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Bodega Bay crab fisherman Justin Monckton, left, helps the crew of the Sea Farmer bring crab pots ashore at the Spud Point Marina on Wednesday, March 2, 2022. Two boats of local fisherman volunteered their day to haul in the catch and pots for the family of fellow fisherman Ryan Kozlowski, who died last week when he fell overboard. (John Burgess / The Press Democrat)

Bodega Bay crabbers head out to sea to retrieve fellow fisherman’s gear, aid his family after tragedy

BODEGA BAY — The two skippers left dock before daylight, crawling through dense fog on an uncertain quest made all the more challenging by how little they could see beyond the bows of their fishing vessels.

Commercial crabbers Tal Roseberry and Dick Ogg weren’t entirely sure where to look Wednesday as they worked off someone else’s personalized plotter. But they were bent on retrieving the crab gear and last catch of a fellow fisherman, Ryan Kozlowski, who lost his life on the water last week.

Kozlowski died sometime late Feb. 24 or early Feb. 25 after he apparently fell overboard from the Seastar, a 42-foot vessel that had become “his passion” in the few years he had owned it.

“We all compete against each other, but we all help each other.” — Scott Bertelsen

On Wednesday, a half-dozen fishermen joined Roseberry and Ogg to serve as deckhands. More waited on shore to help land however many Dungeness crabs they were able to bring in. All were driven by the communal spirit of men and women who draw together when times turn tough.

“We always do this,” said Scott Bertelsen, 65, a crabber and close friend of Kozlowski. “We all compete against each other, but we all help each other.”

Bodega Bay crab fishermen, from left, Tommy Bailey, Joshua Woods and Joe Thornburgh volunteered their day on Wednesday, March 2, 2022, to haul in the catch and pots for the family of fellow fisherman Ryan Kozlowski who died last week when he fell overboard. (John Burgess / The Press Democrat)
Bodega Bay crab fishermen, from left, Tommy Bailey, Joshua Woods and Joe Thornburgh volunteered their day on Wednesday, March 2, 2022, to haul in the catch and pots for the family of fellow fisherman Ryan Kozlowski who died last week when he fell overboard. (John Burgess / The Press Democrat)

The effort was a tribute to Kozlowski, a well-liked, hardworking man of 30 who was among the younger members of the local fishing fleet.

Many saw in him the hope of a new generation to carry on their traditions, as the region’s mostly veteran fishermen eventually retire from a notoriously dangerous and increasingly difficult occupation.

“He was a friend of ours, and he lost gear and crabs, and we can try to sell it for the family.” — Tal Roseberry

They included Wanda Ries, whose husband, Kenny, had taken Kozlowski on as a deckhand before Kozlowski decided to go all in and acquire the Seastar. Kenny Ries was among those aboard Roseberry’s Sea Farmer on Wednesday.

“He was a son to a lot of us,” Bertelsen said from the dock.

“I think he had three or four fish fathers,” Wanda Ries said.

Those who gathered wanted to make sure Kozlowski’s crab traps and lines got removed from the ocean floor, so they don’t pose a risk to marine life. And they want to help Kozlowski’s family recover what little they can after their loss.

(Critics chide Coast Guard for failure to secure unmanned fishing vessel after crabber’s death)

“He was a friend of ours,” said Roseberry, “and he lost gear and crabs, and we can try to sell it for the family.

Volunteer Bodega Bay crab fishermen dump a load of crab into a holding tank at the Spud Point Marina on Wednesday, March 2, 2022. The locals gathered on Wednesday to haul in the catch and pots for the family of fellow fisherman Ryan Kozlowski, who died last week when he fell overboard. (John Burgess / The Press Democrat)
Volunteer Bodega Bay crab fishermen dump a load of crab into a holding tank at the Spud Point Marina on Wednesday, March 2, 2022. The locals gathered on Wednesday to haul in the catch and pots for the family of fellow fisherman Ryan Kozlowski, who died last week when he fell overboard. (John Burgess / The Press Democrat)

“And if we don’t get the gear, it becomes derelict gear. Leaving the stuff in the water is not a good practice,” Roseberry said. “That’s why we’re doing this, and we’ll keep doing it until we find it all.”

Kozlowski was a 2014 graduate of the California State University Maritime Academy. He spent several years as a tugboat captain in Puget Sound and Alaska, before following the footsteps of his late father, William Kozlowski, into commercial fishing out of Bodega Bay.

“He took pride in what he did and he knew he would get it done if he did it himself. He would get it done. It would just take longer.” — Michelle Kozlowski

Practically raised on their dad’s boat, “he just loved the work,” his sister, Michelle Kozlowski, said.

“He had a good job. He made good money, but he loved being out on the ocean,” she said.

