A long day’s work
Oregon fishermen face Pacific’s roguish waves to catch pricey crabs
By Winston Ross The Register-Guard
NEWPORT – It is mid-morning on a dreary, drizzling, foggy Thursday at the Oregon Coast. A dozen grizzled, coffee-clutching Dungeness crab fishermen are huddled at Chicken Point, where they’re about to make a life-or-death decision: whether to steer their small boats across the Yaquina Bay bar.
Conditions are marginal at best. A 15-foot swell means a change in the tide could cause waves to break at the river mouth, which could turn and then topple their vessels. The U.S. Coast Guard has closed the bar to recreational boats. But that decision doesn’t apply to the skippers of the state’s most valuable fishery, which raked in a record $50 million last season.
These men are on their own.
“We’re heading to the south, with four people on board,” crackles a captain’s voice over the VHF radio in the truck Florence fisherman Al Pazar rides in to Chicken Point. “We’ll probably be back sometime tomorrow.”
“You’d better be,” Pazar mumbles beneath his breath. The forecast for Friday is for gale-force winds and 37-foot swells, twice the size of the ones that make the skipper of the Delma Ann think long and hard about heading out this morning. If he does go and can’t make it back before the big swell comes, the boat could be trapped at sea in some of the worst conditions possible.
Pazar, dressed in jeans and a grimy sweat shirt bearing his boat’s motto (“where the flogging continues until the morale improves,”) climbs out of the truck and strolls up to his friend and fellow crabber Mark Newell, who’s watching the surf with his wife, Lisa.
“What’s a guy to do here?” Pazar asks Mark Newell.
“I don’t like the looks of it right now,” Newell says.
“The Michele Ann just took a beating,” Lisa says. “And here comes the Challenge. He must really be hungry. This ought to be worth watching.”
“Now I’m getting shamed,” says Pazar. In the past, the president of the Oregon Crab Commission has been one of the first to ply the tricky bar, setting the standard for other boats his size. But the father of two teenagers no longer makes decisions like this with his gut alone.
Back at the Hallmark Fisheries dock, Pazar’s boat is idling . His two-man crew is idle, after loading 1,000 pounds of squid, sardines and razor clams on board.
The “puller,” or “block man,” is Claude Badet, a soft-spoken, college-educated Frenchman who’s been fishing with Pazar for the past five or six years for the money and the adventure. The baiter is 23-year-old Tony Fultz, a shaggy-haired, self-described smart-aleck from Siletz, stabbing the bait box with a paring knife out of boredom. He says he hasn’t drawn a real paycheck since he got out of rehab last summer. He’s grumpy today because two of his friends are headed to jail on felony convictions – and because he’s waiting for Pazar’s decision, instead of earning money.
“It’s a real nice ocean,” yells Dennis Krulich, the skipper of Pazar’s other boat, the Tempest, tied up behind the Delma Ann at Hallmark. “You just have to get there.”
At Chicken Point, so named because it weeds out the chickens from the brave, the skippers learn that a fierce current is yanking down the buoys that mark their underwater crab pots, to the point where they can’t be seen from the surface. The boats could make it across the dangerous bar and not be able to find their pots. The fishermen talk about hunger and greed. They wonder aloud which is the bigger motivator.
“Oh, here it is. Joe’s going,” Pazar groans as he watches a tin can of a boat, the Last Dance, head towards the river mouth. “That’s it. Somebody with a lower bow than me.”
So Pazar will fish, too. But he won’t be happy about it.
“I hate days like this,” Pazar grumbles on the way back to the Delma Ann. “I just hate them.”
Season started six weeks late
Pazar and his crew have been up since well before dawn. He drove from his home in Florence, where he owns the Krab Kettle fish market, to Newport’s Yaquina Bay, where his 50-foot boat is parked at Dock 5, just across from his brand-new and bustling restaurant, Local Ocean Seafoods.
Fishing is still Pazar’s bread and butter. His decision to go out will determine whether his crew makes $0 or $1,500 for a long day’s work, whether he’ll spend more on fuel and bait than he gets back in profits. The season started six weeks late, and without the 64-hour “pre-soak” period that allows small boats like the Delma Ann to keep pace with their bigger counterparts, who can drop 500 crab pots in the water on one trip and pick them all up on the next. The pre-soak, during which boats are only allowed to drop pots and not reel them in, allows skippers like Pazar to catch up, making several trips out to drop all the pots they own and then come back to retrieve them – when the weather permits.
Here’s where Pazar also is at a disadvantage. Conditions such as today’s aren’t even questionable for 80-foot boats. He spotted the lights of eight or nine vessels from shore on the drive up from Florence, boats that left the night before and are already pulling in crab.
After the state delayed the season for a month because the crabs weren’t fat enough, one of the coast’s roughest winters on record kicked in, pushing the fleet’s start date into January. By the time the weather cleared up enough to fish, price negotiations kept boats tied to the docks, effectively on strike, as they bartered with processors for a better deal.
Pazar should have been fishing since early December, selling his product whole for Christmas dinners and New Year’s parties. Instead, it’s already Groundhog’s Day and he’s only been out a half-dozen times, waiting with the rest of a hungry fleet, in a town that relies on crab in the winter to keep the economy afloat during the lag in tourism.
“Believe me, Newport can feel it when we’re not fishing,” Pazar says.
Now he’s racing to make up for lost time.
Crossing the bar is tricky
The tide is ebbing, which is the ideal time for boats to head to sea. Pazar pushes the throttle to 8.1 knots – about 9 miles per hour – and steers toward the river mouth, between the giant jetties that help drive water and silt into the ocean, keeping the channel navigable. As he drives, Pazar is already talking to eager buyers, whose demand for crab is urgent thanks to the late season start.
