by Megan Ruoff
“It’s a crab, it’s a buoy, no, it’s Joe!” my friend Sanya joked, reciting a line from a Deadliest Catch episode that we had happened upon while channel surfing one Thanksgiving Day.
“Bye Joe!” I replied, keeping in perfect sync with her. We erupted in laughter. Deep sea crab fishermen must be crazy, I thought. They act like it is completely normal when a crewmember gets swept overboard into the thrashing ocean, possibly never to be seen again. Yet, the ocean is almost always dotted with the lights from crab boats during the season. So what is the allure of this seemingly dangerous and stressful job?
* * *
A steel bridge loomed imposingly over endless blue water, stretching out so far that it disappeared into the fog. Seagulls flew overhead and the occasional snorting match broke out between sea lions lounging on top of each other on a partially sunken dock. I breathed in the scent of fresh river water mixed with salty ocean air as I sat on the outside Clemente’s restaurant and shared fish and chips with my father. On our left, the mighty Columbia River rushed by on its way to meeting the Pacific Ocean. On our right, cars rolled past worn-down gas stations and countless seafood shacks. We come to the port city of Astoria, 2015-2016’s largest supplier of Dungeness crab in Oregon, so that I could meet some real, live commercial crab fishermen.
On an overcast Thursday morning, I met with Captain Brian Petersen, who has been crabbing out of Astoria for years. Although he did not grow up with a fishing background, Brian fell in love with fishing at age seventeen when his friend invited him to try it, and he has been captaining crab boats ever since. Stacks upon stacks of crab pots appeared as I followed Brian’s truck into the parking lot of a small warehouse. In the month of November, when I visited, Brian and his crew spend most of their time at this warehouse doing gear preparation. Brian twisted wires, attached ropes to buoys, and tied cotton strings to traps the entire time I was with him. Less than one month away from the opening of the season, time was of the essence. Between October 31, when pink shrimp season ends, and December 1, when dungeness crabbing season starts, Brian and his four-man crew have to inspect, repair, and ready 700 crab pots for use. These pots, which weigh 120 pounds empty, are cylindrical structures made of steel rods surrounded by stainless steel mesh. The outer steel rods are wrapped in rubber to make handling the pot easier. Crabs are attracted, by smell, to bait, such as squid, fish, mink, and clams, that is secured in a mesh bag or plastic container in the middle of the pot. There are two large entry ports that funnel the crabs into the pot, and two smaller escape holes (four and a quarter inches in diameter) that let crabs that are not regulation size to exit the pot. “At night,” Brian’s wife Kari told me, “we watch TV and tie cotton string onto traps.” Commercial crab pots are required to have a five-inch area where steel mesh is replaced by cotton twine. The particular cotton twine that is required (120 thread size untreated cotton) is designed to disintegrate within forty-five days. This ensures that traps lost at sea will not “ghost” crabs (keep them trapped without food until they die). (“Anatomy of a Crab Pot”)
Being ready to go and having everything running smoothly when the season begins is imperative for Brian and other dungeness crab fishermen. Dungeness crabbing is one of the few remaining derby fisheries, a time limited event where crabbers race to take in as much catch as they can before the fishery closes. “You can’t afford to have a breakdown in the first two weeks,” Brian stressed. Eighty percent of the dungeness crab caught each season is caught in the first four weeks of the season. Hence, Brian and his crew have to get as much preparation as they can done before the season starts, so they can maximize time spent fishing in those crucial weeks.
Seventy two hours before the dungeness crabbing season begins on December 1, Brian and his crew carefully load the prepared pots onto the Captain Raleigh boat and head down the Columbia River towards the Pacific Ocean. The Captain Raleigh, which Brian has owned since 1990, consists of a wheelhouse, a small kitchen, a bathroom, two rooms (used for sleeping and storage), an engine room, and a large work deck. During the season, when the crew is pulling up traps, a winch, conveyor belt, work table, and collapsable porch roof are attached to the boat. When the the boat goes out to set the traps (before the season begins), however, every inch of space on the boat is needed for traps, so all these things are removed. During this time, the deck is piled so high and tightly with traps that the crew can hardly maneuver. By starting with setting the traps piled in the middle of the boat in the water, and then working their way out, the crew slowly carve out a work space.
