Crab fishing is a very exciting activity, as I’ll find out later. The closer the trap gets to the surface, the more intriguing it all becomes. It’s a nice way to feel the ardor and you can actually bet - on zero, if the you think the cage will be empty, on the amount of crabs, their kinds and other fish bonuses.
While the last preparations for the fishing were being made, I was standing by a breakage looking at an old ZIL (an old Soviet truck) hauling our boat to the water. All the machines are literally ancient, the old car’s engine isn’t fast enough to start, the boats seem to be a few decades old. But it still working.
It’s very chilly on Sakhalin in May, so I was provided with a huge warm waterproof parka, men’s pants and a pair of rubber boots. It, of course, didn’t fit me at all, but fisherwomen are rare guests there, crab fishing is a men’s thing.
The weather was changing rapidly, in an hour the horizon seemed to be rubbed out near Gulf of Patience, nothing was visible. The wind was sometimes clearing the space out, so we could see some crooked pines by the shore and the sea lions swimming nearby.
It is a common knowledge that the ice often gets close to the shores of Sakhalin. It emerges suddenly and can block the sea in a distance of about 300 kilometers to Tyuleny Island. Then, when the strong wind starts blowing, the ice disappears just as quickly. There was no ice and I didn’t see the killer whales which sometimes move rather close to the shore.
The briefing on crab fishing is short enough and then there’s a practical part. There are five kinds of crabs. The most famous and the most expensive one is the Red King crab, it is also the blandest one, as the locals say. The most delicious ones are the Blue crab, loved by quite few people and the Hanasaki crab. Pilumnus hirtellus is especially loved by the Japanese, because of its extremely delicious liver. The Striped crab is pretty rare to be caught.
The water is super cold in may, about two degrees Celsius. Even if you jump out of the boat wearing a swim vest, you won’t be able to hold on for more than two minutes. “Put the vest on or we’ll not set out”, says the head of “Aquamarine” base, Valeriy Chernomaz, he’s also the captain of our ship, setting out for the crab hunting.
The company which organizes the crab fishing must follow certain rules - placing the traps of particular size only in legal zones, not hunting during the months when it’s prohibited. Valeriy Chernomaz follows all the rules, although he admits he may be the only one doing so.
Orange - fact
Crab is the biggest crustacean in the Far East. It can reach the length of 1,5 metres and have a weight of 7 kilograms. Its lifespan is about 20 years.
- We,ll catch a dog-fish if we’re lucky! - said the captain.
- A dog-fish? ,- I asked.
- Yeah. The Eastern wolffish. It’s freaking delicious.
- I’m sure we’re going to be lucky! - I said, dreaming to see the rare fish, - We’ll catch it!
- Ahh, you women. Who talks that way before fishing, - I was told off by the captain.
While sailing in a cloud of fog till the first GPS marks made by Valeriy, I was fighting a slight sea sickness. Actually, I immediately forgot about it, when we reached the first point in half an hour. The fishermen prefer to set the traps using GPS, it guarantees that the equipment will be safe from poachers. Using the anchor hook one of the fishermen caught the rope deftly and started pulling the trap up. I was excited.
The crabs inhabit an area that’s about 2,5 kilometers away from the shore and 20-30 meters deep, that’s why they can be only caught with traps. The Hanasaki crab is the only one that can be caught with hands in shallow waters. The Hanasaki females spawn by the shore but it’s illegal to catch them.
Crabbing is prohibited from the 1st of June to the 1st of September on Sakhalin.
There were a lot of crabs in the trap. Only a few crabs were considered fine though, others were thrown back out. According to the rules, female crabs and young should be released. It’s necessary to think about the future, but the rule doesn’t seem to work for the poachers. We were following the law, however, and all the females caught in our traps were instantly released and back to the bottom, after making a few pirouettes in the air, to continue their important mission of reproduction. Only the strong male crabs get in the crab hell - a pot with boiling sea water. If it only was like this in our life.
- And how do you distinguish between the males and females? - I asked.
- Females have round butt, like all the girls, and males have a triangular one, said Valeriy laughing.
After I had found the crab of the same gender as me, I studied the shape of its butt and sent it back to the sea.
Actually, the major part of the catch is thrown back to the sea, there are only about ten crabs which can be kept. But it’s more than enough for a big team dinner. Showing a bit of disgust the fishermen throw out poisonous скорпен that are caught in every fifth trap.
One of the traps was heavy, it was obvious that something special was on the way. Inside there was something that made the trap go spinning. Through the grid I saw something looking like a muraena. But this fish was even more disgusting. It was the The Eastern wolffish. We had caught it! It was of an average size but the captain was happy. It was the catch he had expected. After a long bloody fight the tiger was calmed down. It was a graphic picture. The boat floor was covered in blood which had to be cleaned with buckets. I was just on time to pick up my backpack.
The Eastern wolffish can reach a length of one meter. Adult fish can attack any creature larger than themselves, also, easily crash shells with their teeth.
There were so many traps it was impossible to give an accurate number, I think, there were about 30. I had also lost in time, the twilight was coming, but I was so involved in the process that turned out to be incredibly interesting. It’s the best you can do on Sakhalin, it’s really worth coming there.
After picking up the traps and sorting out the crabs the fishermen filled plastic cans with pieces of fresh fish and placed it on the bottom of the sea. Valeriy had changed the navigator marks. We turned back to the shore where an old ZIL was waiting for us, standing half size in the water.
The crabs were cooked in the backyard. I was learning to peel their shell and legs using scissors, I was only able to get the meat by myself on the second try. But the meat! You’ll never try something like this in Moscow as only the Red King crab and the Hanasaki crab are transported there. But the best crabs are those which are fresh boiled in salty sea water. That’s why they are usually cooked right after they had been caught, 10-15 minuets is enough to taste the best crab in your life!
It’s not a problem to buy crabs in Yuzhno - Sakhalinsk. Just before our flight we checked the local market out to have a look at the delicacies and the prices. It’s cheaper to buy crabs straight from fishermen as the price per one kilogram of boiled crabs reaches 1000 roubles at the market. Ready peeled crab legs are a bit more expensive, 1700 roubles per kilogram. Pink salmon, chum salmon and masu salmon are also sold there. You can also find oysters, mussels, scallops, sea cucumbers and, of course, caviar are sold there in a huge variety.
Though all the salesmen have the opportunity to put the purchases in a thermobag, it’s better to eat the sea food where it is caught. And it’s even better to catch it yourself!
The price for crabbing: 4000 roubles per person per day.
Thanks to the guys from RocketGo company for this wonderful experience.
More about Sakhalin here.
English version by Valeria Anisimova: @valerianix_