Sonoma Coast fleet scrambling to get crab on the table for Christmas


A pair of dogs on board bark excitedly as the Karen Jeanne pulls alongside the high dock at The Tides Wharf, returning ashore after 35 hours to offload hundreds of live Dungeness crab for quick delivery to markets around the region.

A crane at a neighboring dock already is lifting square bins, each piled with 600 pounds of clacking, frantic crabs from another commercial boat. A third vessel circles and settles into position to wait its turn beneath a gray, late afternoon sky.

It’s nippy out, and a wind-blown evergreen tree strung with twinkle lights and tethered to the roof of a storage shed at the side of the dock suggests Christmas is near.

But there’s no letup among the workers onshore or on the boats. They’re idle only when they need to wait for something else to happen before they can start on their own particular chore. Otherwise, everyone moves fast and efficiently, aware it’s crunch time.

Their aim: Get the big, meaty crabs from oceangoing vessels to wholesale distributors and soon to consumers’ plates.

At a time of year when many gather around hearth and home, savoring the warmth of family and friends, the North Coast’s commercial crabbers are busy scratching the last out of the local season, laboring atop the waves to harvest Dungeness crab for many a holiday feast.

It is grueling, repetitive, wet and often uncomfortable work that continues as winter weather sets in - part of a mission to deliver on the ocean’s gifts and take advantage of a lucrative fishery.

But it also reflects longtime North Coast traditions that take hold of people and don’t easily let go.

“You only gotta pull one crab pot that’s completely full, and it ruins you for the rest of your life,” said Lorne Edwards, president of the Fishermen’s Marketing Association of Bodega Bay and a crabber since the age of 17. “You’ll spend your life trying to do it one more time.”

Rising uncertainty in the crab fishery is taking a toll, however, a function in part of shifting ocean conditions but also of growing public alarm about unintentional whale and other animal entanglements frequently linked to crabbing gear.

For many crabbers, the outlook is daunting, likely to result in greater costs and increased restrictions.

“Nothing is normal, like it used to be,” said Danny Kammerer, 76, who sold his boat last year but still crews for others from time to time.

Aboard the Karen Jeanne, Capt. Dick Ogg is disappointed with the day’s catch as he pulls up to The Tides Wharf wholesale seafood dock.

With just days left before Christmas, demand is at its apex, but the crab stock off the Sonoma Coast is spare this year and the northernmost coast is still closed to commercial crabbing.

Ogg, a conscientious, soft-spoken man, wishes he had more product to offer his distributor and that he could better compensate his two-man crew for Christmas. They get a straight cut of what their skipper takes home even though they “do the same amount of work whether the pots are empty or the pots are full,” said Ogg, 65.

On this trip, they’ve pulled about 400 heavy industrial traps from the ocean floor, emptied them, re-baited them, and thrown them back, each one marked with a buoy attached by a vertical line to mark its place. They retrieved between one and three measly crustaceans per pot, Ogg said.

The total landings come to about 1,800 pounds at a wholesale price now above $5 a pound, so it’s still a good payday for his young deckhands, each of whom takes home 20 percent.

But the season is short and the work demanding. After leaving Spud Point Marina at ?5 a.m. a day earlier, they worked steadily with little break until about 8 p.m. that night - so “not a real long day,” said Ogg without irony.

They slept on the boat before starting all over the next morning, heaving awkward, circular hundred-pound cages around on the ocean and wrangling clawed, angry creatures in fight-or-flight mode.

“These guys never say a word,” Ogg said. “They just do it.”

With the unfavorable weather predicted for the weekend, when he had hoped to pull his pots a final time before the holiday, Ogg lays tentative plans with his crew and distributor for a Christmas Eve trip and delivery to help pad market supplies.

Like the rest of the crabbing industry, the Bodega Bay commercial fleet - about 40 vessels these days - has always operated at the whim of the weather and whatever Mother Nature is cooking up in the iconic fishery, where the crab population rises and falls cyclically and shifts around, to a certain extent, along the northern coastline.

But in general terms, the harvest has increased in recent decades, driven by demand in Asia and lucrative stateside holiday markets beginning with Thanksgiving, just after the traditional mid-November season start, and continuing through Christmas, New Year’s Day and Chinese New Year.

California landings peaked in the 2011-12 season at nearly ?32 million pounds statewide valued at $95.5 million off the boat, nearly all of it harvested from the Bay Area north, according to the state Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Even with some decline since then, annual commercial landings in Bodega Bay come to about $10 million off the boat.

Last year, the commercial crabbing fleet hauled ashore ?2.8 million pounds of fresh-caught Dungeness crab in Bodega Bay, part of the nearly 12 million pounds of crab landed in Northern California ports, including Eureka, Fort Bragg and San Francisco, according to Fish and Wildlife.

The season typically starts Nov. 15, though delays occur. The harvest comes in fast, beginning with the season’s frenzied opening days that proceed like an extended marathon.

The captain and crew of each vessel spend days preparing for the season. After heading to open waters, often by dark at dreadfully late or early hours, they begin dropping rows or “strings” of baited traps to soak for 18 hours. The crews will then circle back to pull the pots, collect the crabs, re-bait the traps and ferry their catch ashore, soon to start the whole cycle over.

It’s an intense, exciting time - “a real marathon fishery,” said veteran Gualala skipper Chuck Cappotto, who sold his boat and retired about four years ago.

No one really knows for sure how many crabs may be waiting offshore until the season starts, and it’s highly competitive, especially for smaller boats that have to deliver their pots to the ocean a portion at a time.

“The first two or three days of the fishery are enormously tense,” Cappotto said. “It’s not uncommon in the beginning of the season to have people working straight for 18, 24, maybe ?36 hours just to get the gear out, to get the first harvest of crab in.”