Because there is no way of knowing exactly where the crabs will be each year, on this initial trip, Brian and his crew spread their lines of traps over a thirty mile area. Each trap is attached to an individual line, and the traps are dropped one after another into sixty to three hundred feet of water (“Commercial Crab Fishing”). After the traps have soaked and the season opens, the crew spend the first thirty hours checking all of the traps. Then they return to the traps that are in areas with lots of crabs and pull them up every six to eight hours. Traps that are in “dead areas” are left until Brian has time to go get them and move them; one can not waste time pulling up empty pots.
Brian’s crew members are on deck almost all day, running and moving pots. They fish twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, until either the boat’s holding tank is full, or the weather becomes too rough. According to Brian, the hours are the hardest part of the job. On the boat, you never sleep, you just nap. “I try to give my guys a three hour nap every twenty-four hours,” Brian said, “but that is about the maximum sleep they will get.” Brian, the captain of the boat, works until he literally can not stay awake any longer. “A nap is expensive when you can be pulling in $1000 an hour” he explained. “I’ve gone five days without sleeping before.” Despite these working conditions, however, Brian does not think that his job is particularly dangerous. “It’s dangerous because you are on a moving boat on the ocean” he told me, “but it’s no more dangerous than other jobs, like logging.” Brian takes certain safety precautions, such as giving each of his crewmembers inflatable suspenders to wear, and in thirty years, he has never had any serious injuries on his boat. “Some guys have been knocked out or gone overboard” he shrugged, but apparently that is just par for the course.
“The worst part of my job,” Brian told me “is that you never know what you are going to make.” There have been seasons when Brian has lost money, and others where he has made quite a lot, but there is almost no way of knowing how successful he will be each year. Bad weather is a huge, unpredictable factor for fishermen like Brian. The Columbia River Bar (where the Pacific Ocean meets the Columbia River in Astoria) is widely recognized as one of the most challenging and dangerous navigated water passages in the world (Columbia River Bar Pilots). Under normal conditions, there are ten to twelve foot swells and twenty knots of wind. If swells reach twenty feet, the Coast Guard closes the bar. The closing, however, is taken as a mere suggestion by fishermen, who have to cross the bar to make money. Once, the Coast Guard closed the bar and told Brian and other fishermen that they would not re-evaluate it until they could see it in clear daylight the next morning. Brian could not wait until daylight. Up against stark competition, he has to be aggressive to succeed. “The Coast Guard can tell you the bar is closed, but they can’t stop you.” What a closed bar really means to fishermen is that if they choose to go out, the Coast Guard will not come and rescue them if they are in trouble. This particular time, Brian knew he could cross the bar, so he checked with his insurance agent, who told him “do what you do,” and headed out to sea, in the middle of the night. There were two other crab boats close behind him.
Aside from bad weather, seasickness can also plague fishermen. People can become deathly ill from being out on the rough ocean for that long. Josh, one of Brian’s crewmembers battled seasickness for his first two years on the job. “He was throwing up all the time,” Brian said.
Why didn’t he quit? I thought, that must have been miserable.
Seeming to have read my mind, Josh, who was working on a crab trap a little ways away from Brian and me, came over and explained: “I just didn’t want to work at McDonalds. So I got over it [the seasickness].”
Josh’s comment made me realize how far commercial fishing shows are from depicting the truth. Crabbing is not always some grand adventure or barely-make-it-out-alive experience; most of the time it is a person’s job. Steve Fick, an Astoria based crab and fish processor, echoed my thoughts, saying that most fishermen are first and foremost businessmen. Steve does not believe that TV shows, such as Deadliest Catch, capture the true nature of most fishermen. The events on the shows are dramatized and the characters are embellished; they do not represent the norm. Brian agreed, saying there was not actually that much drama in the job.
Aside from over-dramatization, in Brian’s opinion, the biggest misconception about commercial fishermen is that they are not interested in preserving the natural resource. “We are, in fact, extremely interested in responsible stewardship” Brian told me. Most fishermen (Brian estimates ninety percent) come from fishing families, so the continued success of the fishery is important to them. They want future generations to be able to fish as well. So far, the dungeness crab industry has been extremely successful and sustainable.