The Seastar ran adrift after skipper Ryan Kozlowski fell overboard Feb. 24 or 25, 2022, and eventually grounded on Kehoe Beach at the Point Reyes National Seashore. (Office of Spill Prevention and Response)
The Seastar ran adrift after skipper Ryan Kozlowski fell overboard Feb. 24 or 25, 2022, and eventually grounded on Kehoe Beach at the Point Reyes National Seashore. (Office of Spill Prevention and Response)

Ryan Kozlowski already had pretty much rebuilt a smaller boat, the Helen M, left to him when his father died in 2010, by the time he bought the Seastar a year or two ago, she said. He fished salmon and crab, and over the past winter tried his hand at spiny lobster.

He was a man who could work with little sleep or food, if necessary, to get a job done, his sister said. Though he was older by 4½ years, the two siblings “are very similar,” she said. “We can run on nothing.”

And though he sometimes worked with a deckhand, one in particular, he couldn’t always find one available when he needed, she said. He was known to fish alone frequently, which made family and friends worry.

“He took pride in what he did,” his sister said, “and he knew he would get it done if he did it himself. He would get it done. It would just take longer.”

Kozlowski had recently been living at his late grandmother’s house in Sonoma with his long-term girlfriend.

When he headed out to open water last week, he was tending to about 300 or 350 pots likely laid in connected strings outside of Bodega Bay and below Point Reyes. He needed to harvest and deliver the crabs he had trapped before heading off to Truckee for a bachelor party weekend, his sister said. He was to be best man in a friend’s upcoming wedding.

Fisherman Joe Thornburgh saw Kozlowski on the water late on the afternoon of Feb. 24. Both were pulling up traps as dark approached. Thornburgh finished first.

“He had a couple more pots to pull,” Thornburgh said after disembarking from the Roseberry’s boat on Wednesday. “That was our last communication.”

Commercial fisherman Ryan Kozlowski, seen on his boat, before his death at sea Feb. 24-25, 2022. (Courtesy of Michelle Kozlowski)
Commercial fisherman Ryan Kozlowski, seen on his boat, before his death at sea Feb. 24-25, 2022. (Courtesy of Michelle Kozlowski)

It was about 6 p.m.

When Kozlowski hadn’t arrived to unload crab for his buyer by 8:30 a.m. the next morning as expected, his girlfriend called Michelle Kozlowski to see if anyone had seen him, and word began to spread.

Another fisherman out early that morning, meanwhile, had noticed a vessel on his radar screen north of Point Reyes as he traveled south past it in the dark.

When he came back north and it was still in the same spot, he went to investigate. He found the Seastar with no one onboard, though a crab pot was in the power block, a large mechanized device used to haul in traps.

Crabber Chris Zito was soon on the scene with him and called the U.S. Coast Guard, which reported receiving the call around 9:20 a.m.

Several other commercial and sport fishermen were soon gathered, and “everybody was trying to do their part to look around for him,” Zito said.

It was more than three hours before a Coast Guard aircraft crew spotted him. The Seastar ran aground on Kehoe Beach at the Point Reyes National Seashore and broke apart.

In the days since, members of the fishing community have rallied around the family, helping with insurance issues, retrieving personal items and equipment from the boat, and securing Kozlowski’s plotter to try to ascertain where he left his pots, though his system was more complicated than most to unravel, Ogg and Roseberry said.

But Roseberry said there was no doubt the gear needed to be retrieved, and volunteers were ready to help. “Just by putting the word out, people started calling and we put together a call list,” he said.

Ogg was able to secure special permits through state Fish and Wildlife enabling them to take someone else’s crabs so they could be sold for the benefit of the family.

“If we can get the gear then we can give the proceeds to the family, and that’s important,” he said.

Commercial fisherman Ryan Kozlowski, seen on his boat, before his death at sea Feb. 24-25, 2022. (Courtesy of Michelle Kozlowski)
Commercial fisherman Ryan Kozlowski, seen on his boat, before his death at sea Feb. 24-25, 2022. (Courtesy of Michelle Kozlowski)

Between the two boats, the crews brought in about 360 pounds of crab, worth about $2,600, and 134 traps in the fog. They said folks will keep picking away at it in the coming weeks to make sure they can get everything possible.

Having the support of the fishing community “makes me feel like I’m not the only one going through the worst weekend of my life,” Michelle Kozlowski said. “It’s very helpful, and I know I trust all of them. They’ve been with him this whole time. I trust them more than anyone who has reached out.”

She added, “They want to help with how he would help them, if it happened to them.”

Ogg has said up a GoFundMe page to benefit the family at bit.ly/3CjUmAI.

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 707-521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.

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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