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.