Brett Fahning is captain of the Rogue, his 58-foot fishing boat. His prize catch is Dungeness crab. These crabs are the West Coast's most valuable seafood harvest.
Andy Allen measures a crab. Only large males are kept — everything else is tossed back to maintain the health of the crab population.
Andy Allen measures a crab. Only large males are kept — everything else is tossed back to maintain the health of the crab population. Richard Harris/NPR
Bobby Kissinger hauls up a crab pot, through about 120 feet of water, off the coast of Northern California.
Bobby Kissinger hauls up a crab pot, through about 120 feet of water, off the coast of Northern California. Richard Harris/NPR
The moon hangs over the harbor at 4 a.m. in Crescent City, Calif., and a soft foghorn sounds in the distance as boats head out to sea to catch delectable Dungeness crabs.
This isn't just a quaint early-morning tradition. It's a race to catch all the crabs before other crabbers get to them first.
Dungeness crabs are not only a winter treat; they are also the most valuable catch on the West Coast. More than 400 boats ply the waves in the early winter and lay their crab pots off the coast of California, Oregon and Washington.
Brett Fahning is one of those crab fishermen. Fahning is a baby-faced 35 and sports a goatee. And despite this morning's flurry of activity, this port is a mere shadow of what it was decades ago. Two-thirds of California's commercial fishermen have abandoned their businesses in the past 15 years.
But Dungeness crab is one bright success story. The rules for keeping this fishery healthy are simple. Fishermen catch only large male crabs, and only in a defined season.
"It's just like a no-brainer sustainable fishery; it always has been," Fahning says.
An Arms Race
Natural cycles make the crab populations boom and bust, but biologists say fishing is not a threat to the crabs. That's true even though there is an absolute frenzy when the season first opens.
"It's kind of a derby fishery," he says, noting that 80 percent of the crabs are caught in the first two weeks of the season.
There are only so many crabs, and they get scooped up fast during the bonanza days. After that, it's slim pickings. So there's a race to grab them before they're gone.
And more fishermen are joining the derby every year, meaning fewer crabs per vessel. Boats that once caught other species are now turning to Dungeness crabs. That includes vessels that used to go out for salmon, until that fishery collapsed a few years ago.
"More guys are focusing on Dungeness crab and investing [in] Dungeness crab — meaning they're buying more pots, more gear, upgrading their boats," Fahning says.
It's become an arms race to catch crab. And as a result, economist Steve Hackett at nearby Humboldt State University says, there's a huge over-investment in the crab fishery. There are something like 170,000 crab pots off California, about three times as many as you'd need to catch all the crabs in a season. Those excesses also make crabbing less profitable.
The race for crab is also dangerous. It's the deadliest fishery on the West Coast, with fatalities just about every year. Fahning says some fishermen are just too anxious to get in on the early days of the race, weather be damned.
"I mean, I know the kind of boat I have here — it's an old wood boat. I'm obviously not going to go and fish in conditions that I shouldn't be fishing in. And you just have to use your head and be safe, and a lot of times guys don't do that," he says.
Captains also sometimes fall asleep at the ends of their long days and run up into the rocks.
So safety and money issues have led crab fishermen to establish a task force to find ways to make their business more rational. A rational season would also mean more fresh crab. Right now, with the huge burst at the beginning of the season, most gets frozen.
Pulling Up Crabs
Fahning slows the Rogue, his 58-foot-long fishing boat, as he arrives at his first string of crab pots. He has about 450 in the water, and the crew needs to start pulling them well before dawn if they have any hope of harvesting all their crabs today.
Standing on deck behind the wheelhouse, Bobby Kissinger uses a winch to pull up a crab pot. It takes just a few seconds to bring the cage up through 120 feet of water. The crew scoops out a couple of writhing crabs. They're brown, glistening crustaceans, about 2 pounds apiece. The crew tosses them into a bin, rebaits the trap and tosses it overboard.
They'll do that more than 400 times today, Kissinger says. "Yeah, we get in a zone and we stay there for 12 to 18 hours."
As soon as one pot is done, the boat is up to the next buoy. Kissinger and his deckmate Andy Allen have their timing down to the second. Allen says most important is Kissinger's control over the winch, which keeps the 100-pound crab pots from flying out of control.
"Everything's riding on that hand," Allen says. "If his hand slips, makes the wrong move, then we're dead men."
Pot after pot comes onboard. There are five crabs in one, a dozen in another. Some contain nothing but giant starfish.
Fahning watches the action from the wheelhouse. He's a transplant from Wisconsin, educated as an oceanographer but hooked on the business — and sport — of fishing. As each crab pot comes up, he eyes it eagerly, to gauge his luck.
This is a slow season for crabs, but, he says, "I think it's going to pan out OK. It's not going to be a disaster."
Slowing The Race
Fishermen could potentially make life easier for the entire crab industry if they could find ways to slow their expensive and dangerous arms race.
"There have been suggestions of making it a daylight fishery only — no lights are allowed, you can only go fishing during the day," Fahning says.
Another idea is to limit the number of crab pots allowed in the water. He is not wild about either idea.
"I don't think its fair to try and equalize, to socialize the industry," he says.
The truth is that he likes the risks and rewards of the crab business, and he's attracted by the degree of independence life on the sea provides him.
"Really, it'd be pretty hard for me to go back and get a real job after this," he says with a laugh."There's the romantic part of it, too, but I think it's just mostly the independence; the romanticism kind of wears off a little bit after a while."
And it's that independent streak, found in so many fishermen, that will make it tough for the crab fishery to agree on any changes.
Finally, around 7:30 p.m. , the Rogue ties up again in Crescent City with 4,000 pounds of crab in its hold. The crew members go their separate ways, but they will return in about eight hours and once again race out to their pots.
Radio story produced by Jessica Goldstein.