Dungeness crab closure pushes North Coast fishermen to breaking point
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.