SAN FRANCISCO -- San Francisco's quintessential meal is fresh Dungeness crab, a glass of chardonnay, and sourdough bread.
Like lobster in Maine or shrimp in the Gulf Coast states, Dungeness is a symbol of this city's culinary delights. Its image is the logo for Fisherman's Wharf.
Now local crab fishermen and connoisseurs worry that one of the most beloved delicacies in the city is in trouble, a victim of too many boats pulling up too many crabs all at once.
The anger reached the boiling point after a crush of fishing boats during the season's frenetic first week in mid-November produced a Dungeness glut so large that fishermen say it led to the wholesale dumping of dead or dying crabs into San Francisco Bay. Dungeness crabs, chunky-looking creature with a brownish shell the color of faded brick, are supposed to be alive when they are sold to restaurants and processors.
For food lovers in the San Francisco area, the wasted catch means their chances of buying local Dungeness for the rest of the eight-month season are slim because most of the larger crabs that fall within the legal size limit are gone.
''The people of the Bay Area need to be outraged because a lot of their winter crabs have been taken and wasted," fisherman Larry Collins, vice president of the San Francisco Crab Boat Owners Association, said. ''It's greed out of control."
Many longtime local crab fishermen said too many out-of-town crab boats bearing too many traps flooded the market all at once. Seafood processors could not handle the volume, and many crabs died aboard boats before they could be unloaded, they said.
The fishing frenzy has led to a renewed call for restrictions on the number of crab traps, or crab pots, allowed in the waters.
''If they restricted the fishing gear, the crabs would be harvested throughout the season, as opposed to just at the beginning of the season," said Zeke Grader, executive director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations.
The state can impose fines if it confirms that crabs were wasted. The fishermen have taken their protests and video footage of the docks to the California Fish and Game Commission, which plans to gather more testimony on crab dumping and trap limits at its March meeting, said John Fischer, assistant executive director.
San Francisco's crab industry was once dominated by small, local boats carrying 200 to 300 traps each. In recent years, encouraged by abundant crab harvests, a growing number of fishermen from California's northern coast, Oregon, and Washington have arrived with larger boats that often carry more than 1,000 traps.
The Legislature passed a bill imposing a 250-pot limit per vessel for two years, but Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed it.