Civility goes under as crab season opens
Santa Cruz crab boat captains who break strikes being held by the Half Moon Bay Fisherman’s Association (HMBFA) risk having their equipment cut loose at sea and their boats sank, according to some fishermen.
This is what some think happened to skipper Chris Eatinger’s vessel, Tonita, on the night of Nov. 12 while it was docked at Pillar Point Harbor in Half Moon Bay. It was three days until crab season opened and a strike was not yet confirmed. Those who suspect foul play say the act was likely in retaliation for Eatinger crabbing during past strikes.
“There was clearly criminal intent,” says Eatinger. “This could cost me more than $50,000 to rewire everything, and I might have to pay fines for oil spilled into the harbor. The worst part is I catch red rock crab, which is a commercially unimportant species.”
Most of the nearly 20 Santa Cruzans who captain crab boats dock in Pillar Point, putting them closer to the crab breeding grounds in the San Francisco Bay where the catch is best in the first—and most lucrative—month of the season. However, this means that when the other 60 crab boats docked there go on strike to get a better price from buyers, the Cruzans are more inclined to follow suit.
This year the HMBFA is asking for $2.50 per pound. Buyers have countered with an offer of $2. As the Nov. 15 opener passed, the HMBFA was waiting for buyers to do some crabbing themselves to test the quality before agreeing to $2.50.
A handful of boats in the Santa Cruz Harbor, such as the Sea Breeze, captained by Joe Tomasello, choose to ignore the politics 45 miles to the north. Tomasello sets his pots out each year on Nov. 14—the first day he can do so legally. He says the strikes are less about the price and more about keeping boats from Northern California, Oregon and Washington from traveling to get in the game down here.
The boats from Oregon and Washington that are able to migrate south can be scared off by talk of soft crabs because they have to wait 30 days after returning home before they can join the fleet. Soft-shelled crabs are too young to catch because less than 25 percent of their weight is meat. If these boats migrate south and the catch is not high quality, they are then stuck here or face missing the best part of the season in harbors back home.
“Last year [HMBFA] said the crab were soft, but then they got the price they wanted, and went out 18 hours later,” Tomasello says.
Despite his attempts to steer clear of the politics, Tomasello’s pots are no safer from crimes by other crabbers once he drops them on the ocean floor with brightly colored buoys bouncing on the swell. Most boats lay out between 100 and 500 pots. At a cost of more than $150 a piece, most are not willing to lose that amount of investment. No law enforcement can police the entire ocean, and it’s almost impossible to catch someone cutting pots loose. Especially at night.
“All you need is a buoy hook and a good deck hand, then you just run down the lines [of pots] and cut them,” says one Santa Cruz crabber who asks to remain anonymous. “I just go with the flow [and stay docked] because I can’t afford to lose all my gear.”
He doesn’t want to risk being targeted, but also doesn’t see any advantage of fighting over $.50 in price, while they lose precious time before bigger boats arrive from outside the area.
The week before Thanksgiving can make or break a small boat owner’s income for the entire year, because sales are high and crabbers south of Point Arena near Sonoma have a virtual monopoly on Dungeness Crab in California. The season doesn’t open further north until Dec. 1 most years. This year, that date has been pushed to Dec. 15 because tests show crab there still have soft shells. After that opener, competition gets stiff and prices drop no matter what the HMBFA negotiates with buyers in November.
“The first 29 to 30 days is when you make all your money,” says Tomasello.
Duncan MacLean, spokesperson for the HMBFA, says that if the tests buyers did net healthy crabs, he sees no reason why they can’t pay $2.50. As far as the sinking of the Tonita, he says it was likely an accident caused by Eatinger himself.
“What we think is that a hose was left on and it filled [the hull] of the boat,” say MacLean. “He has been known to walk away and leave hoses running. I would hate to think that another fisherman did this.”
The Pillar Point Harbor Master’s office did not return GT’s request for comment on any investigation into the incident.