Commercial crabbing has taken place on the West Coast since 1848, when it started off the coast of San Francisco. Regulations on dungeness crabbing have been mostly the same for over 100 years. For example, fishermen in the early 1900s were only allowed to keep male crabs that measured more than six inches across their shell, and now fishermen are only allowed to keep male crabs that measure over six and a quarter inches. In 1995, a limited entry permit system was implemented to cap the number of boats on the water off the Oregon Coast. This system aims to control overcapitalization and overfishing to protect the wellbeing of the dungeness crab species as a whole (“About the Dungeness Crab Fishery”). If you want to go into the Dungeness crabbing business, you have to purchase a permit from someone who already has one. Permits can range from $100,000 to $140,000, and can be difficult to obtain.
In 2006, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife set an additional limitation on the number of crab pots each permit holder could fish. This was implemented after, according to the Oregon Crab Commission, “members of the commercial crab industry voiced concerns about derby-style behavior during the winter opening of the season and problems associated with excess gear in this fishery” (“Marine Resource Program Overview”). Under the new regulation, there are three tiers of permits that grant boats the right to fish either 200, 300, or 500 crab pots (“About the Dungeness Crab Fishery”). This pot limiting program reduced the number of pots fished in Oregon from 200,000 to 120,000 in its first year. In the 2015-2016 season, approximately 112,000 pots were fished (“Excellent Ex-Vessel Value, Average Harvest”).
In a way that is different from fish, Dungeness crabs are not harmed in the catching process, and it is easy to distinguish a male crab from a female crab (male crabs have a long and thin abdomen and female crabs have a wide and round abdomen). This makes it possible for female crabs and juvenile male crabs to be released back into the ocean with no damage. Furthermore, male Dungeness crabs are sexually mature and begin breeding two years before they grow large enough to be kept per regulations, and females are never harvested, so the reproductive capabilities of the species is protected (“About Dungeness Crab”). Aside from regulations on the size and sex of crabs people are allowed to keep, there is also a regulation on the time of year that commercial crabbing is permitted to reduce mortality rates of released crabs when they are most vulnerable.
The hard shells of Dungeness crabs do not grow as the rest of their body does, so when their bodies become too large for their shells they molt. Right before a crab molts, it absorbs some of the calcium carbonate from its shell into its underskin. Then it secretes enzymes to separate from its old shell, and creates a paper-like new shell. The crab’s new shell takes on water to expand. Crabs are arthropods, so they rely on their shells for skeletal support. Newly molten crab’s shells are so weak that the crabs cannot walk for thirty-two to sixty hours. Crabs remain vulnerable because of their weak shells for two or three months. If they are caught during this time, there is a greater likelihood that they will sustain injury or even die (Oregon Agriculture in the Classroom Foundation). Additionally, during this period crabs have a lower percentage of meat in their bodies, and their meat is of lesser quality than in the months when they are hard shelled. Because male crabs molt in late summer and early fall, the Dungeness crab season is closed from August 15-November 31.
From a financial standpoint, these regulations seem to be working well. Dungeness crab is considered the most valuable single species fishery in Oregon. Over the past twenty years, commercial crabbers have brought in an average of sixteen million pounds of crab per season, in turn contributing $50 million in revenue to the coastal economy (“Marine Resource Program Overview”). In the 2015-2016 season, the average price per pound for Dungeness crab (at the dock) was $3.60, which contributed to the highest ex-vessel value ever for Dungeness crab. Out of all the Oregon ports, Astoria saw the most crab (4.4 million pounds, or 31% of the overall harvest for the state) come to its docks (“Excellent Ex-Vessel Value, Average Harvest”). Brian is happy with the current regulations and he think the State of Oregon does a good job managing the Dungeness crab fishery.
* * *
Rain dripped off my hood and splatted onto the deck as I jumped up and down to keep myself from shivering. After a long, cold, and dreary ride on the Columbia River, suddenly the crew kicked into action. Jeff, who was wearing a bright orange rain slicker and yellow, waterproof suspenders skillfully leaned over the edge of the boat and came up a second later with a buoy on the end of the long, wooden harpoon pole he was holding. He quickly whipped the buoy, and the rope attached to it, around the circular, power-driven winch above the side of the boat, and the winch began spinning, pulling up the trap. When the crab-filled trap emerged from the water, Jeff, and another slicker-clad crew member, Josh, reached over and pulled the trap onto the boat together. Their hands danced automatically as they unhooked bungees, unclipped bait boxes, and flipped the trap over, dumping the crabs inside onto a conveyor belt.