It’s also expensive for the captain, who may carry a mortgage on the boat and even on whatever commercial permits he or she holds, sometimes worth tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars. There’s insurance, maintenance costs, maybe $1,000 for bait and another $500 for fuel for each trip. The skipper typically stocks up the groceries and provides food for the crew, as well.

Ogg, the son of an Army sergeant who moved around often as a child, settled in Sonoma County when he was in the fourth grade. He learned to fish during visits with his grandfather, a Ponca Indian, in Oklahoma, and spent his youth fishing the Sonoma coastline, taking up abalone diving as a teen.

But despite fishing all his life, he came late to the commercial industry, briefly running a martial arts school, then working more than 3½ decades as an electrician at Sonoma State University.

During his last six years at SSU, he also fished commercially, beginning with salmon. When he retired from the university ?12 years ago, he transitioned into commercial fishing full time, filling in the gaps between crab and salmon seasons with black cod and albacore.

There’s a bit of irony in his occupation. Ogg has been a vegetarian for the great majority of his life and, though he has included fish in his diet for years at a time, he hasn’t for several years and does not expect to again.

But Ogg said he takes satisfaction from providing an organic, sustainable product to the public and finds personal independence out on that water that “is indescribable.”

Especially when fishing albacore, so far offshore you can’t see land, “it’s just that freedom,” Ogg said. “I mean, the air is fresh, the water’s there, it accepts you, and it’s a real, deep-seated philosophical thing that I feel when I’m there. It’s something that fills my heart and soul, just a spirit that I don’t know how to describe.

“I love it. I would never give it up for the world.”

He bought the Karen Jeanne, then 46½ feet long, in 2013 and had it extended to 54½ feet. So it’s roomy, though he leaves the two bunks for his crew and sleeps on a bedroll on the cabin floor with his Lab-mix pups, Buster and Nessie.

Given his bad shoulders and replacement hips, he said it’s his guys who do the hard work, anyway, so he feeds them well, too, he said - to which one ?of his deckhands, Sam ?Davis, 25, attests.

“He’s awesome,” said Davis, a Sebastopol resident who worked on charter boats for three years before starting the commercial crab season with Ogg and thinks he may have found his career.

“It’s a lot of physical labor, but it’s a lot of fun,” Davis said. “I’m learning a lot about the ocean. Every day, I go to work and I learn new things. It’s very rewarding work.”

The continued decline of the chinook salmon fishery, a traditional staple of the North Coast, has made the reliability and profitability of Dungeness crab increasingly important to the fishing industry.

But a variety of factors has brought disruption and growing uncertainty to the fleet. Chief among them is the increasing fluctuation in the presence of a naturally occurring, algae-related substance called domoic acid, a potentially dangerous neurotoxin that can become concentrated in crab and other shellfish, as well as marine mammals and birds. Though often detected during the summer months, it typically dissipates by mid-November, when the commercial crabbing season normally starts in coastal waters south of the Mendocino County line.

But during the devastating 2015-16 crab season, during an extended period of warm ocean conditions that wreaked havoc on all kinds of sea life, persistently elevated domoic acid levels prompted an unprecedented delay in the start of the season until March. The fleet missed out on the lucrative holiday market and the harvest was cut by nearly half.

Though the “warm blob” phenomenon believed to have contributed to the outbreak later subsided, domoic acid levels have continued to interfere with the usual rhythms of the crab seasons in California and the Pacific Northwest, causing delays and piecemeal fishery openings exacerbated by sample testing required in some districts each year to demonstrate the crabs have grown large enough for harvest.

This year, the San Francisco-to-Sonoma County crab fishery opened as usual Nov. 15, except north of Bodega Head, which was delayed by domoic acid until Dec. 8.

Two rounds of “quality” testing to verify sufficient meat recovery from sample crabs in the water north of the Mendocino County line has repeatedly delayed the opener there. Large swells prevented recovery of a third set of samples, so the start is now set at Jan. 15.

But even within those northern boundaries are areas around Crescent City and Trinidad from which sample crab have recently tested high for domoic acid, raising the potential for longer delays there, according to Fish and Wildlife. Oregon and Washington, both usually open to commercial crabbing by now, are both closed entirely, as well.

Crabbers were still reeling from the disastrous 2015-16 season when federal authorities announced a spike in whale entanglement cases off the West Coast, citing a record 71 reports, 48 confirmed. Twenty-two of the cases were confirmed from commercial crab traps.

Biologists are trying to determine whether changing migration patterns or burgeoning whale populations may be contributing factors, as well as increased crabbing pressure and gear concentrations prompted in part by partial fishery closures.

A working group representing different stakeholders has been meeting for several years to develop strategies to minimize entanglement threats to marine life. In addition, new legislative provisions that take effect Jan. 1 provide authority to the director of state Fish and Wildlife to close parts of the crab fishery when there is evidence of significant risk, such as high concentrations of gear and whales in the same areas.

Ogg, a member of the Whale Entanglement Working Group, said commercial fishermen are as eager as anyone to prevent unintended loss of life. He is a proponent of best practices that reduce excess surface and vertical lines that may more easily entangle passing creatures.

Ogg also has been a leader in a variety of other efforts to improve recovery of lost traps and to test new quick-release equipment that separates lines and gear under pressure if an entanglement occurs. He said he hopes they can develop affordable, commonsense strategies that will reduce the risk to whales while preserving the crab fishery.

“I love what I’m doing,” he said, “and I just don’t ever want to stop.”

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. 

Our Network

The Press Democrat
Sonoma Index-Tribune
Petaluma Argus Courier
North Bay Business Journal
Sonoma Magazine
Bite Club Eats
La Prensa Sonoma
Sonoma County Gazette