Dungeness crab closure pushes North Coast fishermen to breaking point

How to help

Donations for Bodega Bay fishermen may be made by clicking

here. Select 'Assistance for Spud Point crab fishermen/deckhands' from the first drop-down menu.

BODEGA HARBOR-On a bitterly cold morning amid the grim stillness that has replaced the usual hustle and bustle of local marinas this winter, Frank Blagg hung his head over a near-empty soda can as he pondered life out in front of the local chowder shop.

A man of few words, Blagg, 70, used his scarred and weathered hands to convey his thoughts on the disaster that is shaping up in lieu of this year’s Dungeness crab season, which authorities postponed last year due to consumer health concerns.

Blagg pointed his thumb toward the ground.

“The only thing I know is my savings account, going down,” said the grizzled fisherman, his gaze barely rising beneath the visor of his black Marines cap.

From across the wooden table, deckhand Andy Macri, 54, declared after a brief stretch of silence, “I’ll be homeless after this month.”

At a time of year when those who make their living amid the crab pots and coiled rope of commercial fishing boats should be banking the bulk of their annual income, many instead are struggling to stay afloat.

Test crabs show declining levels of a potentially deadly, naturally occurring neurotoxin that prevented the state’s roughly $60 million a year commercial crab fishery from opening as scheduled - on Nov. 15 south of the Mendocino County, and on Dec. 1 to the north.

But as the weeks have passed and, with them, the lucrative holiday markets - Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s - the prospects of having a season that can make any difference are growing dim, assuming the North Coast fishery opens at all.

The test numbers, though improving, still are above human health thresholds for the neurotoxin in some areas. Meanwhile, the market is softening, with fewer seasonal customers and lower prospective prices, and the crabs soon will be mating, molting and losing interest in taking bait, veteran fishermen say.

Talk around the docks - where thousands of crab traps with colorful buoys remain stacked and ready - is somber, full of stories of loss and debt, as anglers run low on cash, the bills mount and there remains no crab season start date in sight.

“When we do go fishing, hopefully we do make some money,” said Joe Mantua, 43, captain of one of the larger vessels and a part-time rancher. “Until then, we’re basically just at a standstill.”

Bodega Bay is home to one of the larger fleets that plies the North Coast in search of crab. Along with salmon, the crustaceans offer one of the region’s most valuable fisheries. Close to 100 commercial boats operate out of three county-run marinas, including Spud Point, Mason’s Marina and the Bodega Bay Sport Fishing Center, where several sport charter vessels operate. The boats vary in size and permitted trap limit, but generally are staffed by a captain and up to three deckhands.

Among those vessels, there are reports of families threatened with foreclosure or eviction from their homes, skippers at risk of losing their boats and crew members too broke to buy food.

Macri, who rents a room from a friend, is living off his last month’s deposit and expects soon to be staying in his truck.

Fishing boat captains generally are self-employed, and neither they nor their deckhands - who function as independent contractors, paid in percentage - typically qualify for unemployment insurance. Some have found side jobs in plumbing or carpentry, laying tile, building fences or doing electrical work. A few older anglers who have had careers off the water collect pensions or Social Security, which helps.

But it’s hard to find anyone around the harbor who isn’t hard-hit by the current state of affairs, especially among those who fished last summer’s abysmal salmon season, when the state harvest was only about one-third of average.

“The fellas that are salmon and crab fishermen, this is the second knock they’ve had,” said Blaine Rodgers, captain of the Barbara Marie. Rodgers at least had the albacore fishery behind him when crab season fell apart.

“It’s just devastating,” said fourth-generation commercial fisherman Tony Anello, 67, a well-known figure around the port and part of an extended family whose fortunes are intertwined with the ocean.

One fisherman woke up this week to find his pickup had been repossessed and his personal belongings left on the side of Westshore Road, next to Spud Point Marina, where he and his wife live on their boat. The man thought at first it had been stolen, Anello said. He and his wife, Carol, watched it happen from their home across the street, next to their eatery, the Spud Point Crab Co., where idled crabbers gather in the mornings for coffee and commiseration.

Carol Anello said it “just ripped her apart” to see the repo man come.

“People don’t understand,” she said. “People don’t get it. This is a desperate, desperate situation.”

A savory-sweet, meaty and iconic shellfish, Dungeness crab is one of California’s largest fisheries, with landings valued above $66 million in 2014, second only to market squid, at $72.4 million, according to the state Department of Fish and Wildlife.

