Crab boats stay put
By CATHY BUSSEWITZ / The Press Democrat
The port of Bodega Bay was quiet Wednesday, with sunshine glistening on the water.
But the eerie calm was unusual at the height of Dungeness Crab season, when the docks are usually a bustling mess of fishermen unloading ton after ton of wriggling crabs from their boats.
Crab fishermen from the ports of Bodega Bay, San Francisco and Half Moon Bay stayed off the water again Thursday in a protest against buyers who want to take the wholesale price below $3 a pound. The strike began Sunday.
Chuck Wise, a crab fisherman for the past 50 years, spent part of the day tending to his boat, but decided to go home around noon, without a day’s work to do.
“It doesn’t look good,” Wise said. “It doesn’t look good at all.”
“The guys want to go fishing, but we’re not going to do it where you can’t make a decent living,” Wise said. “It’s very expensive to run a boat. There’s two guys, plus me, to make a living off it.”
For Wise, 72, whose boat “Juliet” can hold up to 6,000 pounds of crab, the day without work meant he lost out on about $18,000 in potential earnings for himself and his crew. About 40 crabbing boats typically are working the waters off Bodega Bay.
The price dispute has practically become a holiday tradition. Last year, fishermen held out for a better price until just after Thanksgiving, so they and the retail markets missed out on that bountiful sales opportunity.
Now, with Thanksgiving over, customers are less willing to pay a premium for local crab, said Bill Timko, salesman for North Coast Fisheries, one of the major crab wholesalers.
“People will by crab at $4.99 or $5.99 a pound, but they won’t buy much,” Timko said. “When they’re at a lower price range they sell much better.”
North Coast Fisheries, which is negotiating with the local fishermen, offered the fishermen $2.50 per pound this morning, Timko said.
But fishermen are holding out for $3, in part because they’re the only game in town. Farther north, near Eureka and off the coast of Oregon, the season hasn’t yet opened. And it could be delayed until after Dec. 15 because the crab haven’t plumped up enough to be legal size, representatives from both sides said.
Because of that dynamic, Timko doesn’t think the impasse is likely to end soon.
“They’d be in control out here, and they’ll be the only ones that can go out and fish,” Timko said. “It kind of puts them in the drivers seat.”
Some local supermarkets, such as Whole Foods, have run out of local Dungeness. But Oliver’s and G&G Supermarkets still have supply.
“My understanding from our distributor is that we got the last shipments of crab in Sonoma County today,” said Teejay Lowe, CEO of G&G, where local Dungeness will sell for $4.99 a pound on Friday. “And we picked up some for Santa Rosa and Petaluma.”
Oliver’s Market also is well-stocked, said Mitch DeArmon, meat department manager at the Stony Point Store.
“There’s no one waving any flags of concern yet,” DeArmon said. “So far, everyone’s worked really well together up to now, and I don’t expect that to change. We’re trying to make sure that all the crabs get sold.
But fishermen and fish processors alike are feeling the bite of days without income as the stalemate draws on.
“Right now there’s a lot of people out of work because of the holdup,” said Tony Anello, owner of Spud Point Crab Co. “Nobody is really the bad guy in this. … We’re at a stalemate. We hope we can come out of it soon.”
Meanwhile, a few small boats of fishermen from Washington are working the waters off Bodega Bay, making some local fishermen anxious because there is a finite number of crustaceans to catch. On Thursday afternoon, the next negotiation meeting had not been set.
“I think we could go back to work at $2.75,” Wise said. “That’s my opinion.”