“I can get you 3,000, maybe 3,500 pounds,” Pazar says into his cell phone to a buyer in Portland. As he nears the first swell, he hangs up: “I’d better watch what I’m doing here.”
The trick to crossing an Oregon river bar is to keep your eyes open, Pazar says. Watch for any sign of a breaking wave and be ready to power directly into it, or the water could crash into the side of the boat and flip it. Guiding the Delma Ann through the channel, Pazar avoids the breakers hitting the north and south jetties, plants his feet firmly in place and rides out the violent bobbing of the boat, lurching up and then plummeting down as it hurtles toward the ocean.
In a few minutes, the Delma Ann is at sea, where the conditions aren’t much better. The boat rocks side to side, up and down.
Pazar heads south, against the current, dodging buoys and logs that could tangle or bend his rudder, his boat barely able to travel 6 knots. On an earlier trip, he had dropped a string of pots a few miles off Waldport, marking the point of the first one on his Global Positioning System plotter. As long as the current hasn’t pulled it under, Pazar and his crew will be able to get to work.
Boat rocks erratically
Sure enough, the first buoy is visible. As Pazar maneuvers the boat close to the buoy, Badet reaches out from the port side with a long, hooked “buoy stick” and snares the line connecting the buoy to the pot. He maneuvers the line into a turning wheel and the power block’s hydraulic motor reels it up, until the pot is close enough for him and Fultz to hoist it on deck. Fultz unties
the pot and the pair starts pulling crab out, tossing females and undersized males back into the water and the keepers down an aluminum drop shoot, into a waiting tank filled with seawater.
The pots can hold 100 pounds of crab, 50 apiece, depending on the size. The first one has only 10 writhing Dungies. But 10 is better than nothing. Pazar has 620 pots out in nine strings. He’s hoping the crew can haul in at least half of them by midnight, when the flood tide will allow the Delma Ann to return to port.
When the pot is empty, Fultz and Badet add bait to it and wait for the boat to pitch so that Fultz can toss the pot back into the water. He’s careful to ensure that there’s no slack line on deck, which could wrap around his feet and yank him overboard. Seagulls hover behind the boat, hoping to snatch a piece of discarded bait from the water before it sinks out of reach.
Over and over, pot after pot, the two-man crew works, their hair drenched in sweat and seawater, their orchestrated movements so smooth and coordinated that the work takes on a poetic rhythm.
Not that it’s easy. In the early afternoon, the wind shifts to the west and waves start hitting the boat broadside. One crashes over the crew, soaking them. Every so often, Badet misses a pot, forcing Pazar to back up or circle around to retrieve it. Changing direction can force wind down the chimney of the diesel stove, blowing choking fumes into the galley and forcing Pazar to leave the wheel to air out the close quarters or turn the stove off.
And throughout this nonstop toil, the boat is rocking erratically, bow to stern and port to starboard. One wrong pitch off balance could send the fishermen overboard.
On this trip, Pazar also has to stop and find his anchor, dropped on his last trip after the alternator nearly burst into flames. He had to drop anchor to try and repair it, then leave the anchor behind as the Coast Guard towed him to the bar to pick up a new alternator. One of his tasks today is to find the anchor, marked by a buoy, and haul it back up on deck.
As nightfall approaches, someone unplugs the generator, cutting power to all of Pazar’s equipment. When he gets it back on, two of the lights on deck don’t work anymore.
Ocean calms at night
As the skies turn dark, the ocean calms, giving the crew a more stable platform. They get short breaks between pot strings as Pazar drives to the next location. The skipper doesn’t take breaks, but he does climb down the ladder into the house for an occasional pot pie. Then it’s back to work again.
Pazar could have headed back to port on the evening’s next flood tide at around dinnertime. But after reports from other skippers who couldn’t make it across the bar, he decides to wait, meaning his next window to return to port won’t come until well after midnight – 14 hours after the crew left port.
The day’s catch is finally halted when Pazar discovers that half of the pots on his last string have been buried underwater by the current. For now, he can’t get to them, and he realizes he dropped them too close to the beach, where the high seas are driving the pots into the sand.
The crew’s last job will be to drop a string of nine test pots in deeper water, in the hope that they’ll be more successful there.
Midnight approaches. Pazar, just south of Yachats, turns the boat around and heads north, his speed picking up now that he’s working with the current. As he nears the river bar, he flips on AM radio, listening to a women who tells the host she’ll never move here from Colorado because she had a dream that she was flying over Oregon and it had all turned to sand.
Pazar looks for two red lights, or range markers, on shore and lines them up vertically to ensure he’s pointed directly at the channel. He chats with Krulich about what they’ll do over the weekend. Badet and Fultz crawl into their bunks for an hour or two of sleep.
The bar’s incoming tide carries the Delma Ann in smoothly. Pazar guides it back to the Hallmark dock, where he and the crew will doze until the processor opens for business. He has an appointment at noon for a magnetic resonance imaging scan on his bad left knee – damaged by decades of holding himself in place on ship – so he wants to be the first boat to unload his cargo.
At an average of 10 crabs per pot, it turns out to be a decent day. Pazar’s crew pulled in more than 300 pots, with 6,000 pounds of crab. At $1.50 a pound, that’s $9,000. Fultz and Badet get 12 percent of that each, or a little more than $1,000 for some 24 hours of work.
Pazar’s decision to cross the bar 17 hours ago was a sound one. But he’s not thinking about that any more.
His mind is on the next one.
A long day’s work. (A narrative piece about crab fishing, written after much vomiting on my part.)