The North Coast fishing fleet - boats going out of Eureka, Fort Bragg and Bodega Bay among them - accounted for nearly half of the 18.4 million pounds caught commercially in California waters that year. The state put Bodega Bay’s landings at more than $10 million.

Though cyclical, California crab harvests generally have been on the increase in recent decades, peaking at nearly 32 million pounds worth $95.5 million in the 2011-12 season, Nov. 15 to June 30, with growing demand in China accounting for increased exports, experts say.

But this year, a large and persistent offshore bloom of a naturally occurring organism called Pseudo-nitzschia - a phenomenon known in coastal communities as a “red tide” - intruded on what has long been a staple fishery.

Though a common occurrence during summer months, the algal bloom this year extended into fall, apparently due to a band of unusually warm water off the West Coast, raising levels of a neurotoxin called domoic acid in the water and in shellfish, including crab.

State health officials in Washington, Oregon and California raised alarm, resulting first in the delay of California’s recreational Dungeness crab season, which was to have started Nov. 7, and then in the commercial season.

The state on New Year’s Eve opened most waters south of Piedras Blancas, near San Simeon in San Luis Obispo County, to sport crabbers and commercial rock crab fishermen, except in areas of the Channel Islands, which has been a domoic acid hot spot.

Commercial crabbers in most of Washington and Oregon got the go-ahead Jan. 4. Crab that is being sold in stores is safe to eat, officials say.

But California’s commercial Dungeness crab fishery remains entirely closed while test levels continue to settle. The recreational fishery remains shut down north of Piedras Blancas, as well.

Domoic acid does not affect the crabs, which eventually metabolize it and clear it from their systems.

The wait for many has been longer than expected, but watching December come and go was particularly painful, as the first three or four weeks of the season are far and away the most fruitful each year, bringing the best of the catch and generally strong pricing. Two-thirds of Bodega Bay’s 2014 harvest was landed during November, in time to be served as part of Thanksgiving feasts.

The crab season’s failure to launch this year has had profound economic impacts along the coast, especially where sport crabbers normally would contribute to business revenues, as well.

Bodega Bay Chamber of Commerce President Patty Ginochio said some local merchants have reported drops in business volume as high as 30 percent from a year earlier, though recent heavy rains likely contributed.

For those who work in the crab fishery, the arrival of a new year means it’s been half a year or more since many of them brought in any significant income.

Most anglers in their 50s and 60s, who make up the majority of the local crabbers, already have paid off their boats, many insiders said.

Younger guys, especially those who invested deeply when the fishery was producing so well a few years ago, are suffering most in what’s a high-overhead profession, they said. Many are raising young families and have home mortgages or rental costs, in addition to boat mortgages that may be higher.

Some have managed to bring in a little cash with other fisheries like hagfish or black cod, though opportunity is highly limited and the financial reward limited.

The impacts extend to boat crews. Deckhands, though sometimes itinerant, generally put in two months of work without pay to get a crab boat geared up before the season starts. The catch at sea -and resulting compensation - is the incentive for them to stick around.

“There’s some guys that have put some money away,” said Tony Anello’s brother, Steve, a 45-year fisherman who expects to have to leave the house he and his family rent in Duncans Mills. “They can ride it out a little longer. But there’s a lot of us that can’t, and it’s scary, especially when you haven’t done anything else in your life. And the bills keep piling up.”

Stan Carpenter, president of the local marketing association, said the loss of the holiday market means the prices will be “in the dumpster” even if the fishery should open before too long. But with the roughest part of the winter coming up, Carpenter said he’s more worried about the risks people will take on the ocean in their desperation to generate some income.

“My guys in my association are so broke,” Carpenter told the county Board of Supervisors last week. “I know they’re going to be out there when they shouldn’t … I’m worried they’re not going to come back.”

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 521-5249 or On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.

How to help

Donations for Bodega Bay fishermen may be made by clicking

here. Select 'Assistance for Spud Point crab fishermen/deckhands' from the first drop-down menu.

Mary Callahan

Environment and Climate Change, The Press Democrat

I am in awe of the breathtaking nature here in Sonoma County and am so grateful to live in this spectacular region we call home. I am amazed, too, by the expertise in our community and by the commitment to protecting the land, its waterways, its wildlife and its residents. My goal is to improve understanding of the issues, to find hope and to help all of us navigate the future of our environment. 

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