Op­ti­mism greets crab sea­son’s start

Af­ter three sub­par years, fish­er­men hope for epic Dun­geness haul this time around

The Mercury News - - Front Page - By Lisa M. Krieger lkrieger@ba­yare­anews­group.com

HALF MOON BAY >> Only hours away from the of­fi­cial open­ing of Dun­geness crab sea­son, men and their boats swarmed around John­son Pier on Tues­day af­ter­noon, each fish­er­man pray­ing that this win­ter will re­verse a long, hard stretch of bad luck.

“Three bad years. We need to start dig­ging our­selves out of the hole,” said Niko von Broem­b­sen, 49, of Oak­land, sun­burned and weary as he raced to pre­pare for one

of fish­ing’s most dan­ger­ous, un­cer­tain and lu­cra­tive catches.

“We have some of the best qual­ity crab out there,” he added. “We just need to go get it.”

Boats bobbed in the wa­ter as fish­er­men im­pa­tiently waited in line at Pil­lar Point Har­bor for a hoist to drop dozens of 100-pound pots onto freshly scrubbed decks. On docks, amid the beep­ing of fre­netic fork­lifts, men loaded some pots by hand, shout­ing as they ran up and down ramps.

Then the loaded ves­sels cruised out of the har­bor, fad­ing into the late af­ter­noon sun, so the fish­er­men could drop dozens of pots out at sea.

If all goes well, they would be po­si­tioned and ready to haul up their pots by 12:01 a.m. Wednesday — the of­fi­cial open­ing of the sea­son.

Then, un­der bright sodium lights, they’ll peer at the pots to as­sess their catch.

“It’s like look­ing un­der a Christ­mas tree,” said 55-year-old crab­ber Todd Korth, help­ing load two boats, the New Day and the Roar­ing Twen­ties-era Smith Brothers Two.

“Af­ter bad sea­sons it’s nice to look to­wards some­thing pretty good,” said Korth, a Camp­bell res­i­dent. “There was a lot of hurt on the whole fleet, up and down the coast.”

Crab for the hol­i­days

Re­cent years have been dis­ap­point­ing for con­sumers, who look for­ward to the sweet, briny meat for spe­cial hol­i­day feasts at Thanks­giv­ing, Christ­mas, New Year’s and Jan­uary com­mu­nity crab feeds.

On Tues­day, Ray Sny­der, who or­ders all the fish for Lafayette’s up­scale Di­ablo Foods mar­ket, was look­ing for­ward to the crab­bers’ first haul — and lots of sat­is­fied cus­tomers.

“If we have crab through the hol­i­days, ev­ery­one’s real happy,” Sny­der said.

With an “at­mo­spheric river” storm headed our way from the trop­ics, open­ing-day weather could be an is­sue, he said. “But if we get lucky and they get their pots pulled Wednesday, then we might have some crab Thurs­day,” he said.

Oth­er­wise, he ex­pects to have crab from his sup­plier A boat heads out to sea Tues­day from Pil­lar Point Har­bor in Half Moon Bay on the eve of crab sea­son’s start, even as storms were ex­pected to hit the wa­ters Wednesday. A fish­er­man loads crab pots onto a boat. Af­ter three down years, crab fish­er­men are hop­ing for a good sea­son.

by late in the week, with plenty for Thanks­giv­ing.

Dun­geness crab fish­ing is a no­to­ri­ously un­re­li­able liveli­hood. The crus­taceans crawl along the seabed, so fish­er­men are never sure whether or not they’re drop­ping pots in the crabs’ path.

But the past sev­eral years have com­pounded the usual woes of lo­cal fish­er­men.

Two win­ters ago, the sea­son was de­layed more than four months over food safety con­cerns caused by a rare toxic al­gae. When the fish­er­men fi­nally low­ered their pots into the Pa­cific in late March, there was an un­usu­ally weak har­vest. They were also hurt by the un­prece­dented col­lapse of the Pa­cific chi­nook salmon fish­ery.

Last year, the sea­son started on time, but own­ers of small and mid-size boats found it hard to make a liv­ing be­cause of all the big storms.

Even be­fore these trou­bles, they were chal­lenged by ex­pen­sive per­mits, stiffer reg­u­la­tions and the in­creas­ing cost of do­ing busi­ness.

A mid-sized boat might be worth $250,000 to $300,000. A per­mit costs an­other $8,000. Each pot costs hun­dreds of dol­lars. Even when the boats are idle, the bills add up.

Crews race to catch their limit — 8,000 to 10,000 pounds per ves­sel, if they’re lucky — then un­load it and re­turn for more.

Noth­ing is easy

The ten­sion can push crews and the boats to their lim­its. Crab­bing comes with a high risk of get­ting tan­gled in nets, caught in hy­draulic equip­ment or get­ting knocked over­board by an un­con­trolled crab pot.

“There are a lot of dan­gers,” Korth said. “You re­ally have to watch and be care­ful. You need a min­i­mum amount of sleep to stay alert. My crew, we work smart.”

Shouted von Broem­b­sen, as he un­loaded pots from a flatbed truck: “I was once at­tacked by a great white shark.”

Mother Na­ture throws her own curve balls. Even as they raced to get out to sea, the crab­bers wor­ried about Wednesday’s weather.

The Na­tional Weather Ser­vice pre­dicted gusts up to 20 to 30 knots.

And the winds are shift­ing to the south, cre­at­ing dan­ger­ous “cross seas,” where wind-blown waves col­lide with large swells, caus­ing gear to shift and cargo — or men — to be washed over­board.

“We need a re­ally good sea­son,” said Dan Durbin, 54, of San Jose. “But I’m op­ti­mistic be­cause I’m a fish­er­man. I’m al­ways hop­ing for the best.”

“Af­ter bad sea­sons it’s nice to look to­wards some­thing pretty good. There was a lot of hurt on the whole fleet, up and down the coast.” — Todd Korth, crab­ber from Camp­bell

PA­TRICK TEHAN — STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

Fish­er­man Matt Pic­cardo pre­pares crab pots for load­ing onto a boat as fish­er­men get ready for the open­ing of the sea­son at Pil­lar Point Har­bor.

PHOTOS BY PA­TRICK TEHAN — STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

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