Crab fish­ing is dead­li­est of catches for Ore. town

Com­mu­nity mourns loss of 3 fish­er­men

South Florida Sun-Sentinel (Sunday) - - Nation & World - By An­to­nia Noori Farzan

On Jan. 3, the day be­fore Ore­gon’s Dun­geness crab fish­ing sea­son was set to start, con­di­tions looked bleak.

“Crab­bers to sail into storm,” read a head­line in the New­port News Times, which noted 20-foot swells and gusts of up to 55 mph were pre­dicted.

Among the com­mer­cial fish­ing boats leav­ing from Yaquina Bay in New­port, Ore., was the Mary B II, a wooden 42-foot fish­ing ves­sel. Stephen Bier­nacki, 50, and James Lacey, 48, had re­cently de­cided to try their luck at catch­ing Dun­geness crab after fish­ing off the coast of New Jer­sey for years. Join­ing them on board was Joshua Porter, 50, an ex­pe­ri­enced fish­er­man known lo­cally for help­ing count­less ad­dicts through re­cov­ery after get­ting sober him­self more than a decade be­fore.

None of them would make it home. At around 10 p.m. on Tues­day, the crew of the Mary B II were headed back to the docks when they reached the Yaquina Bay bar — the point at which at the Yaquina River meets the Pa­cific Ocean, cre­at­ing mas­sive, un­pre­dictable swells that can eas­ily over­whelm smaller ves­sels. That night, the U.S. Coast Guard mea­sured 16-foot high waves near the bay’s en­trance.

A crew had been on its way to help es­cort the Mary B II across the bar, the Coast Guard said in a news re­lease Wed­nes­day. But be­fore they could get there, the fish­ing boat abruptly cap­sized, toss­ing two of the men over­board.

“They took about a 20foot breaker over the bow,” Coast Guard Chief War­rant Of­fi­cer Thomas Mal­loy told KOIN. “We lost to­tal vis­i­bil­ity of the ves­sel.”

The Coast Guard im­me­di­ately launched flares and be­gan search­ing the dark­ened seas with lifeboats and a he­li­copter. Lacey’s body was lo­cated float­ing in the Pa­cific Ocean first, ac­cord­ing to the Ore­gon State Po­lice. Then, a lit­tle after mid­night, the New­port Fire Depart­ment found Porter’s body washed up on the beach. By Wed­nes­day morn­ing, the waves had pushed the crab boat aground, al­low­ing the fire crew to go in­side the cabin. They found Bier­nacki’s body there.

Fish­ing for Dun­geness crabs, which fetch premium prices at seafood mar­kets, is one of the most dan­ger­ous jobs in the world. In ad­di­tion to the long work hours and freez­ing tem­per­a­tures, crab fish­er­men must con­tend with the un­pre­dictable storms that bat­ter the coast of the Pa­cific North­west in win­ter.

Com­mer­cial fish­ing has one of the high­est fa­tal­ity rates of any oc­cu­pa­tion, ac­cord­ing to the Na­tional In­sti­tute for Oc­cu­pa­tional Safety and Health. A 2016 Ore­gon State Univer­sity study an­a­lyz­ing Coast Guard data found that the fa­tal­ity rate for Dun­geness crab fish­er­men was even higher. The ex­treme con­di­tions were per­haps most fa­mously high­lighted in “Dead­li­est Catch: Dun­geon Cove,” a 2016 re­al­ity show for the Dis­cov­ery Chan­nel that fol­lowed Yaquina Bay crab fish­er­men.

In New­port, a city of more than 10,000 where the econ­omy is driven by com­mer­cial fish­ing, those risks are well-known. Still, the news of the three deaths came as a shock.

“This stuff hap­pens, but it just doesn’t get any eas­ier,” Gary Ripka, a com­mer­cial fish­er­man based in New­port who was fea­tured on “Dead­li­est Catch,” told KEZI.

A friend of Porter’s, Ce­leste Paranto, told the Ore­go­nian that he had in­tended the trip to be his last on the Mary B II. “He told friends that the crew was in­ex­pe­ri­enced,” she said. “Those were his words. It’s very sad. Be­cause he was a re­spon­si­ble per­son he went out on the trip and never re­turned home.”

But oth­ers in the sea­far­ing com­mu­nity have ar­gued that even a sea­soned cap­tain can eas­ily run afoul of the haz­ardous con­di­tions out­side the Yaquina Bay. “A very good friend of mine had 40 years’ ex­pe­ri­ence, lost his life on the bar,” Ripka told KATU. “It doesn’t get eas­ier when you get older do­ing it.”

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