Hard Times for Crescent City Crabbers
What Dungeness crab fisherman John Beardon of F/V Stormy II saw nearly brought him to tears.
Posted on social media was his friend, a 60-year-old fellow crabber, holding a sign asking for help in front of a McDonald's restaurant in Crescent City, California.
"It makes you want to cry," said Beardon, vice president of the Crescent City Commercial Fishermen's Association. "He's one of us. He's a fisherman and he can't pay his rent. He's totally broke."
It's an example of how dire the situation is right now in Crescent City, where dozens of fishermen and crewmembers are out of work or seeking work elsewhere after state health officials suspended commercial Dungeness crab fishing.
"We are proud and we work hard," Beardon said. "They're tough and don't ask for anything, but what else do you do when you don't have any avenues to turn to?"
The season for fishing Dungeness crab was scheduled to open Dec. 1, but state officials have kept the season closed after harmful levels of domoic acid, an algae-generated neurotoxin, were found in the crabs. Symptoms, when high levels are ingested, can include vomiting, seizures and, in extreme cases, coma and death, according to the California Department of Public Health.
A limited number of fishing areas have been reopened in California for recreational Dungeness crab fishing and commercial fishing for rock crab, but commercial Dungeness crab fishing remains closed statewide, according to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.
For many other fishermen and crewmembers in Crescent City, postponing the season for commercial Dungeness crab fishing is a financial blow.
Wendy Montanez, who is married to crab and tuna fisherman Vincente Montanez, recently told the Del Norte Triplicate, the daily publication that covers Crescent City, that she has been working 10-hour days to survive her husband's unemployment.
"We are having tough times," she told the Triplicate. "But we always feel there is someone that has it worse than we do. But this was the first Christmas we didn't have presents. We made it about being together."
Roughly 20 miles from the Oregon border, Crescent City is a small Northern California town of fewer than 8,000 people, many of whom make their livelihoods in crab fishing.
"That's what keeps everything running this time of year, from December through the opening of shrimp season," said Charlie Helms, harbormaster of the Crescent City Harbor District. "It really is devastating."
More than 2 million pounds of Dungeness crab were caught by Crescent City crab fishermen in 2014, an estimated value of more than $8.5 million. In 2013, Crescent City fishermen had an amazing season, pulling more than 11 million pounds of crab worth more than $30 million, according to the Triplicate.
Crabbing is the biggest generator of private sector jobs in the area, officials said.
"Crescent City is built on the success of Dungeness crab," said Rich Shepherd of F/V Sunset, president of the local fishermen's association and a fisherman who relies on Dungeness crab as his main source of income.
Now the harbor is filled with boats with no place to go.
"You look around the harbor and there's everybody's crab pots with new repairs, new gear, new lines and everything, and it's just all sitting there," Helms said.
When a season is delayed, it's usually postponed for a few weeks. It's never gone on this long, fishermen said.
"This is a much bigger magnitude than we've ever had," said Karl Evanow of F/V Sea Hunter, a fisherman for 39 years.
Even if the season were to open now, the most lucrative months for crabbing are gone. The months of December and January are when fishermen catch most of their crabs.
"Twice in my life I've gone fishing in February, and those seasons end up not being good," Shepherd said. "I don't think you'll ever recover those months that you would have had in December and January."
Shepherd has had to lay off his crew when it was evident that the season would not open right away.
At 62, Shepherd was contemplating retirement, but the crabber has had to rethink those plans after last year's very poor salmon and Dungeness crab seasons and the current suspension of Dungeness crab fishing.
"I was thinking about retiring, but after this crab season, there's no way I can retire," he said. "It's really hard. I've never gone on this long without working. I'm coping with it, just living day to day, hoping that we can go back to work."
Shepherd is one of the lucky ones who has saved enough to stay afloat. Meanwhile, fishermen and crewmembers have had to leave the city to fish elsewhere or take jobs in other industries to make ends meet.
Dungeness crab makes up at least 80 percent of his income, Evanow said, adding that some of his crew members went to work for a logging company to make up for lost income.
"Luckily, I own a storage facility, but it's tough (for others), and unemployment will only pay so much," Evanow said. "I've heard of people declaring bankruptcy, or losing their vehicles because they can't make payments. Some are having a hard time just paying a power bill."
In a letter sent in February, Gov. Jerry Brown asked US Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker to declare a fishery resource disaster and a commercial fishery failure, which would open the door to providing financial help to crabbers.
"Economic assistance will be critical for the well-being of our fishing industry and our state," Brown wrote, adding that the direct impact loss from the closure is at least $48.3 million, an estimated 71 percent of the total commercial value of Dungeness crab in the state.
The Small Business Administration has offered affected businesses low interest loans to bridge the gap.
But Shepherd said he is disappointed that other government help has been slow to help those in need.
"That would be a savior for everybody in this community," he said. "I was hoping it would be done a lot quicker, and I've been real frustrated."
Meanwhile, the Crescent City Harbor District Commissioners voted to waive late fees for the fleet for the months of December and January and will continue to monitor the situation and make other adjustments as needed, Helms said.
The community has been rallying around the crabbers by organizing fundraisers. As of press time, the community raised $20,000 from events, Beardon said.
"The outreach from the community has been amazing," Beardon said.
Community Assistance Network (CAN), a food, clothing, prayer and hope bank in Crescent City, recently established a special fishermen's fund through the Tri-Counties Bank in Crescent City. CAN is also offering food boxes to fishermen. Safeway recently donated $2,000 toward the effort.
"It's really sad, and it's hurting a lot of people, not just the fishermen, but it's hurting the whole community," said Evelyn Cook, a volunteer for CAN.
For those who want to donate, send checks to CAN, with "Fishermen's Fund" written on the memo line and mailed to Community Assistance Network at 355 Standard Veneer Road, Crescent City, CA 95531. Donations are tax deductible if they are mailed to CAN.