A pair of dogs on board bark excitedly as the Karen Jeanne pulls alongside the high dock at The Tides Wharf, returning ashore after 35 hours to offload hundreds of live Dungeness crab for quick delivery to markets around the region.
A crane at a neighboring dock already is lifting square bins, each piled with 600 pounds of clacking, frantic crabs from another commercial boat. A third vessel circles and settles into position to wait its turn beneath a gray, late afternoon sky.
It’s nippy out, and a wind-blown evergreen tree strung with twinkle lights and tethered to the roof of a storage shed at the side of the dock suggests Christmas is near.
But there’s no letup among the workers onshore or on the boats. They’re idle only when they need to wait for something else to happen before they can start on their own particular chore. Otherwise, everyone moves fast and efficiently, aware it’s crunch time.
Their aim: Get the big, meaty crabs from oceangoing vessels to wholesale distributors and soon to consumers’ plates.
At a time of year when many gather around hearth and home, savoring the warmth of family and friends, the North Coast’s commercial crabbers are busy scratching the last out of the local season, laboring atop the waves to harvest Dungeness crab for many a holiday feast.
It is grueling, repetitive, wet and often uncomfortable work that continues as winter weather sets in — part of a mission to deliver on the ocean’s gifts and take advantage of a lucrative fishery.
But it also reflects longtime North Coast traditions that take hold of people and don’t easily let go.
“You only gotta pull one crab pot that’s completely full, and it ruins you for the rest of your life,” said Lorne Edwards, president of the Fishermen’s Marketing Association of Bodega Bay and a crabber since the age of 17. “You’ll spend your life trying to do it one more time.”
Rising uncertainty in the crab fishery is taking a toll, however, a function in part of shifting ocean conditions but also of growing public alarm about unintentional whale and other animal entanglements frequently linked to crabbing gear.
For many crabbers, the outlook is daunting, likely to result in greater costs and increased restrictions.
“Nothing is normal, like it used to be,” said Danny Kammerer, 76, who sold his boat last year but still crews for others from time to time.
Aboard the Karen Jeanne, Capt. Dick Ogg is disappointed with the day’s catch as he pulls up to The Tides Wharf wholesale seafood dock.
With just days left before Christmas, demand is at its apex, but the crab stock off the Sonoma Coast is spare this year and the northernmost coast is still closed to commercial crabbing.
Ogg, a conscientious, soft-spoken man, wishes he had more product to offer his distributor and that he could better compensate his two-man crew for Christmas. They get a straight cut of what their skipper takes home even though they “do the same amount of work whether the pots are empty or the pots are full,” said Ogg, 65.
This story originally appeared on PressDemocrat.com.