HEADING OUT TO FIND CRAB

February 18, 2003 11:00 pm
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Pilot story

and photos by Susan Schell

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Part 1

It's 6 a.m. and a wicked Chetco Effect is whipping around the mouth of the river. The wind whistles through the trees; cardboard boxes thump down the road.

Down at the port, fishermen move about the docks, undaunted by the wind. It's business as usual as they prepare for another day at sea.

The lights from the fishing boats pierce the pre-dawn atmosphere. Engines rumble in the water as vessels spring to life.

The Ginny and Jill, a 59-foot crabber/trawler, heads out into the open ocean. Sea birds glide in and out of the darkness, apparitions caught for a fleeting moment in the orange glow of the bow lights.

At the helm, captain Bernie Lindley stares at a computer screen. It depicts a layout of the coastline with colorful lines traversing the waters offshore. Each line represents a string of crab pots. When the fishermen lay their pots on the ocean floor, a Global Positioning System (GPS) maps the boat's route, drawing virtual roads on the computer screen that the men can follow to retrieve their pots.

The on-board computer system is fascinating. A software program called "P-Sea Wind Plot" shows a myriad of items dotting Davy Jones' Locker. Tiny icons of sunken boats mark the resting place of the luckless. Clicking on the icon may reveal information about the boat; a line at the bottom of the screen gives the name of the boat, the year it sunk, how many crew members were on board and if any were lost. Some simply say "unknown."

Other icons, when clicked on, indicate a "large log" or other obstructions on the sea floor that have been mapped by others to warn their fellow seamen of potential trouble. Fishermen are wary of sharp objects or submerged reefs that may tangle or snap their lines.

The software also shows a chart of the coastline and rock out-croppings. Back in the days when Lindley's grandfather was a fisherman, they did not have this kind of technology. They relied on visual clues and lined up landmarks to find their way back to their traps.

On the back deck, crewmen Kevin Young and Charlie Smith bustle about, preparing bait for the crab pots. Packaged squid frozen into large blocks have to be chopped up and separated.

The bait is placed inside plastic oval jars riddled with holes so the scent will disseminate through the water and attract the crab. Lindley said the bait holders are called jars because fishermen used to use baby food jars with holes poked in the lids.

The bait jars are hooked inside the crab pots which are attached to a rope and lowered onto the ocean floor. The bottom-dwelling crabs enter the pot through a wire door that closes behind them and traps them inside.

Escape holes line the trap to allow small crabs and females to crawl out. This helps weed out the inappropriate cargo; strict regulations prohibit hauling in crabs under a certain size. All females are prohibited.

Colorful buoys attached to the crab pot lines bob along the surface of the water. Each crab fisherman has his own color scheme so he can distinguish his trap from everyone else's.

It is these tiny buoys the captain much search for in the gigantic sea. The sunshine dancing on the water and the buoys disappearing behind rolling waves does not make the job any easier. But this is the life of a fisherman and the ones who love this life would have it no other way.

To be continued Saturday