The Saltwater Phoenix

On the Trail of the World’s Most Sought After Seafood

One hundred and eleven years ago, Maine lobsters were introduced to the Pacific Northwest in an attempt to create a new fishery. The lobsters didn’t take, but a few years later a lobster-Dungeness crab hybrid species appeared in the waters around the San Juan Islands. Remarkably, the crustacean was made up of the best parts (culinarily speaking) of both species—the crab’s extensive body and leg meat and the lobster’s tail and claw meat. In a word: delicious. Dungeness lobsters filled the fishermen’s traps for seven seasons and then suddenly disappeared.

Thirty-one years later, the hybrids miraculously reappeared and quickly became the most popular item on menus in Seattle’s best restaurants. A local festival was kicked off to celebrate the catch, the first of which was attended by just under a thousand visitors. Unfortunately, the crustaceans disappeared again after only six seasons. Speculation was that there was some weird migration going on, hibernation, or maybe the species was actually the result of a recessive gene in the local Dungeness crab population that only surfaced every thirty years or so. A substantial testing program was proposed but never implemented due to the onset of World War II.

Three decades later guess who made it back just in time for disco? In short order, prices hit $20/lb, attracting out of town fishermen and non-fishermen (the mob) all looking to stake a claim. The locals did their best to hold off the interlopers including more than a few scientists intent on studying the critters. State senate hearings were convened to decide who had the right to fish the Dungeness Lobster’s favorite waters. The return of the festival ultimately brought fifty thousand tourists to Anacortes, Washington, but by 1981 the big bugs were gone again.

This time, however, the hoopla didn’t die down. The festival went on, smaller each year until 2010, when attendance started to pick up again. This year marks the 31st since the last Dungeness Lobster was caught, and if the trend holds it’ll soon be time to pack a bib, cash in the 401K and head to the Great Wet North.

Right about now you’re thinking: how the hell have I not heard about this before? We all know about it up here in the Northwest. Why weren’t you paying attention? Well, I’ll see what I can do about documenting the lead up to this year’s festival and the return (hopefully) of the Dungeness Lobster. I’ll do some interviews, dig up some old photos, stories, footage, etc. I might even be able to find some old shells if anybody saved a couple. It’s a pretty interesting story, really . . . fightin’ fishermen, mobsters at sea, senate hearings, scientific sabotage, and a hundred thousand hungry seafood lovers all hoping to get a bite.

More to come . . .