcock’s film classic, “The Birds”, The Tides Wharf remains an attraction for locals and travelers from around the world. It is also where father and son Tony and Anthony DeLima work in tandem to bring Dungeness crab fresh out of the ocean and onto your plate.
With over 80 years of combined experience working in the fishing industry, Tony and Anthony strive to provide their customers with the freshest seafood possible. The Tides Wharf has the best quality product on the west coast, according to veteran fisherman Bill Alexander.
“They care as nobody else cares,” Alexander said. “Most other plants get the product off the boat, cook the body and the legs separately, then put in the freezer. The Tides Wharf cooks all crabs fresh to order and whole and never freezes them.”
He said that it is just like eating steak on the bone, which tastes better than a boneless piece.
“When you cook crab whole, you get all of the juices and flavor,” Alexander said. “It takes a lot more labor to clean and cook a whole crab, but it is sure worth it. Tony and Anthony do a great job.”
Tony DeLima, General Manager at the Tides Wharf, immigrated from the Azores in Portugal when he was 17 and has been working in the fishing industry since 1967.
“At first, I worked out in the plant like I still do and learned how to do everything from the bottom up,” Tony said. “I could filet, and I could gut fish. I could do pretty much anything.”
Anthony said that he began to shadow his father from day one.
“My father was so busy working all the time, so I came to work with him in order to spend time with him. I officially got on the payroll when I was 12,” Anthony said. “I have been with the company for 28 years. This is what I chose to do from day one and it is what I love to do.”
Today, the father and son duo run the processing plant.
“We unload boats, process fish, fillet, pick crab meat, and smoke the meat. Then we sell to the fish market, Oliver’s Market, Big John’s, Pacific Market, and local restaurant accounts.”
Anthony added that they have been lucky to have dependable employees who have been with the company for many years.
“We have about 30 people working in the plant and making deliveries and all our employees are local people who return to us annually,” Tony said. “One person has been with us since 1971 and we had one employee recently retire who had been with us since 1969.”
Anthony said that 22 independently owned fishing boats sell their catch to the Tides Wharf year-round including fishermen Bill Alexander and Richard Ogg.
Like most farmers, Anthony said that fishermen rise before dawn around 3:30 a.m. Then they travel 2 or 3 hours to the fishing grounds and work for 12-16 hours a day before heading back to shore to unload.
“When they come back to the dock with the product, that’s when our work begins,” Anthony said. “We unload the crab then sort and size them, put them in baskets and cook them. Then we either box them or clean and crack them for events like the Great Sonoma Crab & Wine Fest. Finally, we load them onto our trucks and make deliveries throughout the county.
Dungeness crab, halibut, king salmon, black cod, petrale sole, bottom fish, rockfish, lingcod, and albacore tuna are all brought in to be processed at the Tides Wharf, depending on the season.
However, Alexander said that King salmon has been challenging to fish because of recent drought years, black cod is heavily regulated on the open market, and that many fish, besides Dungeness crab, are challenging to make a living on.
Ogg said that he realized that in order to succeed, he had to diversify.
“To make a living, I couldn’t stay in one particular fishery,” Ogg said. “I couldn’t make that profitable. It is much more efficient to diversify, so now I fish for Dungeness Crab and tuna.”
Diversifying is expensive though.
“My two permits alone, which dictate my quota, cost $400,000,” Ogg said. “Fishing is a difficult industry to get into.”
Anthony added that to fish like Alexander or Ogg, it would take a minimum of a $600,000 – $800,000 investment to start.
“That might not even cover the permit,” Alexander added.
Anthony said that, right now, Dungeness crab is the saving grace for the entire fishing industry.
“Dungeness crab is the last season that all of us on the entire west coast—Washington, Oregon, and California—can actually rely on even on a bad year,” Alexander said. “On a bad year, we get through. We can feed our families. On a good year, we put money aside. Just like any other farmer.”
In recent years, the Dungeness crab season, though shorter in duration, has yielded great numbers.
“Our years keep getting better and better,” Anthony said. “A boat in the mid-80s would go out on opening day and catch 1,000 pounds. Now, a boat on the opening day goes out, on a bad year, and catches 5,000 – 6,000 pounds.
He said that this year, fishermen came in with 7,000 pounds of crab on opening day.
Anthony attributed the successful season on healthy populations and the local Dungeness crab population growth as the bays, which are nurseries for crab, are much cleaner than they were 30 years ago, and the coho salmon, which eat young crab, populations have decreased.
Despite a successful Dungeness crab season, Anthony said that fishermen constantly must weather the storm of uncertainty.
“Between variability in the season dates, weather, crab populations, pricing, and competition, fishing is a tough business to be in,” Anthony said.
Just as farmers on land face challenges, so do farmers of the sea.
“One of our biggest challenges in the fishing industry is Mother Nature,” Anthony said. “But that is nothing new.”
He said that what is new is strict government regulations and pressure from NGO groups, specifically the Center for Biodiversity, which Anthony said is trying to get Dungeness crab fisheries minimized.
In recent years, the season has been cut short by whales becoming entangled in fishing gear. This year, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife pushed back the start of commercial crab season south of the Mendocino-Sonoma county line in November after aerial surveys done in October and November showed more whales than usual near Point Reyes and Half Moon Bay.
Ogg, who was in the plane said that he saw all of the whales in a concentrated area.
“I came back and discussed it with the rest of the port, talked to Anthony, and we decided, as a group to push the start date back rather than put ourselves in jeopardy,” Ogg said.
Anthony said that they are trying to find a balance between NGO groups and the fishing industry.
“We’d like the public to understand that entanglements are never going to be at zero, but that we are trying to minimize the injury to whales,” Anthony said. “The demand for Dungeness crab shows me that our local county here does care and wants our product, but the NGO groups really are trying to shut down the fishing industry, which would impact a lot of people and our local economy.”
Despite the many challenges he faces as a fisherman, Alexander said that he would be out on the water on his boat “The Alecat” every single day of the season if the weather permitted, and it was profitable.
“As the captain, I’d go out all the time if I could,” Alexander said. “But there is a lot of responsibility on the fisherman’s part to know the weather, and the market so that my crew can get paid too. At the end of the day though, it’s all about how many crabs will crawl in the trap in the amount of time you are out there.”