COMING HOME WITH CRAB

February 22, 2003 12:00 am
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Pilot story

and photos by Susan Schell

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Part 2

The sun has yet to peek over the Harbor hills as the Ginny and Jill motors out to sea. The 59-foot crabber/trawler moves parallel to the coastline, following a computer-generated tracking system to locate crab pots on the ocean floor.

Three gray whales spout off the starboard bow, then disappear beneath the waves.

"We see them out here all the time," said captain Bernie Lindley.

Multicolored buoys bob along the surface of the water. The boat passes them; they belong to someone else. Everyone's buoys have their own distinct color combination.

The two crewmen, Charlie Smith and Kevin Young, have spent the morning preparing fresh bait jars to place inside the crab pots when they are hauled up.

When Lindley spots one of his buoys, he maneuvers the boat alongside the line. Young stands ready, holding a long stick with a hook at the end. When the line comes up alongside the boat, he reaches out and, with one swoop, snags the line with the hook.

This motion is very important: if he misses the line, the boat has to circle back around and realign itself all over again. A few missed lines will usually guarantee a scream or two from the captain.

Once the line is hooked, it is strung through a hydraulic pulley, called a "crab block," which spins around and begins lugging the crab pot up from the ocean depths. The pot emerges from the water in a vertical position. The men grab it, pull it into the boat and lay it down flat.

The fishermen move like clockwork. They open the trap and take out the Dungeness crab and other stow-aways that have crawled in after the bait. Octopus, sea stars and sand dollars are thrown back in the water.

"Crab fishermen don't throw anything back dead," Lindley said.

The men pull out the old bait jar, replace it with a fresh one and drop the crab pot back in the ocean. The bait from the old jar is dumped in the water.

This is when the sea gulls' day-long vigil comes to fruition. As soon as the boat leaves the harbor, the gulls offer an immediate escort service, gliding along hoping for a handout. Sometimes they land on the deck for a free ride. When the bait jars are emptied they dive for scraps, flapping and screeching in a mad, furious scramble.

Most crabs taken from the pot are placed in a holding bin to be measured. The small crustaceans and females are thrown overboard.

Regulations prohibit the harvesting of all females and males under six and one-quarter inches width-wide across the back. Males can be distinguished from females by a quick glance at their underside. Females have an abdominal flap that is wider and round; the male's is smaller and more triangular.

As the boat motors on to the next pot, Smith measures each crab in the holding bin with a pre-set measuring device. The ones that meet regulation are tossed into the live tank, a large metal container with an electric pump that keeps fresh sea water circulating through the tank. The small crabs are tossed back.

Smith is fairly new to the crabbing business, having moved to the area from Los Angeles. He said his L.A. friends did not believe him when he told them he was working on a crab boat.

"They thought I was joking," he said. "They didn't think I could handle it. But this is exciting. It's an adventure."

A crab fisherman's greatest weapon is not necessarily brute strength, but endurance. Although the hydraulic pulley supplies most of the muscle needed to haul in the crab pots, the fishermen work outdoors all day, dealing with the elements.

After all the pots are emptied, the boat heads back to port. The fishermen can take a break, but their day is still not over yet.

The boat pulls in parallel to the commercial fishing dock to unload their harvest. The live tank is equipped with an elevator-like bottom that raises the live crab up to the boat's surface, while draining the water out the sides.

A huge metal container is lowered onto the boat's deck from a crane situated on the dock. A panel on the live tank is removed and the crab are scooped out and loaded into the container, which is then lifted up to the dock.

The live crabs are emptied into large plastic bins and will soon be on their way to America's dinner tables.

It is not until every last Dungeness crab is off the boat that the crabbers finally get to go home.

A crabber's day is long; he must get up before dawn and work until the sun goes down. Some crews work throughout the night.

He must deal with an ocean that is often unforgiving, bouncing the little boat around like a plastic toy.

The most beautiful day viewed from the shore can be hazardous at sea. The sea can turn from calm to rough with no warning; northern winds blowing down from Alaska can whip up an angry ocean in the blink of an eye.

Even if a crew decides to call it a day, they still have to battle back to port. The ghostly hulls of fishing vessels resting on the ocean floor are a grim reminder that not all of them make it.