Ever Wondered Where Your Crab Comes From?

Every time I drop by Fisherman’s Wharf, the marina is full of fishing boats. It makes me wonder about the health of the local fisheries, whether anyone is making money, and whether I might just be missing something seeing all the boats around. Turns out I just never wake up early enough. “These guys are early risers,” says Tim Webster, owner of Hi-Gear Seafood. “They’ll often be leaving the dock at 4:30 in the morning.” Count me out.

Anyone who shops for fresh crab down at the wharf will probably have run into Tim or one of his staff at some point, and in fact EAT talked to him once before to learn how to pick and cook crab. His company Hi-Gear Seafood is a crab purchaser and reseller, acting as a middleman between the sometimes surly, idiosyncratic local fishermen, grocery stores, and wholesalers. It’s the perfect pre-retirement gig for a guy who spent over 25 years dropping traps and negotiating prices off the back of his own boat — which also makes him a great resource for locals, tourists, and food writers curious about where their crab cakes come from.


The concept of crab fishing is simple, but doing it as a commercially requires a lot of experience, knowledge, and hard work. Fishermen will lay traps (or “pots”) in “skates” of 15 traps, which are strings 1800 feet long. A quick boat is critical for spreading out your traps and covering lots of ground, with many fishermen pulling traps from Sidney harbour to Nanaimo in one day. “The guys we deal with will cover 75 miles each way in a day, and if you’re doing that in a boat that only does seven knots…” Tim laughed. “You’re never gonna see land again!”

In the areas just off the island, skates are marked with buoys that are tracked by the boat’s computer system. This helps fishermen find their traps when they return to check on them, and keeps tabs on where the best spots are. “I have a history of what I’ve caught on particular lines going back years, so I could say you know what, that wasn’t very good, but I remember it was pretty good over in that next bay in 110 feet of water, why don’t we go throw it in there and see what happens.” The plotting computer also reports to an onboard monitoring system that keeps track of boat speed, GPS and RFID codes on each trap, which ensures that all the federal guidelines are being followed.


The traps will then be left to “soak” for between one and eighteen days before the required cotton “rot cords” decay and open the traps. This means many fishermen have thousands of dollars of equipment left unattended on the seafloor between trips, and the pressure of gambling on your license and equipment can be huge. Crab boat licenses are based on the length of the boat in order to limit their size, and one for a standard 35-foot boat can run to $700,000. After a $250,000 boat, $65,000 refrigerated truck, crab pots, buoys, ground line, and bait jars, you’re looking at an easy $1.2 million before ever laying your first trap.

For this reason, Tim says, most of the successful crab fishermen own a couple of boats and have been in the business for years. “I really like dealing with the fishermen because I was one for so long,” he says. “I know what they’re thinking and how they think and I understand completely what they’re up against.” Between inclement weather and 14-16 hour days, the life of a crab fisherman is no cakewalk. “Fishermen by and large are great fellows, very hard working,” says Tim. “It’s tough to describe what a hard job it is. I did it for whatever, 24 years, and I’m suffering for it now — I have trouble getting out of a chair.”


After hauling in their pots, crabbers will check the catch for undersized, female or soft-shell crabs, then reset the gear and bring their catch to a local dock to offload them to a purchaser like Hi-Gear. The fee is then negotiated based on the current market price. Tim’s guys then sort the crab by weight, band their claws and do a second cull to ensure all the catch is marketable.

In the three decades that Tim has been involved with the BC crab fishery, it’s evolved from a nearly unregulated free-for-all to a highly sophisticated industry. “It really was the Wild West, and there were no rules,” he says. “It was kinda fun because anyone could get into it; you could buy a fishing license for a couple of thousand dollars, fish as many traps as you wanted, more or less wherever.” Nowadays the crab fishery has restricted entry licensing, meaning there are only 220 boats allowed to catch crab commercially all across BC. And with regulations like electronic tracking, logbooks, boat length licenses, and bans on undersized, soft-shell and female crab fishing, the Dungeness crab fishery continues to be a healthy and sustainable resource. “It’s a wild product, it’s a sustainable fishery, and that’s really what me and the other guys here are all about, is keeping it local as possible.”

Crab is available year-round, even during the spring when a three-month slowdown period helps protect moulting soft-shell crabs. Drop by the Hi-Gear on weekends at Fisherman’s Wharf and try some for yourself — tell them EAT Mag sent you.


Hi-Gear Seafood

Fisherman’s Wharf

12 Erie St, Dock G



Written By:

Vancouver-born photographer, writer and designer Sol Kauffman has had his hands dirty in restaurant kitchens for years, washing dishes and slinging pizzas. In 2008 he moved to Victoria to pursue a BFA in Creative Writing at UVic ...

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