Crabbing as Catharsis: The truth behind the hunt for food buried in the process

By the third hour the rain began to fall. Not torrentially, but enough to test my resolve and shake the optimism with which I had set out that afternoon. This persistent new wet from the sky contributed to the general sogginess of the whole affair, the ocean kicking up a mist as the tide came in with emphatic resolve.

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I took shelter under the wooden canopy supplied by the municipality, an exercise in benchmark-setting governmental foresight that also included two hefty tables onto which I had spilled my novice gear: a zipper-equipped cooler bag, a plastic-lidded container containing coarsely hacked, medication free chicken parts, and a red oven mitt emblazoned with a Christmas design, the only glove-format safety option available from a kitchen in which silicone oven tools prevail.

Perched atop a mussel and barnacle studded pole protruding some three and half metres from the ocean next to the pier stood a weather-worn heron, the avian equivalent of its shoulders shrugged high, steeling the bird against the battering wind. On a neighbouring pole, a highly stylized sculpture of a fisherman with an exaggerated smile and cartoonishly bulging eyes was made all the more absurd by the ratty, aimlessly squawking seagull perched on the sculpture’s head.

I thought of early childhood birthdays as I sat there, of how I had fewer kids over for my parties than others because I never wanted meals from Pizza Hut or play sessions at Chuck E. Cheese, but rather interactive feasts of boiled, shell-on Dungeness crab tipped out on a newspaper-lined tabletop with ramekins of clarified butter, a crusty baguette or two, and possibly some asparagus, the same combination that informs one of my favourite meals still today, with the addition of a steely Chablis or a buttery Meursault, depending on my mood.

I thought of how my father was a champion of these meals and led by example, in the days before his mental illness took too firm a hold, before substance abuse, and ultimately transience, increasingly kept him away from celebrations like these until only the memory of his prowess at extracting whole chunks of claw meat intact remained around the dinner table. He is properly gone now, having succumbed to cancer- related breathing complications in a subsidized hospice in 2018, but to me he was lost ages before that, estranged and strange to me before I even hit adolescence. I learned of his death a day or two after it happened, the first news of his whereabouts to surface in years. Despite my well-published contact information through various professional efforts, his caregivers were unable to reach me in time as my father grew increasingly closer to the end, lapsing in and out of lucidness under the influence of heavy-duty palliative doses of analgesics.

My first reactions following news of his death were anger, then sadness, then desperate sadness, then resignation to the news, my highly personal loss frustratingly not immune to the well established phases of grief I have read about for years. As a private ritual to commemorate the fond, thankfully prevalent memories from more than three decades ago, I bought some crab and recreated the most consistently shared meal between us.

But out there very recently, on the pier at Davis Bay on the Sunshine Coast, looking at the severe seasonal whitecaps of the expansive Pacific, I eventually turned my attention back to my present life, as a father, a present father, to my three kids, with whom I had set out on this boatless crabbing foray earlier in the day. I had returned the kids to the warmth of home an hour or so before packing it in myself, the afternoon light fading quickly (thanks Daylight Savings Time, why don’t you fall back on this?) and the frustration of catching and re-releasing undersized crabs eroding their finite resolve. It felt important to me to include them in this effort, to attempt, at least, to afford them the satisfaction of securing their own dinner and the hands-on understanding of what it takes to get non plant-based foodstuffs to the table.

Crabbing
Others on the pier came and went, some successfully nabbing specimens that measured larger than the requisite 16.5 centimetres across the widest section of the back, some going home empty-handed. - Chris Dagenais, North Shore News

I have long had the nagging feeling that as someone who eats everything, I ought to do more of the catching of that everything myself. Maybe it’s an age thing, but I suspect it has more to do with a certain introspection that must inevitably follow from a lifetime of eating store-bought supplies. My good friend Gil grew up in a Guyanese household in which pigs of the right age were slaughtered, bled, and butchered in his backyard, following which nearly 100% of the animal was used for sustenance.

This tradition, which involved his whole family, is so foreign to my own upbringing in which I have a vivid memory, for example, of feeling terribly upset when a sparrow one time flew into the clean glass pane of my bedroom window and broke its neck, after which it lay twitching on the grass below my bedroom. The visceral mortality of that scene felt too much to bear to me at the time, but I would put even odds on the accuracy of the memory that dinner that night was chicken. I suspect that the idea that death, or more accurately, slaughter, as a reality of the contemporary western diet feels hazily distant to the average consumer. I have been salmon fishing and have clubbed strong, beautiful specimens that were hauled into the boat. I have put a knife through the upper abdomen of a crab and pulled sharply forwards through the head before putting the catch into the pot. I have pried open oysters from the ocean and shucked them on the spot, slurping down their briny flesh on the spot. But I have never felled a land animal, ended its life for the purposes of a meal. Why not? Is there enough animal flesh out there already without my own contribution? Would it be a futile and ultimately indulgent gesture to hunt? Or is it my obligation to understand what it means, first hand, to end a life for my own benefit if I intend to keep eating animals? And what if I can’t do it when presented the opportunity? Do I forfeit my rights as an omnivore? I am wrestling with these questions, readers, and am not sure where the resolution will take me.

Others on the pier came and went, some successfully nabbing specimens that measured larger than the requisite 16.5 centimetres across the widest section of the back, some going home empty-handed. All of these compatriots were mutually encouraging, offering tips and tricks to novices like me and discussing best times of day for this sort of activity, as well as the best bait with which to lure crabs (popular opinion seems to dictate that turkey necks and chicken scraps left out of the fridge over night are the most effective).

It wasn’t until the next morning, before the crack of dawn, that I achieved what I set out to do. In the dark, in the rain, with my two oldest kids by my side, I hauled in three hefty specimens, up to a kilo and a quarter each, measuring more than 17 centimetres at their widest points. The elation on the face of my eldest, The Boy, as he shouted “Let’s Gooooo!” (a favourite expression within his peer group), was infectious. I beamed with something akin to pride. Not pride in the besting of a living creature via human ingenuity, but in the bonding between me and my own kids, the strong, albeit indirect, connection back to my own childhood fondness for these scuttling decapods, a connection to what they represented to me then, and to what they represent now: a peace with the past, a catharsis, a part of my identity.

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To those looking to try out crabbing themselves, a B.C. Tidal Water Sport Fishing License (required) can be secured online from the Government of Canada Fisheries and Oceans website for $21 plus GST ($22.05) pac.dfo-mpo.gc.ca. I scored basic, clamshell-style crabbing traps (ideal for pier crabbing) for $18 each from the local hardware shop. I highly recommend a crab measuring tool as well as it is much easier to use than a tape measure on a writhing crab and you are obligated to ensure you only keep specimens of a suitable size.

 

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