BAD LUCK FOR CRAB FISHERMEN

January 06, 2001 12:00 am

Brookings-Harbor fishermen embarked en mass to find their fortune in crab this season only to find the crustaceans were in low supply.

That means high priced crab for consumers and small paychecks for the fishermen.

It was the same story up and down the Oregon Coast.

It was a disaster. A complete failure, said Steve Black, manager of Hallmark Fisheries in Brookings-Harbor, which buys crab from fishermen. The crab just werent there. Who knows why?

Black, who owns a fishing boat, said it delivered 80,000 pounds of crab last year at $1.75. This year that boat delivered just 20,000 pounds at $1.60.

I didnt think the season was going to be very good this year, but I never thought it would be this bad, he said.

It was the same for Eureka Fisheries, which operates several fish processing plants on the Oregon and Northern California Coast.

The crab season is the bread and butter for processing the industry up and down the coast, said Peter Hall, president and general manager of Eureka Fisheries.

The poor season also means less crab for customers at restaurants and markets, Hall said.

The lack of crab is hardship particularly for Brookings-Harbor fishermen, most of whom are trying to scratch a living from an industry suffered from strict government regulations.

For many fisherman, such as Bernie Lindley, crabbing makes up the biggest part of their yearly income.

It was bad for us, Lindley said. The size and quality was good, but the volume wasnt there.

Lindley said his crew on the Ginny and Jill pulled an average of 15 pounds of crab per pot on their first trip of the season. On their second pull, they averaged 5 pounds of crab per pot.

We expected to pull about half of what we did last year, but it ended up being about a third of that, he said.

The price of crab has increased from the season opener of $1.60 to $2.25. But the increase means nothing when there is very little crab to be had.

Lindley and his crew recently delivered 63 pounds of crab for a total of $142.

My crew is wondering where their next paycheck is coming from, Lindley said.

Not every fisherman had such bad luck, Lindley said. Fellow fisherman Paul Davis, whose boat Charabi was recently lost to fire, said he was moderately successful.

It wasnt a great season, but we did alright, better than others, Davis said.

The poor season impacted not only the fishermen, but the temporary workers who process crab at the three facilities at the Port of Brookings Harbor.

Black and Hall said they had no choice but to lay some people off early at their plants. The local local economy may also suffer because the fishermen and workers will have less money to spend, Black said.

The harvesting of crab wasnt any better for fishermen who motored to the Northern Oregon Coast for a delayed season there.

This years catch was significantly less in all ports, said Rod Kaiser, head of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlifes Marine Resources Program in Newport.

During the 1999/2000 season, Oregon fishermen delivered an above-season average of approximately $8.8 million pounds, Kaiser said.

In the first three weeks of December, 2000, the month in which 50 percent of all the crab is caught, fishermen had delivered only 2.4 million, he said.

Crab season will continue into summer, but it isnt likely that this years catch will come close to matching the last one, Kaiser said.

Its not unusual to have a slow year like this, but it is unusual to have such a major drop from one year to another, he said. When something this drastic happens, you look for something that may have impacted the development of young crabs.

Its too early to tell what that may have been, but Kaiser speculated that it might have something to do with warmer sea temperatures created by the weather phenomenon La Nina in 1997.