Crabbing on Dabob Bay: Future of family tradition in doubtBy jfulcher | March 10th, 2009 | Category: Featured story, Society |
By Sound News reporter Jeanne Fulcher
Anyone who has ever eaten crab so fresh that it is boiled in salt water within an hour of being caught will tell you there’s nothing like it. Feasts of crab like this have been a tradition that brings my family together – grandparents, parents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and sisters. We’ve shared this feast every summer, surrounding a picnic table overlooking Dabob Bay in Hood Canal.
But in the last few years there have been no feasts. There have been no crab.
The Dungeness crab population has plummeted in Dabob Bay in the last five years. Declining populations aren’t limited to crab. Losses are happening to salmon and shellfish populations all over Puget Sound. These losses aren’t just numbers. They are personal losses to my family and others like ours around the Sound.
Dabob Bay is located in the northern end of Hood Canal, about a one hour drive west of Kingston. In the last fifteen minutes of the drive, the roads turns to gravel and snakes down the hillside until you reach the beach. Through tall evergreens you can catch glimpses of deer grazing just off the road and eagles soaring overhead. My grandparent’s cabin is somewhat remote – we have one of the last cabins on the beach, right before the steep bluffs begin. Dabob Bay is beautiful, quiet, and clean.
In 1952, my grandparents Frank and Helen Novito, 87 and 86, bought our cabin on Dabob Bay. It became a getaway for their young family. They lived in West Seattle, where my grandpa grew up, but the cabin quickly became a home away from home. My mom, Wanda Fulcher, was just six years old. My grandparents hosted large gatherings for their relatives. To this day my sisters, Maria and Annie, and I still hear many memorable stories, like the time my uncle, Ralph Novito, accidentally lit the entire beach on fire when he was a little boy. We also hear stories about them eating buckets and buckets of crab, shrimp, clams, and oysters.
But the tradition of eating crab began even before that.
“When I was a little kid,” my grandpa said, holding his weathered hand a few feet off the ground to show his size, “my dad used to take me down to Elliot Bay and we’d fill up the traps with fish bait. We dropped the traps off the docks into 10 or 12 feet of water, and when we’d pull them up they’d be full. We’d build big fires and have big parties and stay up real late and eat crab. . . God we used to catch the crab.”
The Italians of West Seattle would gather at these parties, and the friendships that formed around those campfires resulted in at least one family wedding.
When my grandparents hosted multitudes of family and friends at Dabob Bay, they always provided them with heaps of fresh seafood. Those were the days that crab seasons were nonexistent, and limits were much higher. My cousin Rachael Novito recalled that every time somebody new came up, my grandpa would welcome them to the picnic table with fresh, hot crab piled high. If the guest wasn’t paying attention, my grandpa would trick them into drinking the gut-filled crab juice from the shell of the crab, something he still tries today.
Now, two generations later, that pile of fresh, hot crab is still important to our family. “It’s a lot of fun, anticipating the catch coming in, it’s a fun family thing to do, and it’s good food,” said my aunt, Gail Novito. “But it worries me that the crab aren’t coming in like they used to.”
My grandpa is convinced, despite the downward trend in the Dungeness crab population, that there will always be crab in Hood Canal. In our family, there is no other option.
When my great-grandma, Mary Novito, came to Seattle from southern Italy in 1920, she brought with her another tradition involving crab. Every Christmas Eve, she’d make crab and spaghetti; she’d start cooking early in the morning so all of us (over 50 descendents) could eat that night. After my grandparents bought the cabin at the Canal, the crab served on Christmas Eve came from Dabob Bay.
To catch crab, my dad, Joe Fulcher, said they now drop the traps in 140 or 150 feet of water. But he remembers the times that they could drop the crab traps in 50 or 60 feet of water. Over the years, they’d have to put the traps in deeper and deeper water to catch the same amount of crab.
“We used to have thirty or forty crab in a trap. To stay within the limit we’d have to throw a lot back. We’d all have our fill and still have enough to take home to everyone else,” said my uncle Ralph and his wife Debbie.
This last summer we were lucky if we pulled up any crab.
Paul Williams, Shellfish Biologist for the Suquamish tribe, has been following the Dungeness crab population in Hood Canal. According to Williams, the crab population has plummeted from 700,000 a few years ago to 150,000 today. He’s not sure if it’s from overharvest or just a cyclic drop in the population, but he intends to find out.
The tribe is beginning a study this March to find out if the crab in Hood Canal are coming from within the Canal or from the ocean as well. This will help determine if the cause is from illegal crabbing and over-harvesting, a degraded environment, or a natural population cycle.
If the population decline is from overharvest, my family hopes that serious action will be taken to address the problem, such as shutting down the crab season for a year or two.
The health of Hood Canal means a lot to my family, and not just for crab. There have been countless nights that found us surrounding a fire on the beach, toasting marshmallows and listening to the waves rolling in. On summer days we swim in waters warmed by the tide coming in over hot rocks. My cousins, two sisters, and I like to float along with a pair of goggles on and watch the tiny crabs and fish underneath us.
Bringing newcomers to the cabin for a feast of crab is like initiating them into my family. It’s an experience no one forgets. I look forward to sharing this with my future family, and hope that it helps my kids connect with their cousins, aunts, uncles, grandparents, and the Sound. I worry how disappearing crab populations will affect my dream of doing this. Generations of my family experienced that lifestyle, and I hope it can continue for years to come.
Our cabin has helped create strong family bonds as well as an avid desire to keep Hood Canal and the creatures in it alive and healthy.
“I was in heaven when it’d be a warm night, fresh crab, and a nice sunset,” said Uncle Ralph. It’s something we all agree with.