I stood, waiting with my metal crab measuring tool in hand, at the edge of a large metal work table (with walls to keep the crabs contained) where the crabs were deposited by the conveyor belt. Brad flipped the crabs on their bellies and slid them across the table towards me. I pressed my left hand down on the back of a crab’s shell, keeping it in place and preventing it from pinching me, and fitted one side of the measurer just in front of the point on one side of the crab’s shell. Tilting the measurer towards the other side of the crab, I could tell that the crab’s shell was more than six and a quarter inches across (the legal limit), and thus tossed it in a large, white tub, with the other keepers. If Brian’s crew were commercial crabbing, rather than sport crabbing in support of a charity (as was the case when I accompanied the crew), they would put the legal crabs in a live holding tank. Crabs breath oxygen, and can survive out of water for a few hours. But, since Brian and his crew stay on the water for days at a time, their catch must be kept in water. Crabs deplete the oxygen in water quite quickly, so fresh seawater is pumped through the tank every eight minutes “We don’t know exactly how much the tank holds,” one of the crewmembers told me, “but I think we’ve put like 58,000 pounds of crab in there before.”
While I measured the crabs, Zac, the “new, new guy” on the boat scooped chopped-up fish and squid into empty bait boxes and bags. He then clipped the readied bait containers onto a holding area so that Josh and Jeff could quickly attach them to the emptied traps. During the season, Brian and his crew trade Dungeness crab for other fishermen’s catches, which they use as bait. This was Zac’s first time on a crab boat. He was the “150 dollar-a-day guy.” Zac would work twenty four hours a day on the boat, and only get paid $150 a day. He would, however, get to learn the tricks of the trade, make valuable connections, and be the next guy in line, in case one of the other crewmembers messes up. “It’s how you get into the business” Josh told me. “I was lucky, and only had to be the $150 a day guy for one day, but some guys have to do it for a long time.”
The thing that stood out to me most about the crew was their friendly demeanor. They ate pizza, listened to music, and chatted with passengers eager for information. Jeff generously lent me high quality seal skin gloves that his mother had gotten him for Christmas. Brad playfully threw his pizza crust across the boat at Josh. Brad also gave Zac tips on filling the bait bags, and a heads up whenever he accidentally ventured into the harpoon pole’s line of fire. Despite their differing levels of experience and amount of time working for Brian, the crew all seemed to get along and share a sense of camaraderie.
On our way back into port, I climbed the narrow stairs up to the wheelhouse to visit Brian. He sat in a large, spinny chair, and was wearing a long sleeved t-shirt and jeans. To Brian’s left were two screens that showed a map of the river, and a livestream of the engine room and deck. Dozens of wires zip tied together draped around the room and coiled on the desk in front of Brian; they seemed to come out of every wall and the ceiling. Two pairs of old glasses hung, within my reach, from wires in the low ceiling, and bottles of Tums and Advil littered the back shelf. Despite there being a large steering wheel in the middle of the front desk, Brian preferred to click a small joystick left or right every few seconds to steer the ship. He casually showed me the three front windows that shattered in a storm one day and he chatted with another passenger about fishing. As we made our way back up river, Brian would periodically point out hidden sandbars to our left, and good fishing spots to our right. He clearly knew this river like the back of his hand.
While watching Deadliest Catch, it was hard for me to imagine why anyone would risk their lives for what was portrayed as such a miserable job. However, when I was “working” on the Captain Raleigh, I gained a new understanding of the liberation a job such as crabbing can provide. On the boat, I got into a rhythm: flip the crab on its stomach, press down on the shell with the left hand, measure with the right hand, and toss it in the bucket. The ocean breeze cleared my head. By the sixth or seventh pot, most of the time I could eyeball the crabs and tell which ones were big enough to keep. Blood coursed through my body when the occasional distraction made me accidentally leave a finger within reach of a crab’s pincher, and I yanked it away. As I eagerly awaited the arrival of each pot, I realized I was no longer cold. Instead, I was energized. Time flew by as crabs piled up in the “keeper” container. I was in the zone.
“Wow, you’ll be working here by next year!” one of the other passengers watching me exclaimed.
“Haha, maybe” I replied. I think there is a little bit of crab fishermen in all of us. You just have to jump into the experience to awaken it.
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All photos [Personal photographs taken in Astoria, OR]. (2016).
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